How #MACtion became a thing

TOLEDO, Ohio – This is the story of a blogger, a catch phrase, an innovation and of an old football that a quarterback wasn’t quite ready to send to retirement on top of his parents’ fireplace.

This is the story of the low-budget, low-profile Mid-American Conference not only embracing its proverbial 15 minutes, but maximizing and monetizing it. The MAC did not invent midweek football; it did not perfect it, either. But in more than its own little corners of a few Midwestern states, the MAC has benefited from a perfect storm of wild games, notable players, social media buzz and a concentrated effort to put its biggest games on national television on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, when Football Nation probably doesn’t have anything else to do.

This is not the story of how a bunch of things fell into place and a little-known BCS rule helped Northern Illinois play in last year’s Orange Bowl, nor is it the story of this year’s unbeaten Northern Illinois team, which might be better than last year’s, is currently ranked No. 18 and has a real shot to crash the BCS again.

This is the story of how anyone besides alumni, parents of players and opposing coaches ever came to realize that Northern Illinois was actually pretty good at football.

This is the story of how #MACtion became a thing.

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College football’s big boys have big stadiums, big shoe and apparel contracts and really big-dollar TV deals. Saturday spotlight games at 3:30 p.m. Eastern have long been a staple; in recent years, Saturday night prime-time games have been very good to those fortunate enough to play in them, both in ratings and in recruiting. Every game is a big event; every top-tier, BCS-level program is itself a big business.

Attendance for last year’s MAC Championship Game was 18,132. And that was with a trip to the Orange Bowl on the line.

Life is different for mid-majors like the 13 football playing schools in the MAC, many of which are much more “mid” than major. Full operating budgets resemble what Ohio State spends on athletic tape and text messaging. With six MAC members in Ohio, there’s stiff competition not just for recruits but for whatever football dollar and publicity the Buckeyes, Browns and Bengals don’t get.

When Rick Chryst took over as MAC Commissioner in 1999, he helped the conference work a contract with ESPN that would bring MAC football to the national stage on a limited basis; it started with a few games a year and the conference’s championship game, which was then being played at a home campus site. Most of the games were scheduled for Wednesday or Thursday nights, which brought grumbling from coaches about short weeks and broken routines and from administrators about long bus rides on school nights and players missing class time.

Chryst saw opportunity in imperfection. He saw a bunch of programs struggling to even stay in Div I-A and a league in flux, but he saw the chance to bend a few schedules and showcase some pretty good talent. A 13-1 Miami-Ohio team quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger in 2003 played three midweek games before it played a Thursday night league title game, and that helped. More good quarterbacks and high-scoring games followed. A game was played on the night of the 2008 presidential election. A few programs improved, and a more concentrated effort to play big MAC games in November on national TV began.

Around 80 midweek games were played under the first contract, which ran through 2010. A renewal brought more games, and when Chryst stepped down in 2009 and was replaced by Jon Steinbrecher, growing that mid-week TV package wasn’t as much an idea as it was a necessity.

“Through good scheduling, good luck and good players we have been in position to have our league title races play out on national TV, and we have that again this year,” Steinbrecher said. “The quality of our product has grown, and it’s quite remarkable how it’s taken off from a buzz standpoint. Even if you’re only talking about certain groups of people or certain areas getting excited for these games, that’s a huge improvement from where it was.

“And our coaches and administrators are absolutely on board. They know these games are reaching households across the country. It’s a great opportunity to sell our football teams, our universities and our conference.”

Each MAC program still makes only about $100,000 a year from the conference’s national TV deal. Steinbrecher would not talk specfics of a potential new deal, saying only that “ESPN has been great for the MAC and we think the MAC is great for ESPN.”

**

In terms of visibility and audience engagement, it went from good to great on Nov. 1, 2011, on an unseasonably warm night in Toledo’s Glass Bowl.

With a national audience watching, a pretty full stadium and a MAC West title on the line, Northern Illinois freshman Tommylee Lewis returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Toledo answered a little over four minutes later with a touchdown pass, and then the Rockets kicked to Lewis again.

He went 95 yards for a score. Again. And then Toledo scored quickly. Again.

