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NC Central’s new football coach followed an improbable path to the job

It’s all new for NCCU’s Eastman

NC Central's Granville Eastman discusses the expectations of his first year as the Eagles' head coach before the Pigskin Preview in Cary on July 16, 2018.
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NC Central's Granville Eastman discusses the expectations of his first year as the Eagles' head coach before the Pigskin Preview in Cary on July 16, 2018.

Granville Eastman could spot those kids a long way away, the ones who weren’t quite up to speed on their academics but showed potential. The ones who just needed a little help. The ones whose potential was not quite fully realized. Yet.

That was true long before Eastman became N.C. Central’s interim football coach, even in this temporary light the achievement of a long-held goal at the end of a path that was anything but straight and even. He could spot those kids because he was once one of them.

“I look for that guy,” Eastman said. “I know that guy. I know him well.”

There were any number of unusual hurdles standing between a youthful Eastman and his as-yet undecorated third-floor office in N.C. Central’s LeRoy T. Walker building, a space that reflects the transitory nature of his position even as he hopes to demonstrate he is the permanent solution.

An immigrant from Guyana who grew up in Canada, who had to get his own academics in order to play in college, whose coaching career was initially deferred because he couldn’t get a work visa in the United States, who twice outlasted bosses who were fired, who ended up getting his shot as a head coach because of his predecessor’s departure – Eastman, 50, has been as far behind the starting line as anyone ever could be in the race to a head-coaching gig for most of his life.

None of that ever stopped him nor has it deterred Eastman from the task at hand at Central: Picking up where Jerry Mack left off before he left to become the offensive coordinator at Rice after winning three MEAC titles in four seasons. And perhaps even bettering that, since the foundation Mack left behind was so strong that Eastman was promoted from defensive coordinator to interim head coach to preserve the continuity of the program -- but only interim.

After fighting for all these years to get his shot as a head coach, Eastman is still going to have to prove himself once again to win the job on a permanent basis. It’s a difficult task for a first-time head coach, but Eastman has done more with less just to get this far.

“Not everybody has their passage easy,” Eastman said. “If it’s something that you desire and you want to work at, it might take you a little longer like this coaching journey has been for me, but you can work toward it. Everyone gets their due in time.”

If it weren’t for a freak hockey accident in his family, Eastman might never even have played football. He grew up Toronto’s melting-pot Scarborough neighborhood, where his parents worked multiple jobs – his mother in assisted-living facilities, his father in hospitals – to bring Eastman and his three siblings from South America. He was passionate about hockey, a Montreal Canadiens fan in Toronto Maple Leafs country, and when he was 11, he finally convinced his father to scrape together the money to get him skates and get on the ice for real.

When his younger brother suffered a broken femur on the ice, his parents pulled the skates out from under both of them. The timing was precipitous: Warren Moon had just arrived in the Canadian Football League, slinging touchdowns and breaking barriers. Football was suddenly relevant in his part of town.

“When Warren Moon came to the CFL, it really created a different type of passion for neighborhood kids, minority kids,” Eastman said. “We had never seen somebody or had a chance to see somebody play the game to the level he did. … Warren Moon made us feel like we could play quarterback too, that this was a beautiful game for everybody.”

Eastman didn’t have the skill to play quarterback, but he had the physique and hustle and wheels to play defensive back on the bigger Canadian field, and that caught the eye of coaches at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia. So did his grades, and not in a good way. Football gave him the motivation to sort those out, and once he did, it gave him a path into the future.

He loved the game more than he excelled at it, and one of his coaches at St. Mary’s suggested he get into coaching after he graduated in 1992. At the time, most Canadian universities only had one full-time coach on staff. It wasn’t exactly a growth industry. So he looked south, where the jobs were. And there was interest: St. Peter’s, in New Jersey; Tiffin, in Ohio. But a work visa proved elusive, so he spent a few years spinning his wheels, working as a volunteer coach at York University in Toronto, sending out hundreds of letters to schools in the United States.

His networking during those years, all the letters and conventions and clinics, eventually led him to another Canadian who had made the same leap: Paul Wilson, an assistant coach at Arkansas State who had played against Eastman in college up north. In 1996, he pushed for Eastman to get a graduate-assistant position that came with immigration clearance.

“He was just someone I believed in,” Wilson said. “He had a good football mind, he was great with the kids, he understood the commitment level. With all those positives, I was more than willing to stick my neck out for him. It worked out great.”

Eastman never looked back. The head coach who hired him at Arkansas State was fired after his first season, but Eastman was retained by the new coach on a staff that included future Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and his current defensive and offensive coordinators. Eastman went from grad assistant to position coach before moving elsewhere.

