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What, Exactly, Is Akron Up To?

The plight of the mid-major college football program

On Terry Bowden’s desk, lost amid two unopened bottles of Diet Mountain Dew, a jar of antacids, and a precarious stack of legal pads, is a book called The Greatest Salesman in the World. I have no idea if Bowden has read it multiple times or if someone sent it to him on a lark; at one point, I begin to broach the subject, but Bowden has a genial way of filibustering that makes it easy to lose the thread of the conversation. Given the task he faces, the book’s presence is so overt that it’s probably better left unaddressed.

It is April in Akron, Ohio, which means, as it does at college campuses across America, that the peculiar ritual of spring football is nearing its culmination. As far as I can tell, there is no real purpose for spring football other than to traffic in blind optimism about the season to come, and nowhere has blind optimism been in shorter supply than in Akron, where the hometown college football team — reflecting the ongoing struggles of its city since the rubber industry imploded — has foundered about for decades in search of an identity. This, Bowden knows, is the primary reason why he’s been hired; his name, passed down by a father who won more games than any major-college coach other than Joe Paterno,1 brings a cachet that his predecessors did not have. At this point, the Akron job is as much an executive sales position as it is a coaching position, a reframing of a long-ignored commodity, of a football team that is better known for its snappy nickname and its adorable mascot than for any game it has ever won. The Zips have been victorious two times in the past two seasons; the brand-new 30,000-seat on-campus stadium they moved to in 2009 was barely filled to half its capacity.

“After a while, it becomes a vicious cycle,” Bowden says. “But we’ve got a fresh start. We’re selling a dream. There’s nothing inherent here that suggests we can’t be successful.”

Bowden is considerably rounder now than in his late 30s, when he was hired at Auburn just as the Tigers fell into the limbo of NCAA probation (he led them to an undefeated season, then got forced out despite a six-year record of 47-16-1). He has admitted in the past that he is a notorious stress eater, and when he greeted me in the hallway after lunch, he extracted a piece of electric-green candy from a bowl on the front desk and slipped it into his cheek. “Are you taping me?” he said. Then he directly addressed my iPhone, as if a recruit might somehow get ahold of this recording: If I don’t sound proper, I got a piece of candy in my mouth.

Several months ago, Bowden tells me, a representative from one of those executive search firms for college coaches placed a call to him. At the time, Bowden was living in the town of Florence, coaching a Division II football program at the University of North Alabama; he was 54 years old, divorced, and had spent most of the previous decade and a half dabbling in broadcasting and motivational speaking after his unceremonious and politically fraught departure from Auburn left him soured on coaching altogether.

“So the guy says, ‘I’m calling on behalf of the University of Akron. Would you be interested in the job?’”

Bowden leans back in his chair. He told me he’d had his eye on the Akron job for several years, though it is an odd job for anyone to covet: Before the school chased Bowden, they went after a former Zips player and assistant coach named Paul Winters, who led Wayne State to the Division II national championship game last season. And Winters chose to stay at Wayne State instead.2

Only then, Bowden says, did he get the phone call from the search firm.

“So I tell him, ‘Yes, I’m interested,’” he says. “And the guy goes, ‘Really?’”

Akron is a member of the Mid-American Conference, a collection of mid-major programs that exists both within the power structure of big-time college football and yet stands entirely outside of it. The MAC plays nationally televised games on Tuesday night in order to attract attention, and each of its teams schedules at least one early-season cash-grab contest, usually at a Big Ten school, in order to cover its athletic department budget. And yet if a MAC team — say, Bowling Green — were to beat a Big Ten school and go undefeated, virtually no one outside the Toledo metropolitan area would consider Bowling Green worthy of a BCS berth, let alone a shot at the national championship.

There is no conceivable way for a MAC team to win a national title in college football’s current structure, and with the rise of the superconference and the growing potential of a four-team playoff (perhaps comprised of major conference champions), that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. It is difficult to think of any group of teams, in any American sport, that begins each season without clinging to even the slimmest possibility of winning a national championship. Which begs the question: What is the purpose of “mid-major” football supposed to be? Is it enough to subsist in the gray area between small-time and big-time, or do these schools eventually have to choose a direction?

Roughly 25 years ago, the powers that be at the University of Akron decided to chase after the dream of big-time college football. Never mind that Akron was, at that point, a grubby urban school with little on-campus housing; never mind that the Zips played their home games in the Rubber Bowl, a nondescript concrete edifice three miles south of town, set near a former Goodyear Zeppelin hangar and the Soap Box Derby track. Akron was going to become the first football program in America to jump from Division I-AA to Division I-A, and they were going to play as an independent, and from there, well, who knew how far they might go?

In the process, the administration shunted off longtime coach Jim Dennison, who had led the Zips to the Division I-AA playoffs in 1985.3 They brought in the biggest name they could lure to Northeast Ohio: Gerry Faust, whose jump from a high-school football program in Cincinnati to the University of Notre Dame resulted in such a spectacular flameout that no major program has tried it since (one of his assistant coaches, for a year, was a young Terry Bowden). “They wanted to go as big as they could,” Dennison recalls. “And that was a mistake.”