By the end of that game, Toledo’s Eric Page had tied some guy named Randy Moss and his MAC record with five touchdown catches. Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish threw for 265 yards and six touchdowns and also ran for 133 yards. Northern Illinois won the game, 63-60, in part because Toledo coach Tim Beckman didn’t let Northern Illinois on its final drive and give his offense another realistic chance. It’s not like they were slowing down; the teams combined for 43 points in the fourth quarter.

In the jubilant postgame locker room, Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren sent his operations director sprinting out of the locker room in search of more footballs; he’d actually run out of souvenir game balls to award. Afterwards, Harnish held his tight but said he’d be returning it to the equipment managers on the bus ride home.

Northern Illinois didn’t have a lot of high-quality game balls, Harnish said, and with big games ahead, the last thing he wanted to run into was a situation where he was forced to play with a ball that wasn’t of especially high quality.

That probably doesn’t happen at Ohio State or Oregon or Alabama — or at a hundred other places.

That’s life in the MAC.

**

This life in the MAC stuff was very interesting to Spencer Hall, an Atlanta resident and Florida grad who in 2005 had started a college football blog called Every Day Should Be Saturday. The blog’s profile and numbers grew through the years, Hall ended up adding a job as editorial director at SBNation, and as Twitter has exploded over the last three years, Hall’s work has emerged as some of the most viewed and most respected in college football’s not-so-little corner of the Internet.

In other words, Hall is everything the MAC used to not be.

“One of the things we always focused on at EDSBS was watching the games most people didn’t watch, and it’s harder to be less watched than the MAC was with the Directional Michigans playing each other on Saturday,” Hall said. “These weekday games go down as the smartest thing the MAC ever did. It’s not just a fix football junkies like me; it’s pretty entertaining, too.”

A long time ago, Hall wrote something about one of the MAC midweek games and called it MACtion. Whether or not he coined the term or borrowed it, he’s not entirely sure. But while Northern Illinois and Toledo were lighting up the scoreboard on Nov. 1, 2011, Hall was tweeting that MACtion often brought those kind of wild games. He even added a hashtag, making it #MACtion, and invited new viewers to sit back and enjoy the unpredictable ride.

Hall has a link from an EDSBS.com post published Oct. 20, 2008 that includes a line that says “the people want their MACtion, and they want it now.” Via Twitter, he’s invited anyone to find an earlier reference to the term.

Hall doesn’t remember when he might have come up with “MACtion”; in fact, he’s not totally sure he was even first to use it.

“It could have been me,” Hall said. “I popularized it, or at least played a part in popularizing it. When I first said it or wrote it, I don’t know. As far as the term, I’m at least partially responsible. And, yes, I guess I am really proud of that.”

#MACtion returns Tuesday night as Ohio plays at Buffalo and Bowling Green visits Miami. Next week, Northern Illinois puts its unbeaten streak on the line against 8-1 Ball State; NIU then plays seven nights later at Toledo.

Expect fireworks.

**

A long time ago, Chryst saw the ACC and Pac-10 and Big East using midweek games as a promotional tool and decided the MAC had better not find itself even further behind. Keeping up wasn’t going to be easy, but he had a plan.

If you can’t beat ’em, play during the week.

MAC Saturday games are shown on various local and regional outlets; some still aren’t shown on TV at all. Individual MAC marketing and PR departments do an admirable job of keeping diehards engaged and trying to sell and show to larger audiences. A few fortunate programs are able to thrive locally while maintaining relevance regionally and nationally; it’s not entirely fair to say nobody in Athens, Ohio ever remembers going to a football game before Frank Solich came to coach Ohio University, but there are few exceptions. Now, Solich has turned Ohio into a winner and recruits in Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska and California.

“We don’t have an airport for almost 100 miles, but we do have visibility,” Solich said. “Those midweek games provide a stage we wouldn’t otherwise have, and we’ve been able to both play in other big games and win enough to make people know about us. If you win, kids will want to come. And in our position, you can’t no to publicity or the chance to showcase our program.”

