Many years ago, Akron coach Terry Bowden traveled with the West Virginia Mountaineers for a game against Oklahoma in Norman in 1978. Just a walk-on then, Bowden watched from the sideline as Billy Sims and J.C. Watts dominated his team.
Sent in with what he called “all the scrubs” in the final minutes of the game, Bowden was open on the last play only to have his offensive lineman step in front of the pass – drawing a penalty.
That thrashing was the last time Bowden came to Norman. He’ll return for the season opener for both teams Saturday in what has become a Mid-American Conference tradition: Playing a big-time, non-conference road game. A “money game” as he called it.
“Our players are very used to that,” Bowden said. “It doesn’t mean we’re on an even playing field or the odds aren’t stacked against us.”
Bowden was an assistant coach at Akron in 1986, and after starting his return with a 1-11 season, the Zips have posted back-to-back five-win seasons. The Zips finished last season with five losses in the final six games but did upset Pittsburgh on the road.
It has been a rebuilding process for Bowden, who spent more than a decade away from coaching and as a broadcaster before being called back to the sideline.
“We’re about halfway there,” Bowden said. “We didn’t start halfway up, we started at the very bottom. We were 1-11 two years in a row. I think we were at the bottom statistically of almost every statistic in the country when I came in. We had just been through two coaches in three years. . . . Nobody wants to sit there. We’re ready to make that move to the next level. I think we’re ready for that move, but we haven’t been there a long time.”
In 28 years as a FBS-level program, Akron has never won more than eight games in a single year. This year, the Zips have a refurbished offense and are picked to finish second in the East Division.
Look for the Zips to keep the ball on the ground, even though the team’s leading runner over the past four years needs to be replaced. Bowden knows that will be no easy task against Oklahoma and coach Bob Stoops, who he said shut him down in the 90s.
“We never beat them after that,” said Bowden, who called his first national championship game when Oklahoma shut down Florida State in 200. “Steve Spurrier never changed. He was always good. But he got a lot better when Bob Stoops became his defensive coordinator. It was the thing that took Florida over the top.”