Game Over: Bonamego coaches last game as 'dream job' ends with 22-29 career record
When John Bonamego was hired as Central Michigan's head coach on Feb. 9, 2015, he said leading the Chippewas was his dream job.
“Words cannot express how much I love this place and what this day means to me," said Bonamego during a press conference that introduced him as head coach. "I plan to start and end my head coaching career here.”
After two brawls on the field, three player ejections and a 51-13 loss to Toledo on Nov. 23, that dream came to an abrupt end for the man Chippewa football fans came to know as Bono.
Athletic Director Michael Alford announced the firing of Bonamego hours after the loss to Toledo. Because Bonamego was fired, CMU is left with a $1.125 million buyout under the terms of the contract which Alford extended in 2017. He could receive the full $1.125 million buyout, but CMU has been in negotiations with Bonamego's representatives about a settlement lower than what is outlined in his contract.
The Chippewas finished the 2018 season 1-11 overall and 0-8 in the Mid-American Conference.
During his four-year tenure as CMU's head coach Bonamego owned a 22-29 record and 15-17 mark in conference games.
Even though Bonamego took the Chippewas to three-straight bowl games in his first three seasons, Alford decided to pull the plug on the 55-year-old coach’s time at CMU.
"Making a leadership change is a difficult decision, especially when you know that coach has given his all to CMU,” Alford said. “After conducting a 360-degree evaluation of the program, it was clear that a change is needed if we are going to compete for and win championships.”
From his first to fourth year, Bonamego started as a returning friend, becoming a beloved figure on campus and in the community and eventually had some fans calling for his firing.
From loved to lost
Bonamego quickly became the face of the football program – and a figurehead for the university – throughout his first three seasons.
At his inaugural press conference, Bonamego made his message to fans, alumni and players understandable. He claimed to be the coach of all in the city of Mount Pleasant.
“We aren’t hiding anything here," he said. "If you’re a Chippewa, I’m your coach.”
He was the first alum to serve as CMU's head coach since Bill Kelly from 1951-1966. Bonamego's voice quivered and tears flowed down his face during his introduction as head coach just four short years ago.
“This is not just another job,” Bonamego said at his first press conference. “To me, this is the job. Words cannot express how much I love this place and what this day means to me."
One of CMU's greatest quarterbacks, Dan LeFevour, was behind former Athletic Director Dave Heeke's hiring of Bonamego.
“I knew him as a family man, but I hadn’t seen him first-hand as a coach,” LeFevour said. “It was great to see that passion. I knew he wanted to be a head coach here.”
He played for CMU in the mid-1980s as a walk-on wide receiver and quarterback. Bonamego said coaching the Chippewas was always his dream.
“Since I left CMU in 1987, my dream job was to be the head coach of the Central Michigan football program. Today, that dream came true,” Bonamego said.
Taking over for Dan Enos, Bonamego was in his first collegiate coaching job since working as an assistant for Army from 1993-98. He worked in the National Football League for a variety of teams from 1999-2014.
Bonamego was loved by many, but he eventually became lost in CMU's worst record in program history – ending his coaching career with the Chippewas which started back in 2015.
On June 18, 2015, the energetic, enthusiastic head coach was diagnosed with tonsil cancer.
Bonamego's cancer diagnosis was part of a 2015 offseason, according to a 2016 CM Life story, which saw the death of cornerback Derrick Nash, the dismissal of two-year starting cornerback Brandon Greer for kidnapping charges and the death of its lead team physician.
For the first five weeks of an eight-week radiation treatment plan, Bonamego and his wife, Paulette Bonamego, drove to Ann Arbor at 4:30 a.m. to receive treatment and return to Mount Pleasant.
He completed radiation treatment at the University of Michigan Cancer Center more than a month later, on Aug. 21.
He led the Chippewas to a 7-6 overall and 6-2 conference record as a first-year coach. Playing in the Quick Lane Bowl, CMU lost 21-14 to Minnesota of the Big Ten Conference at Ford Field.
“We were under adversity, not just individually but as a program,” Bonamego told CM Life. “We fought through those things and we stayed together. We hung tough. It made us stronger and galvanized us.”
Upset over Oklahoma State
In Bonamego's second season, CMU finished 6-7 overall and 3-5 in conference play for a fifth-place finish in the MAC West Division – one season after tying for first.
The Chippewas won three-straight games to start the season, including a 30-27 upset win over No. 22 Oklahoma State in front of 52,523 fans at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Oklahoma State attempted to run out the lock by throwing the ball away on fourth down, but intentional grounding handed the football to the Chippewas. The game should have ended with the penalty because the referee called the score final, but the officiating crew put time back on the clock to gave CMU a chance on offense.
