Eastern Michigan football coach Ron English maintains focus on team, not himself in preparation for return to Michigan
But English obliges. He speaks as he works, rarely glancing up. His answers, short and with little change in intonation, suggest that he’s more focused on preparing Eastern (0-2) for the cross-county trip to Michigan Stadium to face No. 25-ranked Michigan (2-0) at noon on Saturday than on the visitor to his office.
"We always preach to the players to focus on what their job is, and that's really what I need to be doing," English said. "It's not hard (to remain focused) because we haven't won a game, and we're trying to get better every week, and the reality is we're playing a talented team in a tough environment."
And the reality is that English is part of the story this week, even though he prefers not to talk about himself or his return to Michigan Stadium, a stop in his coaching tour of duty that helped land him the Eastern Michigan job after Jeff Genyk was fired at the end of last season.
English, 41, served as an assistant on former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr’s staff from from 2003 to 2007, the last two as the defensive coordinator.
When Carr retired at the end of the 2007 season, English, like the rest of Carr’s assistants, interviewed with new Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez.
Rodriguez elected to keep only running backs coach Fred Jackson on board with his staff. This week, Rodriguez said he didn't know English too well, leaving his reputation as a strong-minded defensive specialist to speak for itself. English moved on, spending a season as the defensive coordinator at Louisville before returning to Washtenaw County, this time as a head coach.
When asked if he'll give himself a second to take a glance around Michigan Stadium, English brushes off the notion that this week is different.
"I don't know about all of that," he said. "I've been doing this a while, and my focus is really about the game, and when I go back to these stadiums, I just have a comfort level because I'm aware of my surroundings. So it's more of that than anything to me."
English, two games into leading Eastern, is establishing himself with his players. In practice, his voice remains locked into scream mode as he barks instructions peppered with just enough salty language to remind players he means business.
Talk to English's players - present and past - and they bring up his eye contact. For English, it's a sign of respect. Like with anything he does, there is a purpose with each glare.
"I fear him, but I respect him at the same time," said Michigan safety Troy Woolfolk, who English recruited while on Carr's staff. "He always keeps eye contact with you, and it's like he is reading right into your soul just to see what kind of character you are. But he's trying to build you up at the same time."
On the field, he supplies the full gamut of emotions. One minute, he scolds a veteran defensive back for not using proper technique. The next, he pulls one of his youngsters aside for a private teaching moment. And just when it appears his intensity can't be broken, he jokes, smiling wide.
"He's pretty much everything you could ask in a coach," said Eastern Michigan senior quarterback Andy Schmitt, who was part of the university's search committee for a coach. "He's got that switch he can turn when you know he means business, but he'll turn it right off and he'll be your best friend. It's an excellent mix."
Twice since he has been at Eastern Michigan, English's human side has afforded a pair of players second chances. He opened a roster spot for Ben Axon, a freshman who was arrested on drug charges that tainted his chances of playing in the Southeastern Conference.
He also made room for cornerback Johnny Sears, who he recruited at Michigan. Sears, who was dismissed from the Wolverines program early in 2007, will start against his former team after English offered him a chance to play at Eastern Michigan.
In both cases, there have been stern rules, forcing both players to toe the line - both in the classroom and in their community. Sears now owes his football future to a coach who he compares to his father.
"With Coach E., everything was forgotten, and that helped me do that so I wouldn't dwell on the past," Sears said. "But I wanted to be with him because he'll coach me harder than anybody else could coach me, and he'll get the most out of me.
"He's not going to tell you what you want to hear. He's going to teach you what you need to hear - no matter how that makes you feel. That's just his way of getting the most out of you."
English maintains the same level of focus and intensity he did when he worked as an assistant in the Big Ten, Big East and Pac 10. The fact Eastern Michigan hasn't had a winning record since 1997 doesn't faze him any more than last week's 27-24 loss at Northwestern when the Eagles had a chance at the school's first win over a Big Ten opponent.
Both are in the past. And so when people ask him about trying to change the culture around Eastern Michigan, English dwells on taking small steps, using each day to move closer to the goal. No game is either won or loss on a single play, but rather, a collection of plays that often run through English's mind on his drive to work each morning.
And so while his office space is different, English isn't.
"I stay the same regardless of who I'm coaching or where I'm coaching," English said. "I'm going to coach hard every day, and I'm going to coach hard to eliminate mistakes and to make the plays you should make. That's the deal. You want to win the games.
"But the game within the game - for me, that's the fun part."
Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at 734-623-2554 or firstname.lastname@example.org