MAC's "Flab Four" Shed Embarrassing Past
It wasn’t hard to find the Mid-American Conference’s weakest links in 2013.
There were four, a quartet of programs that combined for only a quartet of victories... and 44 losses: Eastern Michigan (2-10), Massachusetts (1-11), Western Michigan (1-11) and Miami of Ohio (0-12).
What’s worse, three of those precious four wins came against one another.
It’s embarrassing enough for the conference to have such a large crop of free-falling teams, but their struggles also reflected poorly on the teams at the top of the standings. Buffalo’s 8-5 record in 2013, for instance, sours a bit when you realize that the Bulls notched half of their victories against this flabby crew.
But as the academic year wraps up and spring practices begin, there is reason for genuine optimism among all four camps. Three of the programs have hired new head coaches and all are hoping to energize the fan base with improvements in 2014.
Granted, the bottom of the pile is familiar territory for the Eagles, who haven't posted a winning record since 1995. Eastern Michigan won three or fewer games in six of the last eight years. Coming off a season in which they allowed a staggering 45 points per game, it clearly has its work cut out for it.
Exit head coach Ron English, fired before last year’s season finale, and enter Chris Creighton from Drake, where Creighton became the winningest coach in program history. Better still for EMU fans, in his 17 years as a collegiate head coach, he has never posted a losing record.
The new coach’s first recruiting class is another reason for interest, if not optimism. Eastern inked nine signees from the state of Michigan, the program’s highest tally within its home state in eight years.
Going into 2014 with the repeated and realistic goal of “closing the gap,” Creighton and his staff are excited about the success of the program’s winter conditioning program, which resulted in 449 personal records being set, surpassing the program’s goal of 400.
It may not sound like much, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
Mark Whipple returns as head coach, 11 years after departing for greener pastures and 16 years after leading UMass to a Division I-AA national title. He brings along ample NFL experience, where he served as an assistant with the Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers.
UMass fans hope that Whipple can mirror the turnaround he sparked at Amherst, where he inherited a 2-9 program and went 12-3 in his first season to win the national title. It’ll be tough to make the same kind of impact this time around. But for now, the Amherst memories are enough to distract from what’s been a highly unsatisfying few years at the grown-ups’ table.
But it’s not only Whipple's inspiration. The Minutemen will welcome a pair of transfers, quarterback Blake Frohnapfel (Marshall) and speedy wideout Alex Kenney (Penn State). And with their 55,000-square-foot UMass Football Performance Center opening in July, the program is beginning to look and feel like one that belongs with the big boys.
Another reason for excitement is the team’s return to McGuirk Stadium, the longtime home of the Minutemen on the UMass campus. The stadium underwent massive improvements the last three years to upgrade to FBS standards. They’ll play three games at McGuirk this fall.
The Broncos’ fall from grace was one of the most surprising developments in the MAC in the last two seasons. After reaching three bowl games in six years, Western hit a wall by losing all but one game last fall under first-year coach P.J. Fleck.
Fleck returns in 2014 — the only head coach of this group not to get the axe — and brings with him one of the best recruiting classes in program history.
According to Rivals.com, Western’s 2014 recruiting class was ranked 57th in the nation, the highest-ever spot for a MAC program. By the website’s rankings, the Broncos inked 14 three-star recruits and six of the top 30 players in Michigan.
Add to that mix returning wide receiver Corey Davis, last year’s MAC Freshman of the Year, and the Broncos could be on the verge of returning to their role as a perennial contender.
Similar to Western, it’s stunning how far and how fast Miami’s program fell. The Redhawks lost all 12 of their games last year while scoring less than 10 points per contest.
With a desperate need for offensive inspiration, Miami turns to new head coach Chuck Martin, who won a pair of Division II national titles at Grand Valley State before serving as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator. Martin appears to be just what the program needs, exemplified by his slick new website, which is less about him and his staff than an online pep rally for the program and its history.
And its rich history is once again being acknowledged with a statute dedication to Miami alum and Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. Miami also is looking to the future with a strong recruiting class and a new indoor sport center on the way.
While the road ahead may be long, there’s reason to expect noticeable improvement from all four programs in 2014.
That is good news — not just for the schools, but the conference itself.