NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
YPSILANTI, Mich. (AP) — When Ron English took over as the coach at Eastern Michigan, he was well aware of the challenge that lay ahead.
English had spent five seasons as an assistant at Michigan, and after a year with Louisville, he was coming back to the Ann Arbor area to take over the struggling program in the next town over — the one without a winning season since 1995.
“The key when you’re rebuilding a program is to not waste time,” English said. “This thing has changed from top to bottom. … I don’t know if you always have the opportunity to do something from the bottom up.”
In just his third season as EMU’s coach, English has the Eagles one win from being bowl eligible. It’s been a swift turnaround for a team that went winless two years ago and has always been in the shadow of the Wolverines and Michigan Stadium, a few miles distant.
“I think we can carve out our own niche here,” athletic director Derrick Gragg said.
This season, the Eagles have taken a big step toward doing that. EMU (6-4, 4-2 Mid-American Conference) still needs one more victory to become eligible for a bowl — the Eagles need seven because two of their wins were against Football Championship Subdivision teams. After beating Buffalo 30-17 last weekend in its home finale, EMU wraps up the regular season with games at Kent State and Northern Illinois.
No matter what happens down the stretch, the Eagles will snap a streak of 15 straight losing seasons. They’ve already won more games this season than over the previous three when they were 5-31.
“In the past when we’d lose a game, people would be like, ‘Oh, typical Eastern Michigan football,'” offensive lineman Bridger Buche said. “You can definitely see there’s a lot more pride on campus about our football team.”
English was Michigan’s defensive coordinator when coach Lloyd Carr retired after the 2007 season. He spent a season at Louisville in the same role before getting a chance to be a head coach back in a familiar area.
“When Coach E got here, you could definitely tell that it’s a real football program now, as soon as he got here,” wide receiver Trey Hunter said. “Even with the rough seasons we had his first two years, you could still see that where we were headed was in the right direction.”
It wasn’t easy at first. The Eagles went 0-12 in 2009 and 2-10 the following season. But fortunes have changed, thanks to an increased commitment from both players and the school. EMU started this season with victories over two FCS opponents before being routed — predictably — at Michigan and at Penn State.
Even in the 31-3 loss to Michigan, the Eagles were competitive early.
“Ron is a good football coach and before we played them, I talked about that and how the team plays in his image,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “They’re going to be physical and be good on defense.”
In MAC play, the Eagles have been very competitive, sweeping in-state rivals Central Michigan and Western Michigan.
Quarterback Alex Gillett has thrown for 1,273 yards with 13 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He’s also the team’s leading rusher.
“One of our core values is: Embrace the process,” English said. “That means as we’re building, embrace the tough times as well as the good times.”
The best evidence of what’s being built sits right next to EMU’s 30,200-seat home stadium. There’s a large bubble with the school’s signature green “E” on it — a new indoor practice facility finished in 2010.
“If we had practice scheduled and it started raining, and thunderstormed, we’d be in the gym with tennis shoes on walking through stuff,” Buche said. “Or just have meetings and push off the practice until as late as we could go.”
No need for that anymore. And if things break right the rest of the way, the school could be planning a bowl trip. It would be the team’s first since playing in the California Bowl in 1987.
“That’s just exciting to be a part of those conversations,” Gragg said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
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