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The Reaper Cometh for Ron English, Lesson for Coaches

The fall from hot up and comer to unemployed was lightning fast for Ron English (Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com)

The fall from hot up and comer to unemployed was lightning fast for Ron English (Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com)

I was lying in bed last night trying to come up with possible BCS AQ schools that were going to have an opening at the end of this season in part to sort of get a jump on potential destinations for hot young coaches who may be making the leap at the end of this season. No reason for that. Just, you know, thinking about what ifs. Just in case.

There were a rash of mid-season firings (Lane Kiffin, Paul Pasqualoni, and Don Treadwell) but the grim reaper of coaches has been fairly sated over the last few weeks. Logically, it would make sense at this point to just wait, rather than throw a team into disarray with only a few weeks left of a season. I’d like to think the players and staff of a team, though the inevitable decision looms, would like to finish the year with those around them no matter the circumstances. Eastern Michigan apparently thinks differently, and announced today that Ron English has been relieved of his coaching duties effective immediately.

Ron English had such promise when he was announced as the new top dog at the football wasteland that is Ypsilanti, despite the lack of facilities, a pitiful fan following, and a fairly bare cupboard after Jeff Genyk. But the demise of EMU wasn’t just a Genyk issue. The Eagles had a long history of painful underperformance, having not gone to a bowl game since the 1987 California Bowl and not finishing better than 3rd in the division over that same time period. That bowl trip was when they were the EMU Hurons.

Maybe it was the name change to Eagles that made the last 25 years or so that bad. Maybe it was the large shadow cast by neighbors Michigan, Michigan State, and to some degree, Grand Valley State. I’m sure the ebb and flow of the successful MAC programs like Toledo, BG, Ball State, NIU, Ohio, etc. certainly didn’t help matters. But when Ron English took the reigns in December of 2008, I (like a lot of other people) thought it was only a matter of time until the Eagles did their rotation as a good MAC program like everyone else. Boy, were we all fooled.

On paper, English seemed like just the kind of coach the Eagles would need to be successful. His pedigree was a strong one, he was the mythical “Michigan Man”, strong jaw and gravel voice, the kind of coach you felt like players would run through a brick wall for and ask for seconds because his toughness, grit, and resolve would naturally trickle down to them. And to some degree, that was the case.

EMU was never an easy win. His players always seemed to play hard. The smashmouth style that English seemed to employ was a throwback to yesteryear and a tried and true formula for decades of success in the Big Ten’s hallowed halls. The first two years were a disaster, 2-22 overall and 2-14 in the MAC. But fans, MAC lovers, and football aficionados wrote it off as the remnants of decades of failure. Once English got his players in place, his system established, his recruiting humming, it was only a matter of time. And in 2011, that seemed to be coming true.

Picked to finish last in the preseason poll, because… Eastern Michigan, English led the Eagles to a .500 record overall and a .500 record in conference. They were respectable in all their losses, including in Ann Arbor. They also beat in-state Western and Central. They played conference champion NIU within a touchdown at Dekalb on national television to close the season, their 4th appearance of the year on tv. Things were looking up for EMU, but it was fool’s gold. An opportunity lost for English and a return to irrelevance for a program that has had to endure more than their fair share of it. They were 6-4 in need of one more win to lock them into a bowl. Then they lost 20 of 23.

The epitaph of the Ron English story is one all coaches, especially ones at mid-majors with struggling budgets, tepid fan support, and institutional barriers to success would do well to familiarize themselves with. At the conclusion of 2011, English was linked to several higher profile jobs like Illinois, Arizona State, and Washington State. He had gone .500 at EMU of all places and his stock was high. Unlike Brady Hoke, English didn’t jump when an opportunity presented itself. He even turned down an extension at EMU, presumably waiting for that perfect opportunity. And now, two years later, he’s unemployed.

In perhaps the greatest irony, or the most tragic one depending on how you look at it, is that English’s replacement at EMU to close out the 2013 season is former Ball State head coach Stan Parrish, one of the forefathers of the evolution of the MAC to a spread, uptempo, point scoring bonanza that coined MACtion and rendered the old school style boring at best, unsuccessful and uncompetitive at worst.

Ron English will be fine. His experience and non-EMU results will land him a coordinator job and opportunity to hit the reset button on a career that may very well be successful going forward under the right circumstances. But as is often the case when coaches are removed, the real losers aren’t the coaches, the fans screaming for it, or even the program itself. It’s the student-athletes, assistant coaches, and support staff that have already endured more in this season with the murder of one of their own than anyone should have to.

It’s a shame all around, but it underscores the moral of the story for coaches. Strike while the iron is hot, gentlemen, because the fall from the top to the bottom can often times be clocked with an egg timer.

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