Coach Terry Bowden is starting his fifth season at the University of Akron. But in the grand scheme of the football program’s rebirth, this is essentially year two.
It is one year after the breakthrough, and since it had been a decade since the Zips posted a winning record, it should be known as “The Breakthrough.”
UA did more than go 8-5 in 2015. It made its first bowl appearance since 2005 and earned the first bowl victory in its Division I-A history when it defeated Utah State 23-21 in Boise, Idaho. Winning five in a row to end the season, the Zips’ eight victories were their most since moving into the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1987.
All brought reason to rejoice, especially after three consecutive 1-11 seasons, two under former coach Rob Ianello and another in Bowden’s first year in 2012.
But Bowden said Tuesday that all that happened in 2015, including the trip to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, is in the past.
Going into Saturday’s season opener against VMI at InfoCision Stadium he looks at the program’s sporadic success — with postseason appearances in 1968, 1976, 1985, 2005 and 2015 — and realizes that this might be the more pivotal season.
“Now we’ve got bigger goals, now we’ve got higher expectations,” Bowden said. “Can Akron be one of the programs that sustains success? To come out there and win again, that’s the next phase of our program.
“We’ve gotten to a winning record, but one season does not a dynasty make. One bowl win does not a dynasty make.”
Bowden believes he’s changed the losing culture, but admits he’s not sure if the changes have truly taken hold.
“You don’t know how fragile that is. We now win, but will a couple of losses throw us right back into that old thing?” he said.
“That old thing” sounds like a ratty old kangaroo sweatshirt. But what Bowden referred to was really the no-hope, here-we-go-again mentality of expecting the worst. The atmosphere that makes a player ask himself if all the sweat equity is worth it.
An atmosphere of trust in the coaching staff and trust among players seems to have been established. But to push the program forward, to make 2015 more than just another blip on the postseason history list, Bowden will need leadership from his senior class, from his seven returning starters on offense and defense to carry that legacy forward.
He will need to make an example of the work ethic of big-play linebacker Jatavis Brown, a fifth-round draft choice of the San Diego Chargers. Brown was 5-foot-11 and 189 pounds when he arrived from Belle Glade, Fla., and left as the Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year, a 228-pound senior who could run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds.
Brown became the eighth Zip drafted by the NFL since 1997, joining Jason Taylor, Dwight Smith, Jake Schifino, Charlie Frye, Domenik Hixon, Andy Alleman and Reggie Corner.
“He’s a self-made man, he worked hard every day,” Bowden said of Brown. “Our players saw how he played. We can use him as a example of what players have to do if they want to reach their levels and if they want to help us reach our levels,” Bowden said.
Bowden was talking about a level of success, the level he’s trying to get the Zips to sustain. He hopes that goal is not as difficult to achieve as the previous hurdle of a winning season and going to UA’s first bowl since 2005.
So the stress on Bowden and his staff has not lessened. The pressure is as great as ever.
“Only winning can strengthen that belief that you’re going to win,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re there yet. I don’t know at what point programs become programs that always win and [not] just programs that win occasionally. Right now we have to be honest and say we’re a program that just won one year.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.