The opener this fall will be against Salem (W. Va.) College in a stadium called the Rubber Bowl. The home team will be the Akron Zips, or, as the players are now referring to themselves, the Akron Fighting Zips. And the coach will be that rumpled, lovable 50-year-old with the trademark rasp who fumbled his dream at Notre Dame.
Gerry Faust is facing reality as a retread in Rubber City. After rejecting offers or feelers from eight other schools, Rice, Columbia and Youngstown State among them, Faust accepted Akron's five-year deal worth at least $100,000 per for a chance to show he is a better coach than fate let him be at Notre Dame, where his five-year record was 30-26-1. "It just didn't work out there," Faust says with a shrug. "That happens in life." But if the pressure to win was unbearable at South Bend, where Faust was to be the keeper of the flame, it might be nearly as intense at Akron, where he is expected to ignite one.
The last event of great gridiron significance at Akron (then called Buchtel College) occurred in 1893, when John Heisman (yes, that Heisman) coached the team to a 5-2 season—unless, of course, you count Joe Namath's acting debut in Picnic at Akron's E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall in 1979. In 1987 the Zips expect to become the first team to step up in class from Division I-AA to I-A since the NCAA split lesser football schools from the big-timers in 1978. Says university president William V. Muse, who oversees a student body of 26,000 that ranks Akron 38th in enrollment among the nation's colleges and universities, "The reputation of a university is shaped by athletic participation. Not just the level of success, but the level of play."
Not to mention the level of publicity. Enter Faust, who is, says athletic director Dave Adams, "too good a salesman to pass up." The unfortunate loser in the deal was Jim Dennison, the most successful coach—8-4 in '85 and 80-62-2 over 13 years—Akron has ever had. "I told a friend I almost wished I had lost; then I could understand it better," Dennison says. Shocked by his ouster, Dennison accepted a job as an associate athletic director, which, according to reports, the administration told Faust was something that Dennison wanted. According to Dennison, he didn't. Zip fans booed Dennison's monotonous I-formation offense, but they rallied to the coach's defense in newspaper polls and letters. Even Michigan coach Bo Schembechler lambasted Muse over the move. "If anybody should have been fired, it should've been that guy," said Schembechler. "The mess in athletics isn't only caused by crooked college coaches. He said he wanted instant respectability? That guy shouldn't be the president of a junior college. He'll leave in two or three years with the place in a shambles."
Akron's chance of joining the likes of Toledo and Bowling Green in the I-A Mid-American Conference in 1987 already looks dim because MAC members fear that Faust's and his assistants' high salaries would throw their own payrolls out of whack. So the team will probably have to go it as an independent and slate lots of road games to satisfy the NCAA's requirement that a I-A school play at least 60% of its schedule against I-A foes. Getting crushed regularly in other folks' backyards won't make filling the Rubber Bowl (capacity 36,000) any easier on those occasions when the Zips are at home.
But nothing seems to discourage Faust, always irrepressibly upbeat. His Notre Dame experience behind him, he feels he can build a successful program at Akron as he did at Cincinnati's Moeller High, where he won four state championship games without a loss in, of all places, the Rubber Bowl. "I'm sort of meant to go back through that again," he says. He has the talent-rich recruiting area of northeast Ohio to comb. "We're a sleeping giant," he says. As for the city of Akron (pop. 227,000), which no longer turns out tires for the motorized masses, he says, "With all the lakes and hills, it's really a pretty area."
Last week Faust spent an afternoon in Akron's student center, addressing a sparse lunchtime crowd and fielding questions that he invariably lauded as "super." Then he was off to spring practice. Spreading himself too thin and stretching his players too far helped do him in at Notre Dame. But Faust is a doer, not a worrier. "I'm excited about being here," he says. Until his family moves east from South Bend in July, he'll continue to share a room with an assistant at the downtown Holiday Inn. "I know what I'm doing now," says Faust. "That's where comfort comes from."
Comfort for Faust in '86 will be eight or nine wins, a reasonable expectation based on the strength of 16 starters returning from Dennison's last squad. From the Gipper to the Zippers, the standards remain the same. And if those wins don't materialize, the OUST FAUST buttons that flowered during his Notre Dame days surely will. Too bad, but the jury's still out on Gerry.