The Drive to Detroit: Could Chris Creighton look to Pacific Northwest?
Also: Toledo's a fractured program that's too busy with its administrative drama to even think about doing any immediate changes to its football leadership.
Welcome to The Ypsilanti Eleven! Earlier in the week, we talked about the coaching situations for the bottom-half of the MAC East, and I wanted to balance things out by talking about three coaching situations over in the MAC West. All three teams in this post — Eastern Michigan, Ball State, and Toledo — were all out of contention to win the West before this week kicked off.
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MAC West: On EMU, Ball State, Toledo
Chris Creighton should apply for the Washington job
A number of years ago when I was still with Hustle Belt, I did a sit-down interview with Chris Creighton. There are stories untold from the talk I had with him because I didn’t publish anything on it. We talked about his upbringing and how much moving around he’s done in his life. He was born in San Francisco, but in high school he moved with his parents to Seattle and played quarterback for one of the local high school teams. He remembers jogging around Husky stadium and hearing the game day atmosphere from being just on the outside.
I say that to say this: I’m very sure Chris Creighton’s going to apply for the Washington coaching job. For Creighton, it’s an opportunity of a lifetime that I’m sure he’d love to entertain, and there’s no harm in at least throwing his name in the hat while the school is trying to swiftly replace a guy whose personality is the exact opposite of Creighton’s.
Washington chose to fire Jimmy Lake after just two short seasons as the team’s head coach. He helped the team win the Pac-12 North division in 2020 (albeit with a 3-1 record) then things got ugly. The team’s loss to Montana at the beginning of the season was a damning way to start the year. Then three weeks ago against Oregon, Lake got himself in trouble by handling a heated moment very, very poorly. Use whatever words you feel right to describe it, but the TV cameras all caught Lake hitting and pushing one of his (walk-on) players who was trash-talking with one of the Oregon players. Then there’s the follow-up reporting done to reveal that Lake pushed one of his players into a wooden locker in 2019. Nobody’s really vouching for Lake to stay at his leadership position — not the fans, not the players.
Washington’s got a national branding problem to reckon with. It’s got to get back to being good at football again, sure, but the external factors need be addressed as well. It’s a P5 program that’s already regionally irrelevant (the corner of the Pacific Northwest isn’t in Big Ten or SEC country; I don’t make the rules here) and is in a conference that’s worked its way out of having good relationships with the TV networks that actually gives this sport legs (ESPN, Fox). Washington can be a good place for football, but it’s not an easy place to recruit to, let alone find great, local talent. By 247sports’ composite ratings for high school prospects, there are only six class of 2022 bluechip players living in the state of Washington. Last year, there were nine.
In his eight years as Eastern Michigan’s coach, Creighton’s proven that he can build something out of nothing. He got the EMU job because he proved that he could build winners at Ottawa, an NAIA program in Kansas (32-9 record), Wabash, a Division III program in Indiana (63-15), and Drake, an FCS program in Iowa (41-22). However, unlike the resume he’s built up at other places, Creighton has not captured a single divisional or league title. He has, however, taken EMU of all places to three bowl games and this December might be the team’s fourth bowl appearance in eight years after not going to any since 1987.
Should Washington take Creighton? I don’t know if I can say all that. Washington needs a lot of things, so there are a lot of different styles of candidates worth considering. Creighton’s style of creating a culture of good people to make good football happen has worked out to decent amounts of success at places that have lacked good football history. Washington, to its credit, does have some history to look back on. The program has two claimed national titles (1960, 1991) and three unclaimed national titles (1910, 1984, 1990), seven Rose Bowl championships, and 17 total conference championships. In 2016, Washington made the College Football Playoff as the #4 seed that year. That was only five years ago, but the program today doesn’t look anything like we saw from that Chris Petersen-led team.
Creighton’s 52. He’s not in his 20’s looking for an opportunity, he’s not in his 30’s trying to carve out a career in coaching, and he’s not in his 40’s either, trying to prove he belongs in the business. I don’t know how much longer he wants to stay in coaching, but I have to think that he’s at the point in his life where he’s got to be thinking about his final chapter(s?) in this industry. This game has taken him to Sweden, Ecuador, Panama, Austria, Tanzania, desolate pockets of the Midwest, Ypsilanti, and, perhaps, this game will take him back to his childhood roots.
Ball State wouldn’t want anybody new to lead them
Ball State, much like EMU, currently has its head coach on the hook through 2025. Mike Neu and his alma mater worked out a contract extension over the summer, and I still have no reason to believe that this won’t work out for both parties.
I could be totally wrong here, but I don’t think there’s another FBS job in the country that Neu could ever relocate to and build up the same moral support of his team’s fans the same way he can do it in Muncie, and I don’t know if he’d be best-equipped to build a conference champion anywhere other than Ball State. There’s really no way of knowing how right or wrong I am on that unless he ever takes another job, but why would he feel motivated to leave?
Ball State will never be an easy place to recruit to or win at. But Neu has still done a decent job of still finding talent to get on the field on the fly. And as an alum, I don’t think kids will look at the Ball State coach like a phony. When Neu says he actually likes being the head coach at Ball State, it’s easy to believe that sentence is truthful coming out of his mouth. Ball State’s one of those schools where other adventurous head coaches could look at it as a place to try to hit a lick and move up to a better-paying job at a much bigger school.
