Changing the culture: New Eastern Michigan coach Ron English is trying to reverse decades of losing in Ypsilanti
DETROIT - The new coach walked to the front of the room and began to speak. In front of him, quarterback Andy Schmitt looked up. He felt his hair tingle.
And for the rest of the time new Eastern Michigan coach Ron English spoke, he froze.
Schmitt began sweating, a combination of nerves and excitement - and he hadn’t even been put through a drill yet.
“I was pretty much dead still,” Schmitt said. “I didn’t move. He has a presence about him. You can see the passion coming out of him. He took the front of the room, it was dead quiet.
“I don’t’ think anybody moved the entire meeting.”
At a place like Eastern Michigan, where losing seasons are a birthright - the Eagles haven’t had a winning one since 1995 when they went 6-5 and have just three winning seasons since 1977 - it was needed.
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In the first meeting, he spoke often about paying more attention to details, something English - and most coaches - consider differences between winning and losing. The broadness of Eastern Michigan’s failures, though, makes it more difficult even if English doesn’t believe in the actualities of losing cultures. It’s also why there should be little surprise Eastern Michigan was picked to finish sixth in the Mid-American Conference Western Division with 34 points, 120 points behind the preseason pick to win the West, Central Michigan.
“What’s interesting about that whole thing is when you really think about it, kids, five years is a generation with these kids,” said English, a former Michigan assistant. “So however long it’s been that Eastern hasn’t won, they don’t know it. They just know it because some guy tells them.”
That’s not entirely true. Schmitt knows the last time Eastern Michigan qualified for a bowl game was in the 1987 California Bowl. Schmitt, currently a senior, was born the same year.
His younger teammates have gone a lifetime without the team they play for making a post-season appearance.
So it’d be understandable if Eastern Michigan’s players are searching for anything to believe in, anything to get them to think that they can break the program’s lock on ineptitude.
Junior defensive back Ryan Downard, one of the many Eagles unborn for EMU’s last bowl appearance, said the feeling around the program has already changed and it started when English spoke at the first meeting.
“You just want to play for him,” Downard said. “You want to go out there and play for him and your teammates. I don’t know if we lost that in the past, but we definitely have it now.
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“Obviously we don’t have that right now, but we’re working toward that. I can’t say if it was lost, because, frankly, we weren’t winning when I got here, either. So I didn’t see it being lost but I know that’s what we’re looking for to get back.”
So far, he’s seen that a little bit in conditioning. He turned the spring into a fundamental refresher course, a remedial course in new terminology and an attempt to erase all the memories of the past.
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“I think, as a whole, that’s been flushed out,” Schmitt said. “It’s been flushed out with this new coaching staff. We are excited about what they bring to the table, the intensity, the passion for the game, the coaching.”
Whether winning follows is another story entirely.
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan basketball for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at (734) 623-2558 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.