Article 3b of the NCAA rulebook states: When the referee declares that the game is ended, the score is final.
Jesse Kroll caught a pass from senior quarterback Cooper Rush just inside the 10-yard line as time expired. Kroll, before being tackled, pitched the football backward to fellow receiver Corey Willis, who scampered and dove into the end zone while being bombarded by defenders.
Willis' score gave the Chippewas a 30-27 upset victory over an AP Top 25 opponent.
"It's an improbable finish, but it's a situation that we practiced and rehearsed," Bonamego said. "We were able to execute and pull out the win."
CMU lost six of its last nine games of the regular season, but the team secured bowl eligibility.
"(I'm) pretty disappointed (with how season finished)," Bonamego said after the Eastern Michigan loss. "I don't see how you answer that question any other way. I'm proud of the team, but I'm disappointed in the outcome."
Bonamego's group was blown out in the Miami Beach Bowl against Tulsa, 55-10, on Dec. 19, 2016.
Nabbing Shane Morris
Bonamego was faced with a new task before entering a tough 2017 schedule – find a quarterback.
The Chippewas received a commitment from University of Michigan graduate transfer Shane Morris on Jan. 21, 2017. Tony Poljan and Tommy Lazzaro were just young signal callers at the time.
Following four seasons for the Wolverines – only playing in 11 games – Morris joined the Chippewas and led the team to an 8-5 overall and 6-2 conference record, tying CMU for second in the MAC West Division.
Morris completed 249-of-446 passes for 3,237 yards, 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He added a standout 35-28 comeback victory against in-state rival Western Michigan. Down 21-7 at halftime, the left-handed quarterback launched a 77-yard strike to Willis with 2:37 remaining for the win.
Paulette, after the road defeat of WMU, posted a picture of Bonamego sleeping with the Victory Cannon trophy on Twitter.
"Wasn't much room in our bed last night," Paulette said in a tweet.
One week later, Morris threw three touchdowns to give CMU a 42-30 triumph against Eastern Michigan for the sole possession of the Michigan MAC Trophy. Rallying from a 17-0 deficit at halftime, Morris provided CMU's fifth-straight victory in comeback fashion over Northern Illinois. The game-winning score was a 29-yard pass to Willis on fourth down with 1:32 until the final whistle sounded.
Like the previous two seasons, Bonamego took CMU to another bowl game.
This time it was the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Morris was responsible for seven of CMU's eight turnovers as Wyoming earned a 37-14 win.
“As a program, we have to continue to push forward,” Bonamego said at the end of the season. “We wouldn't be satisfied with eight wins. We're not satisfied with nine wins. Our goal each year is to win our conference, win the MAC West, win the MAC championship. That's what the standard is. That's what we want to measure up to. That's what we're going to work towards each day.”
The 2018 season saw Bonamego making due with his youngest roster and worst offense since joining CMU. He lost Morris, tight end Tyler Conklin, wide receivers Willis and Mark Chapman and many other veterans.
Offensive inefficiencies were the main reason for CMU's struggles this campaign. Offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky struggled to find the right mix of performance and plays and never produced a solution to put points on the board.
"Terrible offensive performance," Bonamego said after losing to Toledo. "It was pretty much a loss overall. All the way across the board. This one wasn't (winnable). We got run out of the stadium."
The Chippewas struggled through four quarterbacks in 2018 – redshirt freshman Tony Poljan, junior Tommy Lazzaro, redshirt freshman Austin Hergott and true freshman George Pearson.
In the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), Bonamego’s group ranked No. 128 of 129 total teams in offense.
After dropping five of its first six games to start the season, Paulette got into an altercation with CMU play-by-play broadcaster Don Chiodo in the press box at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. She was banned from the stadium.
Only a few weeks before the end of the Toledo game, Alford said he had faith in Bonamego.
“I’m sure John has us on the right path,” Alford said.
The Chippewas finished 1-11 on the season and 0-8 in MAC play. It was CMU's worst record in history, dating back to the program's first season in 1896.
The Chippewas lost three in-state games against Michigan State (31-20), Western Michigan (35-10) and Eastern Michigan (17-7).
As a season of empty stands and increasing fan criticism came to an end, Bonamego addressed questions about his future with stark optimism. Following Bonamego's final game as head coach for the Chippewas, he reflected on the season.
"I'd like to have a chance to finish what I started," Bonamego said. "We've got a lot of young players, but clearly the season was not good enough.
"There isn't a person on the planet that's more disappointed than I am."