Neu, a former Ball State quarterback (MAC MVP in 1993), is family in Muncie. Most other coaches would have to tell recruits that their locker room of guys is like a family. With Neu in charge, if you’re with Ball State then you’re actually family. Not all schools know how to mortgage their expectations for a football team to win games with pragmatic thinking. There are a lot of entertain-able answers as to who, as a coach, could make some winning notes in Ball State’s history books. But doing the exact opposite of winning games can always happen in Muncie. And when those nasty losses pile on (and they have), there probably aren’t a lot of other coaches out there more built than Neu to want to come back to work the next day and be with the family.
Toledo picked a terrible time to be so internally fractured
The Toledo Rockets aren’t going to the MAC Championship game this year, but the team’s bowl-eligible (6-5, 4-3 MAC) after a 35-23 win over Ohio at Peden Stadium on Tuesday night. The Rockets, for too many years in a row now, have underperformed in MAC play which directly goes against the school of thought that the most talented teams should end up winning most of the games. Toledo’s perpetually the top-ranked program on the recruiting trail, but since the 2017 championship run Toledo’s team records seen finishes of 7-6, 6-6, 4-2, and now 6-5.
There’s a lot of recycled opinions about this team’s performance under Jason Candle, an inside hire after former coach Matt Campbell took the Iowa State job in 2015. Toledo’s too damn good to lose so many games, and at some point a change has to happen at the head coaching level. They tried getting some other pieces right with its pool of assistants, but the 2021 season’s given Toledo fans more than enough to be displeased with the MAC’s highest-paid coach. Being bowl-eligible just doesn’t cut it; this isn’t Bowling Green.
But there are people in charge of decisions like these, and that’s where things break apart. Toledo’s got an outgoing athletic director whose contract runs through 2022. Toledo’s selling Mike O’Brien’s retirement as him going out on his own terms. But the Toledo Blade’s reporting details the other side of the story: O’Brien was actually strong-armed out of the position he’s held for 20 years by new Board of Trustees chairman Alfred Baker, and O’Brien saw his powers diminish last March when the school’s president Dr. Gregory Postel (interim as of 7/6/2020, officially named UT president 3/2/2021) denied O’Brien’s plan to extend the contract of current men’s basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk, who has been at Toledo since 2010.
From the Blade’s report:
Here was the deal-turned-no-deal: As the Toledo basketball team rolled to a Mid-American Conference regular-season championship last season, an agreement was drawn up and Mr. Kowalczyk and Mr. O’Brien both put their signatures on a two-year extension for the basketball coach, currently under contract through 2024.
But after the school’s March dreams came to an abrupt end — with the Rockets losing in the semifinals of the MAC tournament — the seeming offer was withdrawn. University President Gregory Postel went against the recommendation of his lame-duck athletic director and declined to sign off, telling The Blade, “With Mike retiring next April and a new athletic director coming, I didn’t feel it was fair to the incoming person to not have a vote in whether a major coach’s contract was extended.”
The drama behind the scenes at Toledo runs deep, and it’s probably going to end up being a multi-year feud current and longtime boosters vs. administrative leaders who probably shouldn’t be leaving boosters in the dark through this process. Piss them off just enough, and that’s a good way to have fewer dollars coming into the program, which helps pay for things like a football coach’s salary. But these donors aren’t being surveyed about whether or not they approved of O’Brien or if they wanted a significant move to be made. They’re donating money to a program that isn’t being transparent about the goings on of what could be one of the updates in the athletic department’s history. If Toledo’s money from the donors end up looking different from all of the drama, then what does the calculus look like on trying to find a replacement for Candle — and when does the school even choose to make that decision?
After leading the 2017 team to a MAC title, Candle had a coaching record of 21-6 overall and 13-3 in MAC play when he signed a contract extension to keep him in Toledo through 2023. That record is now at 44-26 overall, 29-16 vs. MAC. His teams are 1-3 in bowl games — the lone win was on an interim basis when he took over for the outgoing Campbell in 2015. Toledo hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2018. In 2019, Toledo’s 3-5 MAC record was the first losing record in league play since 2009.
There’s an entire saga of conference realignments happening, which will eventually lead to new sales pitches to TV networks. While the MAC is content with its continued relationship with ESPN, the network still has the ability to hide a lot of games behind the ESPN+ paywall, and conferences alike are going to fight to get their game shown on the cable channels for football watchers everywhere to watch MACtion instead of, say, a Sun Belt game on the same day.
Toledo’s a program that, unlike most MAC schools, is already nationally well-received because of how good the rosters have been for decades. But if the college sports world is entering a new chapter in time between realignments and the impending, expanded football playoff, then that means there’s a lot riding on Toledo for the rest of the MAC. People around the country will definitely watch some MACtion if it means Toledo’s on its way to a 10-win season. The same can’t be said if you’re an Akron, Ball State, EMU, or Miami.
If the MAC has to go into all of its TV contract negotiation meetings while its best-recognized program is still fighting an internal battle of what its future plans should be while the football team’s in year #4 in a row of not playing up to snuff, then the MAC as a whole just might end up suffering. The MAC’s going to have to get creative about trying to stir up some excitement for the rest of the league, but it’d honestly just be way easier if Toledo slapped out of it and played up to the public’s demands.