The Eastern Michigan University football team is giving meaning to a meaningless football game by overcoming controversy and a single win last year to earn a rare bowl appearance.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the current bowl situation in college football. Are there too many? Should players be allowed to skip them? Are they more meaningless than ever in the age of college football playoffs? For the Eastern Michigan University football team, the answers to these questions are “no,” “are you crazy,” and “absolutely not.”
You see, Eastern Michigan has not been to a bowl game since the second-half of the Ronald Reagan administration. In 1987, they upset the 17.5-point favorite, San Jose State Spartans, in the now 25-year defunct California Bowl.
When they play this Friday’s Bahamas Bowl against Old Dominion, don’t expect the team clad in green and white to be thinking that their game is a glorified exhibition. To further this point, check out the team’s reaction when they heard they’d be playing in paradise two days before Christmas.
The remarkable turnaround for the program goes beyond wins and losses. It’s true the Eagles went from 1-11 to 7-5 this season. Perhaps more importantly is how they side-stepped negative press surrounding the program before the season began.
Some of this press came from a, um, certain writer on this site, who’s an alumnus of the fine Ypsilanti college. A USA Today report, and ensuing feature on HBO’s “Real Sports,” stated that Eastern Michigan pays more ($27 million) than any other school in the MAC to fund its own football program amid terrible attendance figures.
This lead faculty members and students to demand the football program drop down at least one division or disband altogether.
EMU’s third-year head coach, Chris Creighton, stated that the media firestorm didn’t affect current players and coaching, but it may have a ripple affect for the near future.
"“I don’t think it affected our players as much as people thought. They believed and trusted us that football wasn’t going anywhere. We were good, in terms of the team. But when it becomes national news, it’s brutal on recruiting. Absolutely brutal. Honestly, I think it affected our staff, in terms of recruiting, more than our team.” –Creighton, as quoted by Jeff Seidel in the Free Press 12/10"
Make no mistake, these thorny issues will not evaporate from the Ypsilanti air because of one bowl appearance in three decades. The dollars and cents of raising tuition while funding an unpopular football program is still an issue which should be revisited.
While attendance is up, and the program is receiving a lot of love nationally for its pseudo-Cinderella story of never going to a bowl game in the age of bowl games, will they slide back into oblivion in 2017?
Setting a Lofty Goal
A few months prior to the controversy, Creighton hosted returning seniors in the basement of his home. The team set a goal of making it to a bowl game, and winning it. They’re halfway there.
Eastern’s remarkable season may have been somewhat lesser emphasized locally because of the incredible season of their cross-state rivals. The Western Michigan Broncos completed an amazing undefeated season. They will be the first “directional” Michigan school to play in a “New Year’s Six” bowl game.
While the names of Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush or WMU’s Jarvion Franklin may carry more household recognition than Ian Eriksen, Sergio Bailey II, and Brogan Roback (the Eagles rushing, receiving, and passing leaders respectively), they certainly deserve our attention, praise, and cheers on Friday afternoon.
Getting Back To the Roots of Bowl Games
Bowl games were originally designed to be an exhibition for festivities around New Year’s. The first one, the “granddaddy of them all,” was once the second-course to the Tournament of Roses parade held on New Years’ Day. They were also a reward for the best of the best teams in the country.
Certainly, the Eastern Michigan Eagles are not one of the best of the best teams in the country. Nonetheless, they will make no apologies for playing a “meaningless” bowl game. It is their reward for the first non-losing season in five seasons, and first winning season since 1995.
Concerns over the health and viability of the program still stand. Yet, for at least one day, players, coaches, students, and alumni can enjoy our brush with collegiate football relevance.