A stint at Tiffin followed, and then a long one at Austin Peay in Clarksville, Tenn., where he again worked for multiple head coaches as he continued to move up the ladder to defensive coordinator. Mack called him in 2014, trying to put together a staff if he landed the Central job. The two had never worked together but competed against each other while recruiting the Memphis area, sharing meals, career tips and late night conversations in hotel rooms, building a consensus conception of how they would run a program if they ever got the chance. Accidentally, they had been planning their eventual partnership for years.

“He was very similar to me, I felt like,” Mack said. “He was self-made. I started as a graduate assistant where I played. I didn’t know one coach in the business. Granville, he started from the bottom, coming to an entirely new country, really not knowing a soul. That’s the kind of grind and tenacity and intensity I knew he would have.”

Eastman’s two teenage boys stayed with his wife back in Clarksville, where the family was established after Eastman’s 11 years there; he immersed himself in football in Durham. Mack said that was another thing he and Eastman found in common: Neither has any hobbies beyond football.

With Mack’s offense and Eastman’s defense, the Eagles immediately rose to the top of the MEAC. The Eagles hadn’t won more than six games since making the transition to Division I; in Mack’s four seasons, they won seven, eight, nine and seven games, including two shared and one outright MEAC titles – and, no less important, had a 3-1 record against North Carolina A&T after N.C. Central had lost four of the previous five games against the Aggies.

“A lot of times, as head coaches we get too much credit and too much blame,” Mack said. “Granville, when we walked into that thing, he helped build the roster. He helped put all that together. It wasn’t just the Jerry Mack Show. He was involved in every aspect of the program. Granville was my right-hand man.”

When Mack left for Rice in December, the university promoted Eastman with the intention to preserve the strength and stability of the program, not to mention the Eagles’ fearsome defense.

“Sometimes you don’t do anything to disrupt that flow,” NC Central athletic director Ingrid Wicker McCree said. “The program is in really good hands. It was already in good hands.”

Eastman doesn’t want to change much. He’s happy with the systems and staff in place. He’d like to focus even more on the off-the-field lives of the players, their personal growth and academics, which is in line with what his former employers and co-workers say is his primary strength: His ability to connect with teenagers, and not merely because he has two of his own.

“I think he’s in it for the right reasons,” said Carroll McCray, who hired Eastman at Austin Peay in 2002 and is now the head coach at Gardner-Webb. “This is what I say about him: He tries to improve and enhance every kid individually in that program. He tries to help them not only on the field and in the classroom, but off the field. I think he’s very influential with those young men.”

Eastman made his public debut at the Pigskin Preview in Cary last month, where he might have been somewhat of an unknown commodity to the fans there, but not to his peers on the dais.

Eastman interviewed with N.C. State coach Dave Doeren for a job at Northern Illinois in 2010; he has worked as a counselor at Larry Fedora’s football camps, and the Central defensive staff has spent a lot of time with North Carolina’s coaches over the past few years; and there’s a historically strong relationship between the football staffs at Duke and N.C. Central, even if that’s temporarily on hold since the teams play again this season.

“You look at his defenses the last four years, they’re very strong,” Fedora said. “He’s just a good football coach. Very impressive. When he comes over, he’s always looking to learn. He isn’t the type of guy who needs to tell you how much he knows.”

Eastman will continue to serve as defensive coordinator, trying not to shake things up too much on the field. In his new office, still largely undecorated since a recent move of some football offices from the second to the third floor, two MEAC championship trophies sit quietly on top of a cabinet. Their offhanded display underlines just how successful the program has been in recent years.

Plus, there’s the inescapable reality that there’s nothing permanent about his position in charge. McCree said Eastman’s interim appointment through the end of the season was in keeping with her policy of conducting national searches for all head-coaching positions. (Mack was the wide receivers coach at South Alabama, not exactly someone who would leap to mind.) The timing for a search didn’t make sense last winter, which makes this to some extent a tryout, a chance to show what Eastman can do as the leader of a program and not just a coordinator.

“A national search will be conducted,” McCree said. “That’s just something we’ve done, to make sure we’re looking at all of our options.”

But Eastman will be a candidate, and his most pertinent advice in that regard came from N.C. Central chancellor Johnson Akinleye, who was once the interim chancellor himself.

“Take this from me, as someone who’s been in this position before,” Akinleye told Eastman. “You need to run your program as if you’re going to be here for a long time.”

That stuck with Eastman: “I’ve not stopped since,” he said.

Down in Arkansas, Wilson, the fellow Canadian who helped him get his break stateside, has put down roots as a high school coach, with the accent to match. They’re states and years away from working together, but Eastman still calls regularly, asking about Wilson’s family, keeping the friendship alive. Wilson jokes that Eastman is far too grateful for whatever help he might have offered two decades ago..

“I’m one small cog in that wheel of people who have helped him along the way,” Wilson said. “I just think he’s done things right.”

In Wilson’s mind, the credit for Eastman’s improbable progress along his unlikely career path belongs entirely to Eastman.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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