Walking through the seventh floor of Ford Field for the second time in two years for MAC Media Day, I was looking for a fresh angle to cover this particular event.
Unlike other conference media days, the MAC Media Day takes a (little) less of a serious air, and fans, as well as reporters, take equal cuts with each school's representatives. This unique opportunity allows those covering the MAC landscape to see multiple sides of coaches and players, which lead me to this idea: What if we took everyone from this media day and gave them clichéd high school superlatives, like "Most popular," "class clown," and "most theatrical?" After all, the MAC Media Day tends to serve as a type of reunion for the athletic departments, coaches and players, sort of how like high school reunions serve to be a social event where you see how the popular kids adjusted since graduation (because let's face it... do you ever see anybody you want to see at a high school reunion?) With that being said, let's dole out the awards!
Most Popular: Dino Babers, head coach of Bowling Green State University.
It was near impossible to get ahold of Dino Babers during MAC Media Day, unless you were willing to wait for over a half-hour for a three or four minute interview. The closest I ever got to him was looking at his table... from Ball State's table across the aisle. There is good reason for this sudden interest however; Bowling Green State University was selected to fly away with their division-as well as the MAC Championship over rival Toledo-by reporters in the preseason poll released an hour before the opening speech by the commissioner.
For sure, this is not a bad place to start for Babers, who during his last head coaching gig at Eastern Illinois University (hi Tony Romo!) took the Panthers from worst to first in two years, winning the Ohio Valley Conference both times, and compiling 8,200+ yards of total offense last year alone. It will be interesting to see how Babers, an Art Briles-protégé, adjusts to the FBS style and speed of play as a head coach. He set the bar high at MAC Media Day, saying that he wanted to run 200 plays (200!!!) in his first game this season. We will see if the #FalconFast era flies off to a fast start. Speaking of that...
Most Likely To Succeed: Matt Johnson, starting QB of the Bowling Green State University Falcons.
Another reason why the Falcons were hard to get a hold of was one Matt Johnson, who up until last season was 10-for-28, 119 yards, and 1 touchdown. That was before he exploded last season, stepping in to replace then starting quarterback Matt Schillz partway through game one.
Playing in all fourteen games, and starting thirteen of them, Johnson completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 3,467 yards and a 25-7 touchdown to interception ratio, more than earning his place as the starter. His performance won him MAC Player of the Week three times during the season, as well as the MAC Championship MVP after a five-touchdown destruction of Northern Illinois' defense. Johnson also finished fourth all time in BG history in single season passing yards, sixth all time for single season TD passes, and fifth all time in completion percentage in a single season.
This year, the sports management major has been placed on both the Maxwell Award Watch List and the O'Brien Award Watch List, and was named a top 40 quarterback by the CFPA, as well as a First Team Preseason All-MAC selection by numerous outlets. If history is any indication, there is a good chance that Johnson could make noise in these deliberations. After all, Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois traveled to New York as a Heisman finalist just last year.
Most Normal: Dan Enos, head coach of Central Michigan University
I was considering calling this superlative "The Guy Next Door," but I feel like that wouldn't have the same effect as "Most Normal." Anyway, the perfect candidate for this superlative is the ever vanilla, ever secretive, ever reliably predictable Dan Enos.
I have met Enos twice, and both times, I have been struck at his normalcy. I mean, good grief, the man goes to jazz festivals. For fun. Who does that willingly? The last thing you would expect him to be is a football coach, and yet, here he is leading the Chippewas. It has been an interesting couple years at the helm for Enos, who went 3-9 for two years, then 6-6 the two years after that. Of course, Enos said the normal coachy things regarding their performance: that they are improving their program, working on winning more games, and developing chemistry. He even made the stereotypical coach laugh when I asked him what the most exciting nonconference matchup for him was... he answered, "Chattanooga because it's the first."
HIs personality, for better, or worse, also seems to show up in media and popular perception of his team's performances. His style of offense and defense is often knocked for being extremely predictable and vanilla, and a .500 finish in the middle of the division and the MAC does not exactly endear him to the students behind him on the sidelines. However, as Enos would probably say, every season is a new season, and they will work to improve.
The Honest Friend: Terry Bowden, head coach of the University of Akron Zips.
If there is one guy you have to see to believe this superlative, this is the man to see. Terry Bowden is not afraid to tell it how it is, and when he does say something, you can hear it for a country mile. Bowden's twang lets out a lot of zingers, and makes him a departure from most of the rest of the MAC coaching crew. (The most personality I saw outside of Bowden was Babers saying "We gained some R-E-S-P-E-C-T" during an interview.)
For instance, while most of the other MAC coaches and the commissioner were extremely approving of the new College Football Playoff System, Bowden called it "a mythical championship" that the MAC "will never be a part of as long as there are only four teams." Bowden suggested that eight, or even sixteen teams should participate in the playoff system, so that there can be the potential for "the classic American underdog" story to come alive. Bowden also echoed the sentiments of Commissioner Steinbrecher regarding the Power Five Conferences, stating that they had too much power to determine what is what in college athletics.
