Eastern Michigan football coach Ron English sees improvement despite tough schedule
Ron English has coached long enough to understand the formula.
Big paydays bring national television exposure to mid-level college football programs and big-time attention opens doors to recruits. Guaranteed money - like the $850,000 Eastern Michigan received to travel to No. 2 Ohio State last weekend - helps fund entire athletic programs.
But in a season when English is trying to snap the nation's second-longest losing streak (16 games), the Eagles have eight games left to deliver English's first victory.
Two of Eastern's next four games will provide paydays, including Vanderbilt ($650,000) and Virginia ($350,000), taking this season's guaranteed money total to more than $1.8 million. The Eagles paid Army $150,000 to come to Rynearson Stadium as part of an agreement that will keep the two schools playing one another for the next six years.
English understands the benefits that come with such a schedule, but for a coach trying to turn around a program, he would like to see the number of major hurdles reduced.
'"I know at the Mid-American level, you have to go to schools like that," English said Wednesday, four days after Eastern suffered a 73-20 loss at Ohio State. "I know we have to play those games from a financial standpoint. But there's a trade-off, and I don't think you can do that too often."
At least two of the road trips Eastern Michigan faces this year were scheduled before English was hired. Next season, the Eagles will travel to two Big Ten schools (Michigan and Penn State), but will play Howard and Army, two games athletic director Derrick Gragg believes give Eastern a chance to win.
Gragg said Monday he is fielding requests for 2016 and 2017 and his goal is to provide balance between games that provide paydays and ones in which the Eagles can be competitive.
English said he is encouraged by the improvement he has seen from his team. Although it's tough to find silver linings in a 53-point loss, English said the Eagles showed promise against the Buckeyes.
The Eagles next two MAC games come against 1-3 Ohio on Saturday (noon, Rynearson Stadium) and in two weeks against Ball State, which also has one win. Two of the Cardinals' two losses have come at the hands of Big Ten opponents (Purdue and Iowa), but they have also lost to Liberty.
Ohio has lost three straight games - including a 43-7 setback at Ohio State. The Bobcats' only win came on Sept. 4 in a 33-10 victory over Wofford.
Gragg said the goal he has for English's team is clear.
"We're in an eight-game season and we play six MAC games, and our (university) board is very interested in us being competitive within the conference, and that's what we plan on doing.
"You're obviously disappointed when you lose, but I think we're greatly improved. I think anyone who saw those first two games (Army and Miami) would have to walk away from that situation saying we're a different team - not only from past year but over the past couple of years."
Eastern is a 10-point underdog against Ohio, a team the Eagles haven't faced since 2007. The Bobcats won that meeting 48-41, continuing a series that has been historically competitive.
English said Tuesday's practice - his team's first since the Ohio State loss - was one of the best his team has had all season. And now having lost four straight games after going winless last season, he believes Saturday may be the day things fall into place for the Eagles.
"I think they're excited about this week, and the kids are showing great resilience," English said. "They're hungry to win a game and they're trying their butts off, and I think we're getting better. That means we're getting closer.
"So I think they're fired up for any game, but they're very, very excited about this game and I think we all are. But we're in an eight-game season, and we need to focus on that. I'm trying to get these guys to try and improve every single game. And if we can do that, the rest will take care of itself."
Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com and can be reached at (734) 623-2554 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyparnold.