The University of Akron football team is regrouping after another disappointing season. But the men’s soccer team has its eye on a championship this weekend. WKSU commentator Terry Pluto says it’s a contrast that paints a picture of how college sports work.
Akron fired head football coach Terry Bowden over the weekend, after the team completed a 4-8 season. Bowden went 35-52 in seven seasons, but he guided the Zips to the MAC East division title in 2017 and bowl appearances in two of the previous three years. Pluto says it's likely that Athletic Director Larry Williams wants to bring in his own coach.
But, Pluto says above all, coaching football in the Mid-American Conference is tough. “No matter who you have in that job, they’ve all been fired and none of them have particularly gone on to something else at a higher level."
Pluto says he thinks mid-majors like Akron should rethink playing Division I football altogether.
"But there’s a certain lure to it. And if you really do end up with a good coach in the MAC, they leave pretty quickly. It’s a stepping-stone job.”
Meanwhile, Akron continues to have an elite soccer team. The Zips will pay in the College Cup this weekend after upsetting Wake Forest and Stanford in the tournament. They've been to three NCAA tournament final fours over the last four seasons. The team won the championship in 2010.
So why can Akron be so successful in soccer and consistantly struggle in football? Pluto says it’s all about how the programs are structured and budgeted in the NCAA.
In Division I football, colleges have to award 85 scholarships. In soccer, schools can award 9.9 total. They divide the money and distribute partial aid to players. The smaller budgets create a more level playing field.
“I looked at the top 10 winningest soccer teams in the last 10 years," Pluto said. "It’s an eclectic list that includes bigger schools like Stanford, Indiana, but also Coastal Carolina, Monmouth and Akron. You’d never see that in the top 10 in football.”
Pluto says the low budgets mean that Akron can "go out and play with the big boys," and it’s not going to cost nearly as much as it is in football.
Coaches and recruiting
And Pluto says the smaller budget also applies to how much coaches are paid in sports like soccer.
"Akron soccer coach Jared Embick makes about $260,000, one of the higher paying jobs. But the coach who replaces Terry Bowden is going to make $500,000 to $600,000, and he's going to have an enormous football staff. And, if you get the right coach in soccer, you can keep him. Because no one is going to come along and offer them $2 million when you’re paying $260,000."
Pluto says recruiting soccer players is all about connections, especially with players and teams overseas. "A number of your players are from another country. Akron has had seven players taken in the Major League Soccer draft and 33 players drafted in the last 10 years."
"The NCAA wants football to be this behemoth that just sucks up everything because of all the TV money that comes in and 100,000 people watching the games," Pluto said.
"And I’ve always felt MAC schools should pick their special sports – soccer, golf and track -- and really pour some money into it because you have more of a chance to make a name for the school instead of just playing football in the MAC and hoping you make it to .500."