It is hard to say precisely why Akron presumed this would be a viable plan, except perhaps that they had no template to follow. Regardless, they handled the transition so badly that the program has yet to recover. (Other schools have since made the same leap and had national success: Boise State, for instance, became a I-A program 10 years after the Zips did.) By the time I arrived in Akron to work at the local newspaper in 1995, the Zips had begged into the MAC and were mired at a comfortable level of mediocrity;4 in one of the most passionate sports towns I’ve ever seen, Akron football barely made a ripple. During the year I covered the team, they had one outstanding player, a defensive lineman named Jason Taylor, a late bloomer from Pittsburgh who, by the time he finished his career, was competing in an entirely different universe from his teammates. The Zips have always had trouble recruiting locally despite the wealth of talent in Northeast Ohio; in a region accustomed to losing teams, the Zips have lost for so long that most people don’t bother to pay attention anymore. “As you lose, it becomes what people associate Akron with,” Bowden says. “So far it’s been easier to recruit further from home.”

The people at Akron would like to believe things have changed, and in many ways, they’re right: The campus has been so completely transformed since the late 1990s that it is hardly recognizable. There is an actual grassy quad instead of an intersection at its center, and there are new dorms being constructed, and there is both a lush football fieldhouse and that brand-new stadium. Bowden has promised an up-tempo offensive style, and on top of his hiring, Akron has brought in Jim Tressel as something called the Vice President of Strategic Engagement, one of those Mike Judge job titles conjured up to stash the former Ohio State coach until his five-year show-cause penalty expires. (How much he’ll be involved with the football program, Bowden didn’t really say. But I can’t imagine recruits won’t be spending more time in Tressel’s office discussing the implementation of university planning than they will at any other MAC school.)

All that’s missing, the people at Akron say, are actual victories. And if/when those occur … well, then what?

Last Saturday, Akron held a fund-raiser, a Breakfast with the Bowdens, with Terry and his father Bobby and his brothers Tommy (formerly the coach at Clemson) and Jeff (an assistant under Bobby, now on Terry’s staff at Akron). All had coached at major college football programs, and all had coached through rebuilding jobs, and all are gifted with the speaking ability of southern Baptist preachers. Bobby Bowden told the story of his early years at Florida State, when the program was barely alive, when people cared so little that he slipped a pair of complimentary game tickets under a pair of windshield wipers at the mall, then came out and found six more tickets on the same windshield. Tommy talked about the year he led Tulane to an undefeated season in 1998, and Terry got up and roused the sleepy congregation.

“WE’VE GOT TO BUY TICKETS AND INVITE 10 OF OUR FRIENDS! FOOTBALL’S SUCH AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE MISSION OF THE UNIVERSITY … WE’RE THE WINDOW THROUGH WHICH PEOPLE VIEW THE GREAT THINGS THAT GO ON HERE.”

Terry Bowden, not surprisingly, didn’t want to speculate when I asked him what the ceiling might be for a program like Akron’s. His only focus, he said, was to win one more game than Akron had won the season before, and to make the Zips competitive in the MAC conference, and however the MAC (or Akron) might be defined in the future wasn’t really up to him.5 “I think the thing for Akron right now is to be the best where you are,” says Dennison, the former coach. “No one’s going to want a school like Akron until they can actually put some people in the stands.”

And yet there is that dream to sell. Given the quality of the facilities (which I’m told outpace any other school in the MAC) and Bowden’s skills as a recruiter, it is possible that the Zips will become a power in the conference, and if all goes swimmingly and they continue to feed resources to the program, there is a slim chance that the Zips will someday have the opportunity to step up to a larger conference with ties to the BCS. Even if this is years away, and admittedly a long shot in the first place, and even if no one will ever say it on the record, I’m guessing this is the pipe dream of the Akron administration. And if it seems inconceivable, consider Temple, which was once booted from the Big East, landed in the MAC, succeeded, and then was invited back into the Big East.

All of this gets at the overarching question of whether these mid-major schools chasing the dream of big-time college football are engaging in a worthy pursuit or throwing money into a black hole. What should a school like Akron want, in this day and age? If football is the window to the university, should that window be as large as possible, even if there are the inevitable compromises that come along with upsizing, even if it’s possible you might spend millions to gain access to the BCS power structure and never fully arrive? Or is a Tuesday night in October enough of a porthole on its own?6

Last Saturday at Breakfast with the Bowdens, a bearded man stood up and declared himself a “longtime, long-suffering season-ticket holder” and thanked Bowden for attempting to rescue a program that’s never really seemed to figure out what it’s supposed to be. The bearded man rambled for a few minutes, but his overarching tone could best be described as “hopeful.”

Afterward, I walked outside and cut across the beautiful new quad and past the $60 million football stadium, where I happened upon an older man staring out at the vast expanse and muttering to himself.

“Goodness gracious gravy,” he was saying. “What a waste of money.”

Filed Under: College Football, Sports