'F.E.A.': Central Michigan uses doubters as motivation to go from worst to first in Mid-American Conference
Da'Quaun Jamison danced to the tune of the Marching Chips in celebration of a Mid-American Conference West Division title and a trip to the MAC championship game.
Moments after the senior safety's dancing concluded, Jamison emotions changed.
A serious look came over his face.
"That's what happens when you pick us last," Jamison said. "That's what happens."
Senior running back Jonathan Ward bounced by moments later, flashing a smile while saying, "That's a turnaround."
The Central Michigan football team was fresh off a 49-7 victory over Toledo at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
The Chippewas, at 8-4 overall and 6-2 in the conference, weren't expected to cheer like this at the end of the regular season, especially not after going 1-11 without a conference win in 2018 under former coach John Bonamego.
From the outside looking in, nobody thought it was possible – exemplified by the fact that Central Michigan was picked last in the MAC preseason media poll.
But the inside was all that mattered, and the Central Michigan football team believed in something more than themselves, coming together to create a season that will be remembered forever.
"From the moment I first heard they picked us last, I was like, ‘Yeah, OK,'" said senior quarterback Quinten Dormady. "Going into this year, I knew we could get here. I knew we had it in the locker room."
The only commodity holding the Chippewas back from winning the MAC West title and securing a spot in the MAC championship game was buying in to first-year coach Jim McElwain's system, one that's defined by structure, accountability and discipline.
The players bought in immediately.
"When I met these guys about a year ago, there were some guys that I could tell wanted to make a choice," McElwain said. "The guys have decided, 'Well, there's more to life than yourself.' It's great to give yourself for others."
All that senior linebacker Michael Oliver had to do was quickly glance at McElwain's resume to understand he was a coach worth playing for and one that could glorify the Chippewas.
McElwain, 57, had a 44-27 career head coaching record before coming to Central Michigan. He won the Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year (2014), SEC Coach of the Year (2015) and was a two-time SEC Eastern Division champ (2015-16).
That's what Oliver saw, and it was enough for him to jump on board.
"Look at his resume," Oliver said. "He's a winner, so that's all you look at."
Regardless of what F.E.A. specifically means, it's a calling to all the people that picked Central Michigan to finish at the bottom of the conference.dor a title.
There was a newfound unity between the staff and players under McElwain, and it was easy for him to recognize.
"Once we bought in to each other and were there for each other, that’s when things became special," Dormady said.
Hanging in McElwain's office is a sign that reads: "Dead last." He's used that as motivation since the conference preseason rankings came out in July.
"Well, OK, if that's what people think of you, go out and prove them different," McElwain said.
Toledo, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan and Ball State were all projected to finish higher in the MAC West standings. As a matter of fact, the Rockets – a team the Chippewas stomped by 42 points – were the favorite to win the division.
First, it was Eastern Michigan. Northern Illinois came after; then it was Ball State. Lastly, McElwain's squad rolled over Toledo. The only one that got away was Western Michigan.
Oliver said getting picked last allowed Central Michigan to lock in and focus on each individual battle without one game being placed at a higher emphasis than another.
"Each team that we faced, 'Y'all picked us last. OK, we'll show you who is last,'" Oliver said. "We played each game just like that."
It all goes back to a simple, yet mysterious acronym – F.E.A.
The meaning behind the acronym is a team secret, but it's not difficult to formulate a few educated guesses on what the players are talking about.
Oliver and Ward wouldn't explain. When asked, they both repeated themselves.
"Just F.E.A.," Oliver said in response.
"F.E.A.," Ward added.
Regardless of what F.E.A. specifically means, it's a calling to all the people that picked Central Michigan to finish at the bottom of the conference.
Each week, F.E.A. became more apparent on social media with the players, an indication of how they began to believe in what is now a reality – a MAC West title – more and more after every victory.
“We heard about it every day from last year when it happened to being picked last in the MAC," Dormady said. "That was a huge motivating factor for a lot of the guys in the locker room."
Just one season ago, Central Michigan was a dysfunctional team with nothing to play for in November and December. Going from his junior to senior year, Ward is an individual example of what buying in to McElwain's tactics allowed him to accomplish.
Playing in 10 of 12 games this season, the 6-foot, 202-pound running back has accumulated 164 carries for 1,056 yards and 15 touchdowns after just having 212 yards and one touchdown on 76 carries in 2018.
Life for Ward and his teammates have drastically changed in the last 12 months.
"It's the complete opposite," Ward said. "Last year, at this time, I'm sad to say it, but we weren't playing for anything. Coming in today, we knew there was so much on the line. It was a lot of pressure, but it was good pressure, something we worked for and wanted."
Ward wasn't the only one divert from his old self and take on a new team-oriented identity. Once everyone came together with the right individual mindset, the team's focus shifted from selfishness to selflessness.
That translated to winning.
Through a 1-11 season, inheriting a new coach and being picked last in the conference, Central Michigan is now ready to play somewhere nobody expected the program to be at this point.
The Chippewas are set to take on Miami (Ohio) at noon Dec. 7 at Ford Field in Detroit.
McElwain was at Ford Field for MAC Media Day on July 23, and he's excited to go back for an entirely different reason.
He's returning in an attempt to claim a championship.
"Who would've ever thought back then, right?" McElwain said, laughing over his words. "It's exciting for our university, the community and all the Chippewas out there."
Despite being picked to finish last, the Chippewas aren't done yet.
The coaches and players want to enjoy the ride, taking the path that keeps them winning for the longest.
Ward danced on the conductor's stand to the fight song played by the Marching Chips following the 49-7 win over Toledo that clinched the MAC West championship.
He's not ready to be done dancing.
"That's the emotions of all the hard work that's paid off up to this point, but we still have another goal to accomplish," Ward said. "Once we accomplish that goal, we'll be doing more dancing."