Senior center Steve Eipper recounts process of worst to first turnaround
On Nov. 23, 2018, Central Michigan took on Toledo.
The Rockets marched up and down the field all afternoon and pummeled the Chippewas 51-13 on Black Friday at the Glass Bowl, emphatically driving the final stake in Central Michigan’s 1-11 season.
Center Steve Eipper walked off the field with his head down, his pace a saunter.
For Eipper and his teammates, it was an atrocious end to a forgettable season.
Following the game, coach John Bonamego was fired, and change was on the horizon in Mount Pleasant. Athletic Director Michael Alford reeled in an experienced coach, Jim McElwain, to replace Bonamego.
McElwain promised to bring change and structure to a football program in need of both.
“We want to find out who wants to be here,” McElwain said in his introductory press conference. “We want to find out who wants to be a Chippewa.”
Eipper and his teammates were eager to buy and commit to what McElwain offered.
“We were kind of lost without a direction after last season,” Eipper said. “Coach Mac came in and showed us how college football is supposed to be played.”
For the Chippewas, that meant changing the style not just on the field but off it as well. Gone were the days of slouching in class, blasting loud music at practice and lapses in focus. Players were urged to sit up straight and focus on the little things.
Though Eipper and company had no problem implementing these changes, the voters within the conference polls were not impressed by the rumblings coming from Mount Pleasant. The Chippewas were picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference West Division heading into the season.
“That was something we knew wasn’t going to happen because of the way we practiced in the spring and the way we had come together,” Eipper said.
Game by game, the Chippewas began to show their rapid improvement in Year 1 with McElwain, going undefeated at home and scoring pivotal road wins at Bowling Green and Ball State to put themselves in a position to secure a bid in the MAC championship game with a win over their final opponent, which again happened to be Toledo.
Eipper wasn’t worried about any psychological advantage the Rockets would have over Central Michigan, even though Toledo had taken the last nine contests between the two squads. He knew that all it would take would be the same effort and focus that they had exhibited in each of their first five home games.
The contest with Toledo was also senior day, meaning that it would Eipper’s last opportunity to take the field at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
The Chippewas dominated in all facets of the game, scoring on each of their first six possessions and winning in runaway fashion, 49-7.
“Senior day is obviously one of the biggest days you’re going to play in your whole career,” Eipper said. “It’s the culmination of every game you played in rocket football, every game you played in high school football, every game you played in college football."
After everything the starting center and his teammates have been through, the contest with the Rockets was a chance for vindication, a chance to turn the giant negative of the 1-11 season into one of the best one-year turnarounds in recent history at any university.
At the center of all this was a simple change in structure.
“We just bought in,” Eipper said. “We came together as a collective team and we kind of learned from our mistakes that we made last year. We saw everything how not to have a winning football team last year obviously when we went 1-11.”
Learning from mistakes, coming together and buying into the philosophy of coach McElwain led the Chippewas from worst to first.
They embraced the fact that there is no discount for success.
And on Black Friday in 2019, Steve Eipper walked off the field a MAC West champion.