For quite some time, the Zips nickname attached to the University of Akron has served as an apt label for the school’s football program.
Akron very rarely scores in big bunches. The team rarely offers anything of value to its fans. Achievements — feats worthy of being remembered — hardly ever surface.
Entering the 2015 season, Akron football had won eight games in a year how many times?
Akron had won how many bowl games? Zip.
Akron owned how many winning seasons since 2005? Zip.
The results were bad (read: nonexistent) enough, but after a miserable 2011 season, the program became an even greater object of national humiliation (if that was humanly possible). The school fired then-head coach Rob Ianello when he was traveling to the site of his mother’s funeral.
How many good things did anyone have to say about Akron football or the Akron athletic department at the time?
When Terry Bowden was hired as Ianello’s replacement, the school had landed as big a name as it could have hoped to. Yet, it’s not as though the move was greeted with euphoria and an expectation of an instant metamorphosis. Bowden failed to achieve a winning season — or even a .500 campaign — in each of his first three years in Akron. Entering 2015, how many good reasons supported the idea that the program was about to achieve something special?
When the team lost its first two games — decisively, to Oklahoma and Pittsburgh — tangible evidence of a turnaround remained impossible to find. Even on the morning of Sunday, November 1 — after a deflating 14-6 loss to Central Michigan — a 3-5 team offered no indication that it was about to attain a small but real measure of immortality.
Then it happened.
Akron won its final four regular season games to post a 7-5 record and earn a bowl game, just the second in program history. Akron lost its only previous bowl game, so when Terry Bowden took his team to Boise for the Potato Bowl, the Zips had a chance to win their first-ever bowl game. They beat Utah State, 23-21, and suddenly, all those milestones which had never been reached — the bowl win, an eight-win season, walking away from a year knowing that expectations had been exceeded to the fullest possible extent — became markers of an unforgettable journey.
Terry Bowden might be overshadowed by his daddy, and his career might remain stained for his wayward ways at Auburn, but he can coach. Bobby is the patriarch of the Bowden family, but Tommy (1998 at Tulane) and Terry (1993 at Auburn) also coached perfect FBS regular seasons, matching Dad in 1999 at Florida State.
Of all the seasons Terry Bowden has coached since his “perfecto” in 1993, his 2015 masterwork with Akron might be the best.
How did Team Terry do it? With a minimalist identity.
“MACTION” is the rallying cry and hashtag for wild and crazy Mid-American Conference football fun. It’s the 80-yard run with five bad attempts at a tackle. It’s the 71-yard pass when a cornerback tips the ball into a receiver’s hands. MACTION is synonymous with noisy and colorful football entertainment in an age when the forward pass is the ascendant tactical component of college football.
What’s particularly fascinating about Terry Bowden’s work at Akron in 2015 is that the Bowden family is known for being a creative coaching family. Bobby was consistently fearless, a “Riverboat Gambler” who embraced the thrill of the “puntrooskie.” When Tommy notched a perfect 1998 season at Tulane, his offensive coordinator was Rich Rodriguez, a man who changed the way college football was played several years later at West Virginia.
The Bowdens didn’t subscribe to the old-world football maxims of Bear Bryant, a man Bobby revered. Though Bobby certainly fielded strong defenses at Florida State, Papa Bowden lived and coached in the new age, not in the 1960s. Bowdens pursued victory with their gadgets and deep tool-boxes, not with the minimalist gospel of The Bear and Pat Dye (Terry’s predecessor at Auburn, interestingly enough).
Yet, how did Akron win eight games and a bowl last year? No — not with BowdenBall, but the old-time religion.
The Zips thrived by making fewer mistakes than their opponents; by taking the ball away and not giving it up; by overcoming a pedestrian offense in a MACTION world with their defense.
Let’s go to the stats:
Akron led the MAC in fewest yards allowed (331) and the most sacks registered (33). The Zips were third in the conference in interceptions (14) and second in turnover margin (plus-10).
It gets better.
Akron not only led the MAC in rushing defense; it was the only team to allow under 100 rushing yards per game (92.9), 22 yards better than the second-place team in that category. The Zips’ defense was the only one in the MAC to allow third-down and fourth-down conversion rates under 40 percent.
In a period of college football’s evolution when scoring is supposed to carry the weight of a team’s aspirations more often than not, Akron won eight games while averaging just under 24 points per game — a conspicuously pedestrian figure. The Zips converted just under 37 percent of their third downs. That’s not supposed to lead to a moderately successful season. It’s definitely not supposed to lead to the first eight-win season and the first bowl win in the FBS history of a program, dating back to 1987.
Yes, Akron must replace 15 of 22 starters from last season. Yes, the Zips have only four starters back on defense. Yes, Akron must replace its entire offensive line. Yet, when a team succeeds with a minimalist approach — avoiding the bad more than producing the good, thwarting opponents more than enhancing its own arsenal — it’s not outlandish to think that sound habits can maintain a culture of success for the Zips.
The nickname doesn’t fit the program anymore, much as Terry Bowden is no longer winning in the way his father and brother once did.
Minimalist magic is alive in Akron. Can this team continue to Zip up opposing offenses and put them in the deep freeze? Let’s see if the anti-MACTION program in this Group of Five conference has a successful second act in store for the 2016 season.