The nation’s toughest place to win in college football might not be where you’d think

Eastern Michigan missed a field goal by two feet in double overtime against Northern Illinois in September. If not for that, the Eagles would’ve likely played in the MAC championship game last month.  

Not that head coach Chris Creighton believes in moral victories. Though if any college football coach in America deserves to celebrate them, he would. And his team. And his suddenly growing fan base. 

For whatever else you say about EMU’s football program — and for decades, no one has said much — this is clear: it may be the toughest place to win in the Bowl Subdivision. 

And yet, here is Creighton, preparing his Eagles for the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, Saturday. It’s the coach’s second bowl game in three years.  

At some places, that might not mean much. In Ypsilanti, home to EMU, that’s enough to rename a stadium.  

Or should be. Because what Creighton has accomplished since taking the job in 2013, in the face of stiff budget cuts and calls to end his program, might be the most improbable football story in the state.  

"Sports can be a front porch to a university — to put a public spotlight on a school, whether it’s right or wrong," Creighton said, "and it can help define the participation at a place."  

Consider: When Creighton arrived in Ypsilanti five years ago, the program hadn’t had a winning season in 18 years and, in its 121 years, had made one bowl game. Though the history of losing doesn’t explain the unique challenge Creighton faced. 

EMU is the fifth-largest school in the state. Yet nothing like Michigan or Michigan State or Western Michigan or Central Michigan in terms of campus life.  

Those schools have lots of dorms and are surrounded by nearby off-campus apartments. EMU has commuters. Of its roughly 23,000 students, only 3,700 of them live on or next to the school's campus. 

Most of EMU’s students work, too. And some are in their late 20s and 30s with children. Which means it is a place of second chances and first-generation college students, of factory workers’ sons and single moms, of kids who have more desire than resources.  

In other words, it's not the ideal demographic from which to create a football fan base, to create tailgaters. Though Creighton didn’t mind the challenge when he accepted the job. 

In fact, he relished it. After all, he’d coached at places like Ottawa (Kan.) and Wabash (Ind.) and Drake (Iowa). He’d played quarterback at Kenyon College in Ohio.  

He spent nearly two decades shaping winning teams at places few had heard about. And when he was hired at EMU, he joked, “Everyone said, ‘Chris who?’ ” 

And so it was that he saw a bit of himself in not just the anonymous and forgotten program, but in the harried and spread-out student body, too. 

He saw a chance to mold his team in that image, then connect the team to its campus, like it had never connected before. 

Yes, he knew that meant he had to start winning. But more than that, he had to get his team into the EMU community. Through volunteer work. Through social gatherings on campus. Through bringing in gray turf at Rynearson Stadium. Because the gray symbolized a nondescript parking lot, and he liked to tell his players that such a lot was a symbol for hard work, a metaphor for their commuter school. 

“Is it just silver-spoon colleges and universities that people should look highly upon? Don’t we all value toughness? Hard work? The blue-collar ethic? Having to pay your own way?” he said. “We have it backwards, don’t we?” 

During his initial recruiting trips, Creighton used that idea to help pitch kids on becoming pioneers, on building something in a place that few thought could be built.  

Then he started to win.  

After losing 21 games his first two seasons, EMU went 7-6 in his third, in 2016, its first winning season in a generation. The Eagles, 7-41 from 2012-15, made the Bahamas Bowl that year. They also beat Rutgers, the school’s first win over a Power 5 team in its century-plus history.  

Last season, they went 5-7, but lost several close games. They were competitive.  

This season, they knocked off Purdue by kicking a field goal as time bled off the clock. They got the chance after a long fourth-down completion on the drive.  

They followed that stunning win with four tough losses, including a triple-overtime defeat to Northern Illinois, the team that won the MAC championship. 

Such seasons may not sound like much to fans who are used to winning. But at EMU, two winning seasons in three years is a seismic change.  

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