Said Toledo coach Matt Campbell, who’s had recent recruiting success in Florida, South Carolina and Washington D.C.: “No question, kids have seen us play on a Tuesday night or a Wednesday night. We sell Toledo football, the University of Toledo, our style, our beliefs, and we’re not starting from scratch with the kids. They’ve seen us play and have success on a national stage. A teenager might think a game with 130 points is a little more fun than we as coaches, do, too, and if that helps us in recruiting, then we’ll take it.”

Northern Illinois played its first eight games of 2011 on Saturday. It then played three straight Tuesday games, then back-to-back Friday games. Toledo in 2011 played twice on Tuesday, once on Thursday and three times on Friday. All of that was pretty good practice for the Military Bowl on a Wednesday, which the Rockets won over Air Force by a positively MAC-like score of 42-41 in Campbell’s first game as head coach after Beckman left for Illinois.

Harnish now plays for the Indianapolis Colts, where he travels on charter jets and never has to worry about the team running out of high-quality footballs. He said the MAC is “full of guys who have that chip on their shoulder because the Big Ten and the other big conferences look down on the MAC. When you get those late-season TV games, you know everybody is watching. You might only get one or two TV games, and that makes them even bigger.”

Harnish said he remembers every detail of that 63-60 game, from the early kickoff returns to Toledo’s answers to the teams trading scores. He remembers, too, hugging his teammates tightly in that postgame celebration but keeping an eye on the football he’d been awarded a few minutes earlier.

“I don’t know how the defenses felt after that one,” Harnish said. “But I felt pretty awesome.”

Exactly seven days after that wild 2011 Northern Illinois-Toledo game, Toledo played another Tuesday night home game on national TV against Western Michigan. The Rockets won, 66-63.

Campbell was Toledo’s offensive coordinator then. He realizes those games weren’t bad for his resume — or the MAC’s.

“We didn’t come out playing our best football in either game, so we really did end up in a situation where we had to score on every single possession,” Campbell said. “Maybe that’s an offensive coordinator’s dream, but in the moment it was a lot of pressure. I’m not a big social media guy, but I have heard the MACtion stuff. If that makes anybody tune in, I say that’s great. We’re glad to have you.”

**

MACtion is a thing. In basements and bars and dorm rooms — and not just in these mostly off the beaten path college towns that are traditional MAC cities — games like Ohio vs. Bowling Green and Ball State vs. Northern Illinois will be viewed by many more people than would see them if they were played on a Saturday. The goal of all the coaches and players involved is to get to the league’s annual championship game, now played at Detroit’s Ford Field.

There’s nothing wrong, though, with a little exposure along the way. The attendance for last year’s MAC Championship game, especially considering Kent State hadn’t had a team playing for a MAC title in 40 years, was disappointing. The game itself was not, as Northern Illinois won in double overtime.

More than 1.2 million people watched on TV.

There’s a little genius in playing it on a Friday night.

There’s history in the MAC, and there was long before Marshall had Moss and then went unbeaten with Chad Pennington, before Miami landed Roethlisberger in part because Roethlisberger was a high school receiver while the coach’s son played quarterback.

The coaches of the SEC’s current division leaders, Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel, were not only teammates on that 1972 Kent State team but Pinkel followed Saban as the coach at Toledo. Pinkel’s 1995 Toledo team won the first overtime game in NCAA Div. I-A history to complete an 11-0-1 season. An unbeaten team with a tie and an overtime win in same season is certainly MACtion, right?

That ’95 Toledo team team is notable for at least one other thing. Its first MAC game, a win over Western Michigan, was played on a Thursday night. This was back before multiple national networks had games every Thursday. This was well before Tuesday and Wednesday and the occasional Friday game, too. In 1995, Harnish was seven. Campbell was a sophomore in high school. Twitter and blogs were about as realistic as the thought that anybody outside of a MAC campus would ever watch MAC football.

Now, anyone can own a “Get Some MACtion” t-shirt. They’re available for $17.95 on the league’s website.

The conference has applied for a trademark on the MACtion term, and Steinbrecher said that’s “still being all sorted out.”

Spencer Hall wouldn’t mind having at least a t-shirt. For the next three Tuesday and Wednesday nights, he’ll be watching.

So, too, will more football junkies than ever did before.