It is time for Terry Bowden to work his program-resurrecting magic at the University of Akron.
Billboards and expensive marketing campaigns will have little effect, and the budget for the latter has dried up, anyway. There is no way to put a positive spin on three consecutive 1-11 football seasons.
At the south end of campus sits the gleaming but nearly empty InfoCision Stadium, a four-year-old, $61.6 million albatross that represents the university’s biggest miscalculation in a decade. (A close second would be the hiring of football coach Rob Ianello, responsible for starting the one-win trend.)
That’s not to suggest the Zips should still be playing in the Rubber Bowl. That’s not to suggest they shouldn’t have fired coach J.D. Brookhart, although his one Mid-American Conference title and .417 winning percentage from 2004-09 looks better by the day.
UA found the type of coach it needed in Bowden, who has the name and the staff to recruit better players and the offensive chops to turn the moribund program around.
Bowden believes that process began last year, when he thinks the Zips’ pre-game mindset flipped from wondering how badly they would be beaten to believing they could win. Four of the 11 losses in 2012 came by eight points or less. They had the University of Tennessee on the ropes until the fourth quarter. At the postseason banquet, the team’s seniors surprised Bowden when they got up to speak, talking of how proud they were to have been part of what is happening at UA.
That could be the case. Bowden might have transformed the atmosphere from the dread and drudgery of Ianello’s two years into hope for the future.
But now he must produce results.
Thirty years ago, then-26-year-old Bowden took over an 0-9-1 team at Salem (W.Va.) College. After going 3-7 in his first season, Salem had two 8-3 seasons.
He achieved the same feat in his next job at Samford, which had won six games in three years before he arrived. Samford was 9-1 his first year, then moved up to Division I-AA, where it had only two losing seasons and twice went to the playoffs in Bowden’s five years at that level.
Bowden, who won a national championship in 1993 with 11-0 Auburn, is now 57. He can’t promise that the turnaround at UA will be as fast as the ones he pulled off before.
“The thing that makes this one hard to gauge is how quickly we compete for the conference championship,” he said during an interview in his office last week. “The conference is at one of the best stages of its existence — seven teams in a bowl.
“The other thing that makes it harder on a coaching staff to create that positive morale is that in the MAC you play tougher teams before you get to your conference.”
UA’s schedule includes nine teams that made bowl appearances last season, three of them winners. The Zips visit Central Florida and Michigan before the MAC schedule begins.
“After three years, two wins is going to be a great feeling,” Bowden said. “That’s going to be the next step.
“How do you gauge when it’s going to happen? I don’t know. I do believe when it does it happens in a big way. I do believe once those kids start winning some close games it will start to happen. It comes not through magic or through some kind of a different attitude by the players; I think they’ve already got that. An additional player here or there, depth on this line … now it comes through the normal building of a football program.”
As he concentrates this season on “little things” that can turn a close loss into a close victory, Bowden knows there is only one way to begin to fill the stadium. And it has nothing to do with his “dad-gum” folksy charm or Hall of Fame father Bobby.
“It’s the old horse and the cart. Only winning’s going to bring people,” he said. “You can market all you want to. If you don’t win, people stop coming.”
The Zips’ soccer team managed to build its following as it developed into a national championship-caliber program, winning the NCAA title in 2010. Until UA basketball season begins, students will be more aware of the next home soccer game than when Bowden’s men take the field.
Bowden understands what he needs besides victories.
“You need a difference-maker,” he said. “A bunch of guys who overachieve and a couple stars. Then you’ve got to get some luck. Luck seems to go with teams that play well.”
Bowden hopes he has found a clone of Kent State’s Dri Archer in Fransohn Bickley, a 5-foot-6, 138-pound freshman receiver from St. Vincent-St. Mary.
“He’s a ‘Wow’ guy. We can’t touch him on the [practice] field,” Bowden said. “I keep thinking, ‘That’s going to look really neat against Michigan.’ He’s a fantastic fella, but he looks like he’s in junior high school.”
To its opponents, UA might be the equivalent of junior high. But Bowden is not giving himself a deadline to win, just as he refrained from doing at his previous four jobs. He seems relatively immune from pressure, although he knows there is plenty at stake, especially with the attendance issue hanging like a dark cloud.
“My career’s on the line. My reputation’s on the line. If you want to throw the stadium in there, too, that’s fine with me, but I didn’t build the thing,” Bowden said. “That’s the greatest thing they did for this program, the stadium and this indoor facility. The ingredients are there. The facilities, the location — an abundance of quality athletes in the area — I’ve got a good staff.
“As long as the school is patient, we’ll win; we’ll be as good as anyone in the conference and that stadium will eventually be filled up.”
Bowden keeps a “secret envelope” in his top desk drawer that holds a piece of paper with the number of victories he expects.
His players have no idea what it says.
He said the prediction is harder now than during his five-plus seasons at Auburn, where there were always three or four Southeastern Conference “gimmes.” Charged with changing a program that has been one of those for most of its existence, Bowden has to feel the urgency, even as he tries to ignore it.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.