Eastern Michigan's trip to the Bahamas Bowl this season caps a striking turnaround for the Eagles. Athletic director Heather Lyke began preparing for this moment a while ago.
"Two years ago, we started buying passports for our team. That was all a part of the belief system," Lyke said. "We were trying to show the kids that you have to expect success, and you have to be prepared for success."
Two years ago, it was hard to imagine EMU playing any kind of postseason game. In fact, it was hard to envision it four months ago. The Eagles haven't played in a bowl since 1987, but that drought finally ends Friday when coach Chris Creighton's team takes on Old Dominion in the Bahamas.
The bowl is a primary partner for the Mid-American Conference. In fact, this game has had a MAC team from Michigan in all three seasons of its existence — Western Michigan went last year and Central Michigan played in the inaugural matchup in 2014.
So if a MAC team has any hope of being bowl eligible, it makes sense to plan ahead for a possible trip to the Bahamas, and Lyke figured buying passports could help instill in the players a sense of what was possible.
"They were like, 'What are we doing?'" she said. "I was like, 'We're buying passports, because when we are bowl eligible, if the Bahamas calls, we are prepared and ready to go.'"
At that point, Eastern Michigan was one of the most consistently bad teams in the FBS. The Eagles went 6-6 in 2011 under Ron English, with two victories over FCS opponents. That was the only time from 2009-2015 that EMU won more than two games.
Lyke took over as athletic director in 2013, and Creighton was hired after the end of that year's football season. The Eagles went 2-10 in his first year, then 1-11 in 2015. It seemed like not much had changed at EMU, but Creighton noticed progress.
"A lot of people like to talk about this season, but we made, I think, an enormous step from season one to season two," he said. "Now, you don't see that in the results, but in terms of the program and the foundation and the culture and the people and the relationships and all of those things — we just weren't good enough to win games, but so many of the necessary things were taking shape."
While Creighton prepared for his third season at EMU, the program's very existence was called into question. In April, a student and faculty report raised concerns about athletic spending and called on the school to consider dropping football — or perhaps stop playing it in Division I. EMU responded with an open letter saying it had no plans to drop football or leave the MAC.
If ever a team needed a good start to the season, this was it.
EMU opened against an FCS opponent, beating Mississippi Valley State 61-14. Then a trip to Missouri went predictably — the Eagles lost 61-21. The next two games — at Charlotte and home against Wyoming — would indicate how much progress EMU had really made.
Eastern Michigan beat Charlotte 37-19 and Wyoming 27-24, and just like that, the Eagles had as many wins as they'd managed through Creighton's first two seasons. Then they opened MAC play with a 28-25 victory at defending champion Bowling Green.
In Creighton's first season at EMU in 2014, the Eagles played road games against Florida and Michigan State, losing them by a combined 138-14. The schedule was a bit more forgiving this time, which was important for a team trying to gain confidence and accumulate enough wins to play in a bowl.
"I feel as though the schedule the last two years has been very, very fair," Creighton said. "Whether we're able to win those games or not, that's up to us, but there's a chance."
EMU eventually secured bowl eligibility with wins at Ohio and Ball State, and when the Eagles won their regular-season finale against Central Michigan, they'd gone .500 in conference play after an 0-8 showing in 2015.
Now comes the Bahamas Bowl, the culmination of this season of accomplishment.
"I would say it's a starting point," Lyke said. "Our goal is to keep building upon this opportunity — and not to be another 29 years before we go to another bowl game."
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