What, Exactly, Is Akron Up To?
The plight of the mid-major college football program
By Michael Weinreb on April 20, 2012
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.