by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

This is beautiful. We’re here freezing in Michigan and Jim Harkema is out in the California sun, practicing for a bowl game. Isn’t that ironic? Especially since he was on the verge of losing his team, his helmets, his field, the works, three years ago. Nobody wanted Eastern Michigan then. But sometimes, if you just stick with it. . . .

You ever see those movies in which 10 people are in a lifeboat and there’s only enough room for nine? Who goes? How do they decide? Well, in 1984, the lifeboat for college football was television. You wanted money, that’s where you got it; and the Mid-American Conference was in danger of losing its share.

“TV had a rule for Division I that more than half the schools in a league had to meet a certain minimum attendance,” Harkema recalls. “The MAC, which had 10 teams, could project five schools meeting it, but not six. So they figured they’d drop down to nine schools, to make sure they kept the TV money.”

You follow that? Let me simplify it: the one closest to death gets tossed overboard. Eastern Michigan — which had lost 28 of 30 games before Harkema’s arrival — was the unlucky victim. It was the Hurons or the TV money. Say goodby, boys.

“I thought it was a bad decision,” says Harkema, told of his possible termination in the spring of 1984. “It was made under pressure and . . . let’s just say we weren’t happy with it the way they’d chosen to resolve the problem.”

To make matters worse, open discussions were held on whether the football program should stay. The folks from the other nine schools — all except Western Michigan coach Jack Harbaugh — buried their heads in the sand, and Harkema was left to fight the battle alone. The players whom he had recruited must have wondered what kind of fools they were, signing with a school that was going to lose its team.

Soon, it came to an ultimatum: If EMU kept football, it had to drop out of the conference in every sport — baseball, basketball, etc. Or else it could drop football, and keep the other sports safe.

Nice choice, huh? Lawyer calls end run

“My posture all along was, ‘I’m not fighting it,’ ” Harkema says. “I’m for football, obviously. But I wanted this administration to decide it wants football. Otherwise, I wouldn’t want to stay.”

Meanwhile, he tried to build a team. Talk about alone! Harkema, a man in his 40s with a wife and children, faced daily questions about his future. There were times when he would go to a recruit’s house, give the parents his best pitch, and someone would squint and say: “Yeah, coach, but are you guys even going to have football next year?”

The final decision was due July 31, and football practice was scheduled to begin two weeks later. Harkema had already called other schools, looking to place his athletes should the program shut down. Here, take my quarterback. Here, take my best receiver. He didn’t have to do that. He could have let his bitterness stop him. “I wanted to help the kids,” he says, without a hint of false modesty.

And in the end, here is what happened: nothing. A lawyer for the school discovered that the NCAA rules allowed until the end of the season to make a decision like this. Saved by a loophole. EMU had one season to prove itself.

You should have seen that season. Bands, raffles. Anything to get attendance up. You could go to a game and see the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, drink beer in a tent and win a trip to the Bahamas. “Everybody rallied,” Harkema says. “It was like, ‘Save our ship. You gotta come!’ ” Fans came back

They came. Average attendance went from 5,000 to more than 19,000. And finally, in the ninth game of the 1984 season, the team found its shadow. It won a game. The Hurons had life, after all. By the following year, the TV contracts were changed, and the threat of destruction was no more. EMU won four games in 1985 and six in 1986. This year the Hurons won nine, the conference and the hearts of anyone who’s ever been told he’s too small, too weak, or too insignificant.

“It’s been the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do in coaching,” says Harkema, whose team plays San Jose State in the California Bowl Saturday,
“but also the most satisfying.” A few weeks earlier, he had been handed the conference trophy by the same commissioner who presided when the MAC wanted EMU booted out. And if you don’t think that felt sweet, think again.

The Hurons don’t play what we call “big games.” While Michigan faces Ohio State, and Nebraska takes on Oklahoma, they’re waging the Battle of Toledo. Toledo?

But OK. Sometimes big lessons come in small classrooms. The Hurons are out in California today because of one thing: a belief that something worth having is worth fighting for.

That, and a pretty sharp lawyer.

“What was his name?” Harkema is asked.

“You know, I can’t remember,” he says. “But wherever he is, if you find him, tell him he can call a few plays here anytime he wants.”


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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