The hot topic around Central Michigan athletics these days is Ernie Zeigler's future as Chippewa men's basketball coach. The fourth-year coach has one year left on his current contract, making this a make-or-break offseason for him.
Let's face facts, no coach is going to be able to lead his program without at least one year on his contract after the current season he is in.
A coach can't be expected to recruit kids without having the ability to assure them he will be around next season. That is what led to the split between CMU and Jay Smith, which brought Zeigler in in the first place.
Zeigler will be looking to get at least a two or three year extension and probably a slight increase in pay.
Some feel he should get it, some feel otherwise.
Here is my breakdown of the situation.
First, Zeigler has a 54-69 record through four seasons as a coach and is 31-33 in Mid-American Conference play. The 54 wins is the most by a CMU coach in his first four seasons since Charlie Coles won 64 from the 1985-85 season to the 1988-89 season.
Zeigler has led CMU to back-to-back MAC West Division titles for the first time in Chippewa school history. Many will argue the talent pool in the MAC West is weak, but the accomplishment is still a first in school history.
Zeigler is 9-9 against rivals Western and Eastern Michigan. Jay Smith by comparison was 13-22 against the Eagles and Broncos while Coles was 12-13 against the two in his six years as head coach.
Those are just some numbers to consider. Here are some strengths I believe he has as a coach:
* I think Zeigler has the right message and philosophy. I think his mindset is the one a coach needs in the MAC. In a conference that is not going to get the most talent, you have to be able to out-work your opponent. While his team has not always been successful, they have been largely competitive because they try to do the small things correctly.
* Zeigler has tried to put his team in the best position to win based on the talent he has. Last season, Zeigler had to play a slow down style in order to limit opposing possessions. Some people may not have liked it, but with the lack of depth, it was the right move to make and it allowed CMU to win a share of the MAC West title.
* Zeigler has adapted his recruiting philosophy as a coach and matured as a coach. Early on Zeigler came in and tried to land the top athletes and prime players, but those players didn't fit his system and it led to a lot of disappointment and frustration, as well as player departures. More recently, Zeigler has targeted hard nosed kids that will do what he wants. He has tapped into a lot of junior college talent that can contribute right away in order to fill the gaps of prior recruits that didn't turn out.
Now, here are some of the areas of concern I know fans have and would like to see him improve on:
* The big problem this season has been CMU blowing leads in games. There have been four notable second-half collapses late this season. While the collapses are not good, they are more indicative of CMU being a jump shooting team and the shots not falling. That combined with inexperience at being a winning program led to the Chippewas pressing when a team made a comeback effort against them. The one area this could have improved from Zeigler's part was in time out management. Too often this season, CMU was without a time out in the closing minutes of a close game. That can't happen.
* I think a lot of the community doesn't feel a bond with Zeigler and that is perhaps why many aren't behind him getting an extension. While Zeigler may not be at a lot of community functions or be out in public a lot, that doesn't mean he doesn't feel like a part of Mt. Pleasant. I think toward the end of the year, Zeigler started to do more to reach out to the community and is making positive steps in that direction. The attendance numbers went up toward the end of the season and with the new Events Center opening next season, I think CMU wants to know that the fan support will be there for Zeigler.
* The frequency of player turnover on the roster has been alarming as well. Just last season five members of the team left, all of which were Zeigler recruits. That kind of loss in the roster is why some are not hopeful for the future. Outside of Jordan Bitzer and Robbie Harman, there hasn't been much consistency with the Chippewa roster so fans have a hard time identifying with the team. Zeigler needs to make sure he is bringing in the right guys and bringing in players that will stay for the remainder of their eligibility. This year's class seems to be sticking around, aside from Tyler Brown, who left because of the severity of his injury.
* Player development has also been a big question mark. We haven't seen Zeigler consistently develop the players he brought in. Marcus Van made a huge jump in his senior year, which gives me the feeling that Zeigler can develop his talent. Jordan Bitzer and Robbie Harman clearly made strides, but they were brought in by another coaching staff. The lack of development in Marko Spica has been a big concern as he was highly touted coming in and CMU will need him to be a big factor next season. But, Jalin Thomas, Amir Rashid, and Antonio Weary all look to be improving as they head toward their senior seasons next winter.
* The final issue is fans concerns over next season. With Harman and Bitzer gone, you have to wonder how the Chippewas are going to be able to score consistently. While we don't know the talent level of the incoming recruits, can you really expect a true freshman to step in right away. I know many believe that Trey Zeigler is the answer, but you can't expect him to sign with CMU. If he does, that is obviously a great bonus, but a player of his caliber is more likely to play on a bigger stage. You also can't discredit Ernie's ability to recruit if Trey doesn't come here. Trey needs to give himself the best option to reach the NBA and if he feels CMU is not that option, he has the right to go elsewhere.
When you really break it down, I think CMU would be making a mistake by not giving Zeigler an extension. You can say he hasn't had a winning season and comparing to Jay Smith is giving him a crutch, but you have to compare to where the program was to where it is. You can't expect a team to go from nothing to Kent State level in just four seasons, it doesn't work that way. Just look at Toledo. They let Stan Joplin go after 12 years despite two conference titles to his credit. Joplin always made the Rockets contenders and they had a mediocre year or two down the stretch that still landed them in the middle of the MAC.
So, they brought in Gene Cross, who won 11 games in two seasons with the Rockets, and stepped down last week after an off-court scandal emerged. Now, the Rockets have to hire a new coach to rebuild from the very level CMU was at when Zeigler took over.
Could Zeigler have done better, probably. He is human, he has made some mistakes. But, he has made a slow upward trend with the program and is now in the process where his entire roster is made up of guys he brought in.
You don't have to like everything about him, but your other option is to hire a new coach, who would need at least another four years to develop his system and bring in his players with no guarantee that he could even match what Zeigler has accomplished.
Bottom line, Zeigler has made Central Michigan men's basketball a hot topic into March the past few seasons, which is something this program hasn't had since 2003. That in itself deserves to be recognized and that alone tells me he deserves to keep working on making things better in Mt. Pleasant.