Taking over and trying to restore a foundering basketball program requires equal parts tenacity, nurturing and flat-out determination. Now in his fourth season at the helm of the Eastern Michigan men's basketball program, Charles Ramsey embodies those attributes but it hasn't always been a steady, easy climb.
EMU Head Coach Charles Ramsey Has A Plan
But he may have the nurturing part down cold and a really early start recruiting a potential future Eagle.
We caught up with the Eagles' head coach recently in the luxurious confines of Eastern Michigan's Convocation Center. Actually, our meeting began with a baby on Ramsey's lap.
"This is little Carlos," said Ramsey, introducing the son of senior EMU point guard Carlos Medlock as the coach expounds on the attributes of some of his new recruits and incoming freshmen: "He's gonna be a good one," "I can't wait for him to get out on the courtHe's going to be a beast" Clearly Ramsey is looking forward to the upcoming season.
The enthusiasm is genuine and the seriousness of his tone is clear: he is looking forward to his fourth season with an eye toward what he hopes is the continued progress of a program that had fallen so far out of favor in its own hometown that high school hoops games attracted far more attention.
But first things first.
"Hey Carl!" Ramsey shouts out to assistant coach Carl Thomas, a former EMU hoops standout who has been with Ramsey for each of the past three seasons. "You remember how to change a diaper don't you?"
Seems little Carlos' enthusiasm was more than the tyke could hold and had a bit of an accident. Ah, the life of an assistant coach. But Thomas takes charge of the little leaker who has left his mark on the head coach.
Not missing a beat however, Ramsey recalls the task of taking over and the steps that have surrounded trying to restore a program that at times could have been an episode of the TV series, "Chop, Cut, Rebuild." Only rebuilding a classic 'Cuda from the ground up seems like child's play at times compared to fixing and restoring a foundering Division I program.
But it was a challenge that Ramsey knew something about heading into the job.
A Blueprint for Reconnecting
"I had a good road map," noted Ramsey who made stops at California and Michigan after initially following Eastern Michigan Hall of Fame head coach Ben Braun to California after Braun left EMU. "I knew something about what it takes to rebuild or dig out, especially at Michigan (in the aftermath of the Fab Five debacle) but not from sitting in this chair. It's a lot different being the guy in charge and it was a learning process for everyone, including me," added Ramsey who states that he has learned to delegate and trust in his staff as he has grown more comfortable with his role.
|Ramsey is 34-57 in three seasons at EMU including a 3-0 mark in BracketBuster Games
Ramsey also is well aware of the delicate balancing act between building a winning program and academics. The two go hand-in-hand but the bottom line remains the same.
"In the end, it comes down to winning but we want to get there doing it the right way," said Ramsey explaining his blueprint for the program.
"We could have gone for the quick fix but we wanted to rebuild this program in a way that it could have sustained success." Which is something important for Ramsey who is an EMU alum who has seen the positive impact the program has had on the community in the past.
In the rafters of the Convocation Center hang the banners of former greats such as George "Ice Man" Gervin, Grant Long and several others all of whom have responded to Ramsey's calls and gotten involved with the program again whenever asked. "They have been great. We have not been turned down by anybody we have contacted (from the past). In fact they were waiting to hear from somebody."
"There was no connection with the program or the alums when we got here. We had to get the alumni involved again and reconnect with the community," states Ramsey. "Now we have that again. We are involved throughout the community, in the Boys and Girls Clubs and having contact with the youth."
Immediately before Ramsey's hiring in 2005, the Eagles basketball program was in a steady decline from the halcyon days of Ben Braun, far removed from EMU's appearance in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament in 1991 and its upset of Duke in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
Under his immediate predecessor, Jim Boone, the Eagles program sagged under the weight of a well-meaning coach who had difficulty connecting with Eastern's prime recruiting territory and was as stubborn as a mule in forcing the team to play old-school "motion" offense, preferring to force the proverbial square pegs into round holes. Boone lasted five seasons, compiling a record of 48-96 with the Eagles never winning a single conference tournament game during his five years.
Boone's tenure ended on a desperate note as in a last ditch effort to save his job he recruited and signed some talented kids with serious character issues. It was a measure destined to fail and when it did, it opened the door for a new regime.
"To be honest, things were a little worse when I got here than we anticipated," acknowledges Ramsey. "Kids weren't graduating. The pride was missing."
Those academic lapses hindered initial efforts as the Eagles program suffered through three seasons of scholarship losses due to poor academic performance in the preceding seasons.
"We didn't even have a study table," for the players notes Ramey recounting the academic issues surrounding the program upon his arrival. "Now we not only have study table, but make sure that the kids, right from their freshman year, understand the importance of academics."
Part of that includes requiring every freshman to attend summer school and take at least six credit hours in the summer. The EMU coaching staff also receives written academic progress reports on every player from the team's academic adviser. It is a process that has paid nearly immediate dividends.
At the conclusion of the summer academic semester this year, the EMU men's basketball program will be a perfect 10-for-10 in graduations with every senior in the program from 2005-2006 graduating compared to only five seniors graduating in the previous five seasons combined.
It also means that EMU is seeing a significant rise in the all important APR academic score used by the NCAA to measure progress, and impose penalties if academic numbers suffer.
