From talking to him, it’s pretty clear that Terry Bowden has taken to the city of Akron just fine. But for the city of Akron to take to Terry Bowden, the Zips' second year under his leadership will need to improve from 2012’s 1-11 debut.
Akron football has never won more than seven games in a season, so success is measured a bit differently in the 330. The Zips have won a combined 11 games over the past five seasons. Bowden inherited a squad so indoctrinated with losing that simply being competitive seems borderline Pollyanna.
So why is Bowden so upbeat about his team’s long-term chances?
“I feel like I’ve had 15 years of experience in one year, with the difficulties to overcome," he said. "But looking back, you have to see where these young men grew from it and learned from it. They’ll be better from each loss. Nothing’s ever as good for you as wins, but you sure can grow a lot and learn a lot from a loss. These kids ought to be pretty grown up after the last three years.”
Bowden has inherited plenty of challenges in his coaching past, and Akron presents both an opportunity and a puzzle to solve. His first stop as a head coach came at Salem College at age 26, and he went on to negotiate Samford’s move from Division III to Division I-AA in the late 1980s. His success earned him the Auburn gig as the school faced sanctions following Pat Dye's tenure, and Bowden won 20 games in his first two years on the Plains. He was labeled one of the bright young coaches in the country, but the bottom quickly fell out with the Tigers: He left the sidelines in 1998 to become a broadcaster, a job he held for the better part of a decade.
After he rejoined the coaching ranks with a three-year stint at North Alabama, Bowden was named head coach of Akron, a school he coached as an assistant in 1986, on Dec. 22, 2011.
The Zips fired Rob Ianello after just two seasons and a 2-22 record, but the leash for Bowden might be a bit longer given the amount the school has recently invested in the program. The city of Akron has seen a lot of growth over the past few years, and Akron athletic director Tom Wistrcill is in the middle of a critical fundraising campaign, slotted for completion in 2015, with the Zips playing just their fifth season in the $60 million InfoCision Stadium.
“It’s a vibrant community,” Bowden said, “a new stadium, an indoor facility, brand-new locker room, coaches offices. The players feel they have all that there to take care of them. Not only that, but the great football that’s played in our area. At Akron, and I’ve found this true for myself and my children, you’re 30 minutes from downtown Cleveland, where the Cavaliers, Browns and Indians play. Everything’s so close. I was raised in Morgantown, W.V., which was a very similar community to Akron. There are a lot of similarities. I’m so comfortable in the area. Some people think of Akron as the town where the rubber industry left and it went downhill. That’s not true at all. It’s rebounding in a remarkable way.”
The fresh start at Akron wasn’t just important for Bowden's career; it was important for his personal life as well. He’s made a home for himself and lost 55 pounds over the past year, a feat he attributes to cutting Italian food, burgers and milkshakes from his diet.
Bowden’s coaching staff is a who’s-who list of former friends and colleagues, including former NC State head coach Chuck Amato as defensive coordinator, brother Jeff Bowden as special teams coach and former NFL veteran and Florida State standout Terry Buckley as cornerbacks coach. Bowden’s onetime quarterback at North Alabama, A.J. Milwee, enters his first fall as offensive coordinator. And that's not to mention former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, who is still on board as vice president of strategic engagement, which is basically code for fundraising and student affairs.
Still, college football is a results-driven business. Like Charlie Weis at Kansas, Bowden is dealing with the juxtaposition of expectation and reality. The schools both brought in coaches to rebuild, but how far along they are in the rebuilding process is ultimately up to the fans and the athletic director to decide. Regardless, another one-win season won’t cut it with so much at stake in the hopes of respective football revitalization.
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It starts with being competitive. And this year is a litmus test for just how competitive the Zips can be in the MAC. A cursory glance at the schedule doesn’t show more than three or four winnable games, so a different gauge of progress might have to be used.
“I used to cover a bunch of Wake Forest games when I was broadcasting at ABC,” Bowden said. “They stayed in games. They usually were not as talented as people they played in conference but coach Jim Grobe’s goal was to stay in a game so at the end of it they had a chance to win a few. Then they went through two to three years where they won almost all of those close games. The kids had been through the program. So as long as our players learn from those close losses, stay in the game, stay on the team and listen to what we say, we’ll get more of them to fall our way. I believe we have a chance at Akron to attract just as good of athletes at our school as any other program in the conference.”
Wake Forest needed lightning in a bottle to win the ACC in 2006. Coming off three wins in three seasons, Akron would settle for a spark. RICKMAN: Smaller conferences wait for NCAA change; more MAC media day notes