Not even his own team was safe from his endearing honesty: he called out his secondary in one interview, saying that he wished that some of his DB's would step up into leadership roles, especially if the team wants to "learn how to be frontrunners." That's exactly the position that Akron finds itself in; call it the LeBron Effect. Akron garnered three first-place votes, and is expected to finish second to BGSU in the East division, which means that the media sees potential for the Zips to dramatically alter the landscape of the MAC. We'll see if Bowden can rally the troops one more time and show everyone he doesn't talk just to hear himself speak.
Most Likely To Run For President: (tied) Frank Solich, Ohio Head Coach, and Jeff Quinn, State University of New York-Buffalo Head Coach.
You want to talk about a ticket that would be sure to win some votes come Election Day? Solich-Quinn 2916 (or vice-versa) would be any #MACtion fan's dream ballot. Not only do both men dress for success, but they also know how to recruit (political speeches!).
Solich has been extremely effective in building a successful program in Athens, making it to five straight bowl games in five years, with winning seasons all five times, all while figuring out a way to keep a full head of hair on his head as he nears 70 years old. All kidding aside, he is currently chasing down Herb Deromedi's all-time MAC wins record (110,) where he is tied for sixth all time with 66 wins. (Hmmmm, maybe I shouldn't' have wrote that.)
Meanwhile, Coach Quinn has been aggressively selling Buffalo as a destination to local players, stating that they are the true flagship school of New York. He even wears a New York State lapel pin, and refers to Buffalo as the State University of New York. Expectations for the coming season may be lower with the departure of Khalil Mack, but Quinn's confidence in his Bulls would have you believe that they are the frontrunners in the conference, and not a team expected to finish as a middling squad. Sometimes, that's all you need in the MAC; there have been five different winners in the East the last five years.
Biggest flirt: P.J. Fleck, head coach of Western Michigan University.
At an extremely young 34 years old, P.J. Fleck (or Coach Bro, as he is referred to in Mt. Pleasant,) is the heartthrob of the MAC coaching fraternity. Remember during the Big XII Media Day where Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech's head coach, admitted he flirted with recruit's mothers on visits? Well, I can totally imagine Fleck doing that.
Being hired out of Tampa Bay as the youngest FBS football coach in NCAA history last season, Fleck came in as the knight in shining armor to a distressed dame, promising everything possible to revamp the program, saying, "We'll do things you've never seen before!" Well, they almost did... Western lost to an FCS-level school last year, and nearly struck out in the MAC schedule as well. Not even sick new duds could save that sort of performance.
However, he managed to turn it around somehow, and got the 58th best recruiting class in the nation last year, easily the best in MAC history. Fleck said that "commitment is key" to him; that once he sees someone he likes who has a mutual interest in them, he does not give up until they are together. (Such a romantic guy, no?) He gushed over some of his new recruits as if they were girlfriends, and talked about the experiences that he and team shared as if they were an old married couple.
Fleck will be looking to row his boat into the tunnel of football love this year. Of course, anything would be an improvement over last year. (That also leaves the question: what jersey/helmet combo would he wear to a recruiting visit to impress the ladies, if that is indeed his method?)
The One You Don't Want To Mess With: Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of MAC.
That's right. The OG of #MACtion. The don of Mid-America himself, Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher. (By the way, never thought I would write that sentence in my life.)
From the start of his State of the Conference Speech, Steinbrecher let it be known what his thoughts were in regards to pressing issues in college athletics, and he held no prisoners. When asked about negotiations with ESPN about a TV deal, he simply stated there were no updates, and that was that. When asked about the Power Five breaking off and doing their own thing, he stared a hole into that reporter's soul (our very own Alex Alvarado) and emphatically stated "No."
He wasn't done there. The Commissioner used Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Ford to validate his argument that "paying college athletes is against the values ... of college athletics," and therefore incompatible with the conference's values. He also set aside time to talk about cheating in the recruiting process, saying that if any of the four new coaches are caught, "they will be fired."
Finally, when asked about expansion, he stated there are no viable options at this point, and that UMass-Amherst was leaving "well short of [the timeframe] we expected" but hopes they can leave as "good...colleagues." (Yes, there was a pause.)
Steinbrecher may as well have had a "99 Problems" running behind him in the background, he had such a list of grievances. It got to the point in the Q&A where I believed he was about to jump off the table and beat someone up... show them how Cleveland handles things. Thankfully for the poor reporters, the MAC mercifully let them go before their credentials were nailed to the wall by the commissioner himself. In short, don't mess with the commish.
And finally, three non-football related superlatives that I had to address because I've been really very serious:
Best Dressed: Cameron Stingily, starting running back for the Northern Illinois Huskies.
Stingley won the Blue and Green Carpet award for best dressed, with a daring navy blue tuxedo jacket, white shirt, and orange paisley-detailed bowtie, tan slim straight khakis, and dark brown loafers, accompanied by a silver watch. He looked ready to have his name called out by Adam Silver.
Flashiest: Miami University
Holy jersey coordination, Batman! The new uniforms (circa 2013) for the RedHawks are nothing, if not over the top. "MIAMI" on the shoulder sleeves, big block letters with a zigzag inlay, and a feather motif on both the jersey and chrome (CHROME!!) helmet tells recruits that sometimes, you gotta look good to play good. (And also, that the other Miami University kinda sorta copied them, not vice versa.)
Twinsies: BGSU and Eastern Michigan University
Seriously, have you seen the jerseys for both teams? (Colors aside.) I rest my case.