The term "program-building win" is thrown around a lot and not many really know what it means or if a win can really be characterized as "program-building." To say a win is "program-building" means that the certain program, be it in college or the professional ranks, has come a long way in a few short years and the program gets a huge win that finally pushes them over the hump.
The Akron Zips football program experienced a true program-building win yesterday in a 21-10 victory over the previously 3-1 Pittsburgh Panthers. The offense didn't look great but the defense sure did, holding dark horse Heisman candidate and Pitt running back James Conner to just 92 yards on 25 carries. Pitt couldn't do anything against the Zips defense and it was really a dominating performance against a team that's certainly going to a bowl game this year.
Everyone knows about the depths of the Akron program. When you hear the statistics though, it's still unfathomable. It has been nine years since Akron has been to a bowl game or even had bowl eligibility, the fourth longest streak in the nation. Hell, even Eastern Michigan went 6-6 in 2011. Akron hasn't done that since 2005. Every other MAC team has gone to a bowl game (other than EMU) in that period, and just think about how many bowl games there are every year.
Over a four-year span from 2009-2012 (unfortunately the four that I was an Akron student), the Zips compiled a record of 6-42. You only need six wins in a season to gain bowl eligibility; Akron got to six wins in four years. Three straight 1-11 seasons were program-killers, and some fans even thought it may be wise to drop down to the FCS level.
But the the winter of 2011 changed everything. Rob Ianello was sacked and the man with the wonderful hair Terry Bowden was brought on to resurrect the program from the dead. While he had another 1-11 season to start off his tenure at Akron, Bowden's team looked a lot more competitive than the one of the past season. Last year's 5-7 mark left Akron supporters feeling great about the future, especially as they were just two yards away from beating Michigan (which would have been a program-builder). Now Bowden has some momentum with this win over Pitt and could be the man to end Akron's bowl drought.
Wins over power-conference schools don't come often for Akron. Only two times (now three) in program history has Akron beaten a power-conference team. The first was in 2006 at North Carolina State, the second six years ago at Syracuse. The Zips aren't quite on, say, Northern Illinois' level with beating the big boys, but they are getting there. Credit Bowden for instilling in his players the mindset that the team can compete with anyone they match-up against. Gone are the days where Akron goes into a Big Ten or ACC school looking for just a payday. With this win, the culture of losing and losing badly is now officially in the past.
A win over Pitt is the same as a win over Howard when looking at the final standings, but beating a seemingly bowl-bound team with one of the best running backs (and receivers) in the nation is a huge step. No, Pitt isn't going to be one of the teams in the College Football Playoff. But they'll contend in the ACC and should be line for a late-December bowl game.
The win won't pay dividends just right now either. Looking into the future, this game could have huge implications in the recruiting world. Bowden has made Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania (huge high school football hotbeds) priorities in recruiting. Akron beating a team like Iowa State or Wake Forest, while still a win over a power-conference team, wouldn't mean as much as beating Pitt because they both share the same recruiting area. When a recruit has to decide between Pitt and Akron, more are going to seriously look at Akron because of that game yesterday.
Suddenly, Akron is not a laughingstock anymore. Yeah, they were ragged on for a good four years or so by the other fans, but the Zips' time is now. A bowl game is well within reach now and, if they are able to pick up some conference road wins, a division title is feasible. Who would have thought we would be talking about the Akron Zips as contenders for the MAC East division title?
But Akron shouldn't be complacent. Even though home dates with Eastern Michigan and Miami dot the schedule in the next two weeks, the Zips cannot rest on their laurels. Too many times teams come out the week after a big win and lay a clunker (see: Central Michigan). If Bowden wants to reach a bowl game, these next two games are must-wins. They should be easy, but nothing is ever given in this conference.
The win over Pitt really is a program-builder. From the rest of this season onto future seasons, this win will continue to pay off.