In Boone's final season, the Eagles' APR score was a meager 870, far under the minimum requirement of 925, leading to the eventual loss of scholarships that has at times hampered the Eagles program -- with the team turning to players on football scholarship (Travis Lewis and Tyler Jones) to fill out the roster.
The APR numbers however are showing a steady upturn and, according to Ramsey, the Eagles will project out to a 931 four-year rolling average when the last two measuring periods, each scoring a perfect 1000, are figured in, meaning that the Eagles did not lose any players while academically ineligible and have shown steady academic progress as evidenced by the players leaving the program with a diploma in their hands.
"A Part of our Family"
That includes players, such as James Matthews, who was dismissed from the team mid-way through the MAC season in 2007-2008 but stayed on course academically. "James is good kid who just had some issues," notes Ramsey of the enigmatic big man who transferred from Marquette but never was able to live up to what many expected of him. "We weren't going to turn our backs on him and he is on track to graduate this summer. He's worked hard and we're happy for him."
Not turning away from players who have off-court issues has been something that Ramsey has felt is important and it does not apply solely to players with locker room issues.
One of Ramsey's prize recruits was to have been Marvin Skipper, a 6-8 power forward out of Detroit's Pershing High School. Skipper was ranked as the top power forward in the state of Michigan by Prep Spotlight Magazine and ranked in the top 300 nationally by Hoopscoop.com and signed a national letter of intent to play for the Eagles starting in 2007-2008. Skipper however was found to have a previously undiagnosed heart ailment that was only discovered after he committed to EMU. It was a condition that ended his playing career before it even began.
While certainly the loss of Skipper was a blow to the Eagles, it did not mean the end of his scholarship.
"We made a commitment to him as much as he made a commitment to us," states Ramsey. "We aren't going to turn our back on the young man. He remains on scholarship and is part of our family."
A New Attitude
Those around the EMU program notice the change in attitude and confidence in the basketball offices these days.
One person connected with EMU hoops even went so far as to tell us that it wasn't just a change in attitude that was needed but that the offices "needed an exorcism" from past years.
While not having to resort to calling in a priest, Ramsey and crew have been able to demonstrate some very tangible results, including the all-important area of on the court performance.
The Eagles will enter the 2008-2009 campaign as one of the favorites in the MAC West this season on the strength of a solid returning class featuring senior point guard Carlos Medlock and the return of forward Brandon Bowdry, a 2006-2007 All-MAC Freshman selection who sat out last season with a foot injury.
"It's nice that people are noticing us, but we haven't accomplished anything yet as far as titles or championships," said a cautious Ramsey when discussing EMU's potential status as MAC Wet favorites.
While not registering any titles yet, EMU has made some very noticeable strides.
Last season the Eagles earned their highest regular season finish in several seasons, finishing tied for second in the MAC West, which included a 10-4 home record, the best ever in Convocation Center history, including a 7-1 home record in MAC play.
"People no longer assume that coming into Eastern means an automatic win, in fact far from it now," added Ramsey.
The Eagles have also scored wins in MAC tournament play in each of the past two seasons after failing to advance past the first round in conference tournament play in each of the preceding seven seasons.
While the Eagles have improved and now appear to have regained a footing of respectability, attendance still remained an issue last season with the Eagles frequently struggling to hit the 1,000 mark in home game attendance.
"We can't worry about that," states Ramsey when discussing attendance. "Our players know that it doesnt matter if there are five or five thousand people in attendance, just play hard. The attendance will take care of itself, especially if we continue to improve.""A Special Evening"
It's been a roller coaster ride for the fourth-year head coach but with more ups than downs.
The Ramsey era at EMU started off on one of the highest notes any head coach could expect when former boss Ben Braun brought his California Golden Bears into the Convocation Center for the opening game of Ramsey's first season in 2005.
The night included Braun's formal induction into Eastern Michigan's Hall of Fame and the distribution of a free Braun and Ramsey bobblehead with the inscription of "The Teacher vs. The Pupil."
That evening the pupil prevailed in one of the biggest wins in Convocation Center history with the Eagles upsetting Cal 67-65 in a thriller.
"99% of coaches would not have done that," recalls Ramsey of Braun's promise and follow through to bring Cal to play EMU. "It was a special evening but just in case anybody thought we were on our way, we had a wake up call at North Dakota State (the Eagles were drubbed 87-65) the next week. We knew we had plenty of work left to do."
"The Ultimate Goal"
Indeed, there is plenty left to do, but the blueprint employed by Ramsey when he first arrived appears to be taking effect with steady improvements in academics and on the court as well.
The Eagles will get a chance this season to show how that progress stacks up against some heady competition as well with a scheduled appearance in the preseason NIT at Purdue where the Eagles will join Purdue, Loyola (IL) and Georgia in West Lafayette.
EMU will also face Michigan this season, and more importantly, have Michigan making a return trip to the Convocation Center in 2009, Michigan's first visit to Ypsilanti since the Wolverines downed EMU 86-63 before a record Convo crowd of 7,647.
A few well placed wins this season and the Eagles could see that number fall but more importantly maybe a new banner will finally hang in the Convocation Center.
"That's the ultimate goal," notes Ramsey. "This place means more to me than most people could imagine and to bring something like that to Eastern Michigan again would be very special for everyone who has stuck with this program for so long."