Akron football seniors Jatavis Brown and Conor Hundley didn’t see the program with years of ineptitude.
They saw the coach with years of success.
They bought into Terry Bowden’s vision to build the Akron Zips into Mid-American Conference contenders — and their commitment finally paid off this year with the first bowl trip of their careers.
Akron will meet Utah State on Dec. 22 at Albertsons Stadium in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. It’s the Zips’ first bowl appearance in 10 years and just their second postseason trip since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1987.
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By contrast, Boise State is headed to its 16th bowl since joining FBS in 1996.
“There’s been some lows and there’s been some highs throughout the years,” Hundley said. “To be at a bowl game our senior year, it’s pretty awesome. We’ve worked hard to get here, so it makes it that much better.”
Bowden ranks ninth in Division I in career wins as a head coach with 158 (he’s 158-92-2 overall). He previously coached at Salem, Samford, Auburn and North Alabama and spent a decade as an ABC commentator.
His Akron teams have gone 1-11, 5-7, 5-7 and 7-5. He inherited a program that had gone 5-31 in the previous three seasons and never has won eight games at the FBS level.
His connection to Akron: one season as an assistant in 1986.
“They called and asked if I would help revive their program,” Bowden said. “I thought it was a great place to come and be part of building a tradition.”
The past three years marked the first time in his career that he has posted a losing record in that many consecutive seasons. He was 19-13 at Salem, 45-23-1 at Samford, 47-17-1 at Auburn and 29-9 at North Alabama.
Those were the numbers that resonated with recruits.
“Coach Bowden has won everywhere he’s went before,” Hundley said. “He brought in a great coaching staff of guys who were winners, who knew how to win. I knew eventually we’d be a winning program.”
Bowden’s early message: buy into the coaches’ plan and believe the Zips could be winners.
“There’s been tremendous growth in the buy-in and chemistry,” said Brown, a linebacker with 10.5 sacks. “... It was pretty hard, but we all stayed together. We believed in each other. We believed in what the coaches were doing. Everything was falling into place.”
The struggles continued the first half of this season. The Zips started 3-5 while losing competitive games to Pittsburgh (24-7), Ohio (14-12) and Central Michigan (14-6), all bowl teams.
But they reeled off four straight wins in November to clinch a bowl berth, including a 20-0 home win against Kent State that guaranteed the Zips a winning record.
“You try to focus on each game as much as you can, but you know in the back of your head that that’s a big goal of ours (to go to a bowl),” Hundley said. “We knew what we had to do those last four games.”
The winning streak was particularly important to Hundley and Brown, team captains who were part of Bowden’s first recruiting class, played as true freshmen and were out of chances to get to a bowl. Hundley, a running back, is the team’s leading rusher with 883 yards; Brown is a three-time All-MAC first-teamer.
“It feels unreal. It feels unbelievable,” Brown said of the team’s success. “Everybody is happy. We can all see the changes in the environment around here. ... I believe they’re going to compete for the MAC championship in the next couple years, and maybe even next year.”
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl glance
- Who: Utah State (6-6, 5-3 Mountain West) vs. Akron (7-5, 5-3 Mid-American)
- When: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 22
- Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf), Boise
- TV: ESPN
- Series: First meeting
- Tickets: $20-$90, at ticketmaster.com; $24 for FitOne Family Field Day (pre-game NFL combine-type event at 10:30 a.m., lunch and game ticket)
- Notable events: Team arrivals and bowling, Dec. 18; Humanitarian Awards dinner, Dec. 19; Winter sports or go-kart racing day, Dec. 20; Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast, Mash Bash at The Village, Dec. 21
What’s a Zip?
Akron’s unique nickname dates to 1925, when a campus-wide contest led to the “Zippers” moniker. It was a reference to rubber overshoes made by the BF Goodrich Co. and an ode to the city’s reputation as the “Rubber Capital of the World.” The nickname was shortened to Zips in 1950. A kangaroo mascot named Zippy was added in 1953.