Bowden takes the higher road
DETROIT -- Terry Bowden has apparently been running -- he's lost 50 pounds and counting -- but in nearly 19 months on his latest job, he's neither run nor hidden from Akron's place as probably the nation's worst FBS football program.
As good as life is at the top for Alabama, much of the rest of the SEC, Oregon, Ohio State and the like, it's just as bad at the bottom. The Zips have won three games since 2009 -- and won three in 2009. Akron last won a game vs. a Div. I FBS opponent in the 2010 season finale.
Bowden was hired in Dec. 2011 to change that, of course, and that starts with finding better players, recruiting them to Akron and keeping them once they've arrived. For a multitude of reasons, Akron simply hasn't had the players to compete in the improving Mid-American Conference.
But a day after Kansas coach Charlie Weis -- whose one-win team also failed to beat an FBS team last season -- referred to his first Kansas team as "a pile of crap" at Big 12 Media Days, Bowden said he would not and has not gone there in looking at what he's had on hand.
Weis said he's asked recruits, 'Have you taken a look at that pile of crap out there? Have you taken a look?
"If you don't think you can play here, where do you think you can play?"
It, clearly, was far from the most politically correct answer. And it made for a great discussion with Bowden on Tuesday.
"It's not up to me to tell anybody what to say or how to approach it, but no. I wouldn't say that," Bowden said at the Mid-American Conference's Media Day event. "That's not the way I believe in doing things. I don't believe I would say that. Young people don't forget.
"I can't say some of the things I've thought -- not just on this job but at other times. And I've probably said things under my breath that would get all sorts of people in trouble. But to say a bunch of kids are a pile of crap? No, I wouldn't do that.
"They're big boys. They have scholarships. And you don't ever say, 'OK, let's go ahead and just lose with these guys because they've already put in the work.' But you have to use judgment in how you handle it."
The Kansas-Akron link isn't just in the losing. Bowden took over at Akron for Rob Ianello, who went 2-22 in two years and is now a Kansas assistant under Weis. Both programs have looked to the junior-college ranks and the transfer market for much-needed talent infusions. But Bowden, who coached an unbeaten but bowl-banned Auburn team in the 1990s, said he draws on personal experience when it comes to directly addressing his team's talent deficiency.
"I remember what happened when I was a walk-on at West Virginia in the mid-1970s," Bowden said. "I was 5'5, 175 and I thought I was a running back. One day in practice the starting tailback got hurt and the offensive coordinator yelled to the sideline to get another back in there. I was always ready because I just wanted a chance, I had my helmet on and I beat everybody else to the field.
"I was halfway there and he looked at me yelled, 'No, give me a good back.' And I've never forgotten that the rest of my life. Never. I swore I wouldn't do that to a kid.
"If I have a senior who isn't very good, there might come a time I have to tell him, 'Son, you had your chance. And now I have a freshman or someone else who's better than you.' But also if there's a senior there who has put in the work trying to fulfill a dream, you give him every chance to get some taste of doing that.
"This is a business. They fire you for losing. I don't think over this past year I made any decisions that cost us wins. Believe me, there was a moment when it crossed my mind to just get rid of everybody but the freshmen, still lose (11) games and come out of it experienced and stronger for the future, but that's not the way to do things."
Bowden said he's taken some calls from potential transfers simply out of necessity; too many players from Akron's 2009-11 recruiting classes are gone from the program. His family name and roots in the football business in the South have helped Akron at least get on the radar for some of those players; what happens from there often comes down to individual circumstances.
The best way to get better players going forward -- from the high school ranks, the junior-college ranks and those looking to transfer -- is simply to win.
"A good ball player wants to come to a winning program," Bowden said. "We have to find a way to be that. The great thing is that we can win here. I would have never taken this job if I didn't truly believe that.
"Man, 1-11 (last season) was brutal. But where we are, that gives us a unique opportunity going forward. Every victory from here on out will be special. Every one is a milestone. You'd probably rather be that program that only gets milestones from conference titles and big bowl games, but we're not that. Right now, we're trying to win one game then win two. When we win two, that will be incredible. Think about that."
Bowden came in willing to shake every hand, kiss every baby and sell Akron football to every potential ticket buyer as a potential winner. He said the players have bought in to his staff's scheme and philosophies, and that eventually the university's commitment to facilities and to the program will pay off. He said the Zips were in too many close games last year not to have at least a couple turn in their favor, and he said he's gone along with the new start by shedding as many as 55 pounds from that 5'5 frame he still has.
The secret to Bowden's weight loss?
"Not eating as much," he said. "I figured if I was going to help this program get to winning, I had to get my weight down. It's good for my heart. I had high blood pressure and lots of bad stuff that comes when you let yourself get overweight."
Some wins would help, too, but Bowden remains convinced they'll come, eventually, and that they'll come from hard work and hard lessons learned during these tough times.
He's certainly not calling what he has a pile of crap.
"The players are the most important thing," Bowden said. "We all have to remember as coaches that it's about the players. When I was young I'm not sure I always lived by that. I was 26, 27 and coaching and wanted nothing but to make a name for myself. A reputation.
"The easy way for us at Akron would have been to just get rid of everybody and start over. But the older you get you see these players as the most important thing, especially if we're going to say we're going to treat them like our own children. If we're going to say we have to live it, right?
"Those guys, the upperclassmen still around who have won nothing, one thing they have done is stayed the course. They've upheld their commitment to the school. We had seniors stand up at the banquet (after last season) and say they were so grateful, that (2012) was the best year they ever had. We didn't win but one game, so I was a little confused at first. But then I thought about it and I realized what they meant. And it meant a ton to me and to our staff.
"They left with their heads held high, like they had started the ball rolling. That's why you stay with the guys and you're supposed to stay with them."