Long, winding path brings Eastman to NC Central

Football coach who took over for Jerry Mack is looking to shed interim label

NC Central interim football coach Granville Eastman directs his team at practice earlier this month (KeShawn Ennis / NCCU athletics)

DURHAM — It’s taken three countries, 50 years, two sports and two different styles of football for Granville Eastman to find himself in the right place at the right time.

Now all he has to do is prove that he’s got what it takes to stay there.

Born in Guyana and raised in Canada, the career assistant finally got a team of his own last December when he was elevated to the head coaching position at NC Central upon the departure of Jerry Mack to Rice.

But because he was only given the job on an interim basis, the upcoming 2018 season is likely to be an on-the-job audition for Eastman, with his future dependent on how his Eagles perform on the field.

“I’ve learned that the best way to adjust and grow is to just embrace this whole process,” the former defensive coordinator said as he prepares his team for its opening game next Sunday in Atlanta against Prairie View A&M.

“It’s been a blessing and a dream come true. I’m sticking to my goals and doing the very best I can every day working to make the situation a better experience for our players and coaches, and to win some football games.”

If there’s one thing Eastman has going for him in that pursuit, other than the confidence he has in his own ability, it’s the fact that Mack left him a large complement of veteran players with which to compete.

There are eight starters back on offense, including all five linemen, quarterback Chauncey Caldwell and leading rusher Isaiah Totten, who burst onto the scene as a freshman last season with an 81-yard touchdown run against Duke. And while the defense has some holes to fill up front and at linebacker, Eastman’s experience on that side of the ball should help compensate for the losses.

One thing he won’t have to spend time building is a winning attitude within the program. That’s a foundation already in place, the product of three Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles won or shared over the past four years.

“That’s why the opportunity to be the head coach here was so appealing, because I knew what was in-house,” Eastman said. “Myself and our staff, we helped recruit the program with Coach Mack. We know what’s here, and we know what’s ahead.”

Because he’s not one to mess with success, Eastman isn’t planning on making major changes in the way things are done at Central.

That doesn’t mean he plans to be a carbon copy of his predecessor.

“I’m a little more old school than Coach Mack,” said Eastman, who indicated he plans to put more of an emphasis on discipline than in the past. “He’s got a little brass, a little flashiness to him, so we’re a little bit different in that respect. I’m probably a little more patient about the development of young people. I understand that sometimes it takes some time.”

It’s an understanding he gained along the unconventional road he traveled to get to the top of the coaching ladder.

Growing up in Toronto, his first love as a youngster was hockey. After he got skates one Christmas, he began dreaming of a career with his beloved Montreal Canadiens. It’s a goal that was crushed, literally, not long afterward when one of his brothers suffered an injury while playing a pickup game on a frozen parking lot.

“A large, portly kid fell on him and fractured my brother’s femur,” Eastman recalled. “My father came home, found out what had happened and, out of frustration, he threw the skates out.”

With his hockey aspirations suddenly put on ice, Eastman’s attention turned to football. Not the kind with which we’re familiar here in America, mind you. The three-down, 110-yard, multiple-players-shifting-at-the-same-time Canadian football.

CFL stars Warren Moon and Condredge Holloway, black quarterbacks in an era in which black quarterbacks were still a rarity, quickly became his favorite players and his inspiration.

Eastman went on to play at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he played in two Canadian national championship games as a star defensive back. From there, he began a coaching career that took him to Arkansas State as a graduate assistant, where he earned his master’s degree, to York University in his home country, Tiffin and Austin Peay before joining Mack at Central in 2014.

“You’ve got to have some luck,” Eastman said. “You have to have some people take a chance on you and lift you up. The things my parents instilled in me — faith, the importance of hard work and education — those things, fundamentally, are the reasons why I’m where I am today.”

They’re also among the reasons why Eastman’s players are so passionate about playing for him and helping him keep the job he’s waited so long to get.

“We feel like Coach Eastman should be the (permanent) head coach,” senior safety Devonte Reynolds said. “So we’re going to play our butts off for him.”

While Eastman said he appreciates the sentiment, he doesn’t want his players feeling any extra pressure to help him shed the interim title.

He’s feeling enough of it himself, though he’s trying his best not to show it.

“I would be fibbing if I said there wasn’t a little bit (of pressure) in the back of my head because there are expectations,” he said. “But that’s happened every year we’ve been here, because we’re purposed to win championships and have winning seasons.”

While the subject of his long-term future with the Eagles will eventually come into play, Eastman’s immediate concern is the thrill he’ll get when he leads his team onto the field for the first time as a head coach next Sunday in Atlanta.

It’s a sprint he’s waited a long time and traveled a lot of miles to make.

“I just hope I don’t slip and fall,” he said with a laugh. “That’s all I’m thinking about right now.”