Opinion: Central Michigan football program, fan base fail to impress in national spotlight

Grand Central's Doug Sears Jr. explains why both the Central football program and the fan base could have performed better on Saturday.

Ryan Radcliff (8) leads huddle against MSU. (Brittni Hengesbach | GCMag)

Central Michigan welcomed Michigan State to Kelly Shorts Stadium Saturday, the first time the Spartans traveled to Mount Pleasant in the history of the in-state series.

The scoreboard was secondary, as most agreed CMU’s chances of beating MSU were not very high. But despite last year’s drubbing at the hands of the Spartans in East Lansing, the storylines this year focused heavily on Central’s shocking defeat of the Spartans in 2009, led by Antonio Brown and Dan LeFevour.

This game was an opportunity for CMU to reintroduce themselves to the national landscape, reclaim a bit of the prestige that hasn’t been seen since the simultaneous exits of Butch Jones, LeFevour, Brown and current Green Bay Packer Frank Zombo.

But donning what appeared to be the uniforms Arizona State rejected, CMU trotted onto the field in matte black helmets, black jerseys, black pants, looking like someone else and playing like the team nobody wanted.

The uniforms, polarizing among the fan base, turned out to be more “me too,” and less” “here I am,” recalling similar looks from the aforementioned Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State and failed to deliver on a promise of rebirth.

No, these are the same Enos Chippewas. Ryan Radcliff began pitifully, going one-for-nine passing in the first quarter, and Zurlon Tipton, noted to be an X-factor, was mostly a non-factor, mustering only 62 yards and not finding his stride until the game was decided.

While the scoreboard might show a blowout from the opening whistle to the closing gun, this is misleading. The Chippewas had their chances, particularly in the first half. All of them were squandered due to busted plays, bad drops or passive playcalls on important conversions.

Michigan State’s mascot “Sparty” flexes his muscle during Sept. 8’s contest.

CMU just never managed to get going and as the lead grew, so did MSU’s dominance of the Chippewas. A 55-yard interception for a touchdown wiped the shutout off the board with 1:39 remaining to play, but it had no impact on the story.

For a MAC school, a game like this is an opportunity. It’s more than 60 minutes of football, more than a line on the schedule. It’s national exposure, and a chance to represent a program and a University in front of the national media and national audiences.

The fans turned out in force, despite a first-time ticket policy for current students, which were difficult to attain and the plans for students to get them were inconvenient and unnecessarily exclusionary. The non-student tickets were too expensive for the type of fan experience Kelly/Shorts offers.

But despite this, a record crowd of 35,127 marched through the turnstiles to celebrate football, families, and the universities. Extra seating in the student section was almost completely filled as the first quarter ended, and the full house was certainly a sight to see. But if you blinked, you missed it, as the fair-weather football fans showed their true colors at halftime and as the third quarter ended.

The fan exodus during game breaks is to be expected in a school with minimal conference hopes, in a student section known for standing, not sitting during games. A crowd fractionated by halftime is common at CMU, particularly if the game is decided, whether in CMU’s favor or not.

But looking out to see fans petering out in the third quarter, and thousands of empty seats as Central put their first points on the board, was disheartening, to say the least. A beautiful, if slightly chilly September day, with a visiting Big Ten team in the house, should not have the same audience of a frigid November game against Akron when the MAC title is out of reach. Particularly in light of the controversy last season about the artificially inflated attendance numbers, and not making the attendance requirement at home, fan support was disappointing.

The real question at hand today was whether Central was a serious football school or not. And the answer was resounding no. No, the students cannot see beyond the scoreboard and stick around for the event that was the Clash at Kelly/Shorts. No, the fans did not value the opportunity at hand, to see a Big Ten team at home, and realize what was at stake. And no, there isn’t any reason to believe CMU will continue to be an FBS program in the near future.

Of course, it is very hard to watch bad football, and that’s what has been on display in Enos’ pair of 3-9 seasons, but an FBS program, even a MAC program, needs to carry a die-hard fan base, and Central did not take the opportunity to demonstrate that to the NCAA or future students that this is a serious football school.