By John Irwin
Saturday did not go as I had planned.
It was the last football game day of my collegiate career. The game was against Western Michigan, our big rival. A lot was riding on this game for both teams. I couldn’t have been more excited for a football game.
I remember being in the stands in Kalamazoo last year after CMU was able to snatch the Victory Cannon away from the Broncos. My group of friends and I celebrated with some of the players as they ran over to the end zone where a small pack of fans wearing maroon and gold sat after the clock hit zero. Football, as with all sports, is ultimately trivial and meaningless, but I suspect that day will be one of the handful of moments I’ll look back on when I wistfully reminisce on the good ‘ol days.
I wanted something like that again. Beating Western at home to cap off a solid 8-4 season and guaranteeing a bowl appearance, all while ruining P.J. Fleck’s chance to row his boat to the MAC Championship Game, would have rivaled that moment.
Instead, I was treated to what could only be described as a disaster.
Things started off well enough after the Chippewas got off to a 14-0 lead. They looked efficient and energized.
But, CMU was out-coached and out-played down the stretch and were outscored 32-6 after going up two scores.
Western adjusted and had a fire lit under them. Central, as has become typical under head coach Dan Enos, struggled to adjust and keep up.
As with any loss, it is impossible and unfair to blame just one person. The offensive line struggled to protect quarterback Cooper Rush and open up holes for running back Thomas Rawls. The normally phenomenal wide receiver Titus Davis had trouble getting open for most of the day and was outplayed by his younger brother Corey. Special teams play badly hurt the team at key moments.
Almost everyone had a hand in the loss. That ultimately falls on Enos and the coaching staff. From the uninspired, stubborn play-calling to the sloppy on-field play and even to the apparent lack of respect shown by CMU to their rivals prior to kickoff, the loss perfectly encapsulated the worst of the Enos era.
After the game, Enos told the media that he considered this season, in which CMU finished in fourth out of six in the MAC West and finished just 7-5, a “very good season.”
This is the best and most talented team in Enos’ five years as head coach, as should be expected after bringing in five of his own recruiting classes. Enos should be expecting his team to be competing for MAC titles year in and year out by now, but he apparently thinks that simply finishing a season bowl-eligible is good enough.
CMU had its chance to compete in the MAC this year, too, after its massive road upset over perennial powerhouse Northern Illinois. As is typical under Enos’ leadership, though, the Chippewas followed up their best game of the year with its biggest dud, losing to a terrible Ball State team at home and dashing any realistic hopes of a MAC West title in the process.
We’ve analyzed before how Enos, while having an underwhelming winning percentage as a head coach (.426), coaches at somewhat of a bargain price for CMU, perhaps explaining the long leash he’s been given from the athletics department in the face of pressure from many fans to let him go.
It’s going to be difficult for AD Dave Heeke to justify bringing Enos back next year, though, even if the team gets an easy bowl match-up and wins.
We should be expecting to see the football team progress each year, as it did under former head coach Brian Kelly. Instead, CMU has slipped into a period of sustained and accepted mediocrity. Enos inherited a team that had a winning culture not too unlike what we see at Northern Illinois today. Those days are long gone, as a sense of malaise has taken hold of the CMU fanbase.
That would frighten me if I was the AD. The effects of sustained mediocrity can be worse than a period of bad football. With bad teams, fans and athletics officials alike can cast the head coach as a sort of boogeyman, promising to correct course with the next hire. It might not be fun to watch, but at least there is interest in the team.
Mediocrity, however, can make even the most rabid fan bases aloof and disinterested. Take a look at the University of Michigan. A winning tradition has been overshadowed by years of mediocrity and regression, and the school finds itself struggling with ways to attract fans to the Big House.
Something similar is happening at CMU. Kelly/Shorts Stadium was at barely half capacity on Saturday, according to the official attendance figure. This was a rivalry game on Senior Day that featured teams with winning records, and CMU could barely draw the interest of the student body and community? The cold, soggy weather did not help, in fairness, but games like that are supposed to be big draws, even in an era of decreased game attendance nationwide.
That’s the culture Enos has normalized at CMU, though. Perhaps that’s unfair to him, but he’s had five years to prove he knows how to build a winner. He’s failed in that regard. This was the year to get at least nine wins and compete for a MAC title. The out-of-conference schedule featured an FCS school and three mediocre-to-bad Power Five teams. They went 2-2. The conference schedule was an opportunity to prove CMU could consistently compete. They went 5-3, all while playing with explosive players like Rawls and Davis and a top-notch defense.
That’s what a “very good” season apparently qualifies as in Enos’ book.
Heeke would be wise, then, to take closely evaluate Enos’ performance as head coach after CMU’s bowl game, assuming it even gets a bid. If Enos is going to get fired, now is the time to do it.
Next year’s schedule features three tough non-conference games (Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Syracuse) and a host of challenging in-conference road games. With key players like Davis and Rawls leaving after this year, it’s difficult to see how CMU would make much progress under Enos’ leadership next year.
It’s time for a new head coach to step in and take on the task of rebuilding a stagnant program struggling to break away from the pack. It would be a challenge for anyone to come in and do that, but it can be done.
Look at Fleck. He took over a team that was struggling to reclaim its identity as a winning football program and, after one rough transitional year, has the Broncos back in the thick of the MAC title hunt. His team plays with a passion that stems directly from the energetic 33-year-old’s demeanor. He recruits very well. And the Western program has a certain swagger to it that CMU just can’t match.
Things are looking up in Kalamazoo, while the same can’t be said for Mount Pleasant.
That can change in a hurry, though. Heeke can find his version of Fleck, and CMU can easily end up at the top of the MAC again.
But for the love of all that is good and holy, please don’t let the coach’s new slogan be anything remotely as corny and embarrassing as “Row the Boat.”
Irwin is the founder and editor of CMU Insider.