The MAC's rise to prominence

For now, Frank Solich has chosen to make Ohio and the MAC his home. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

With impatience at epidemic levels these days, you can make the case that all coaching careers should be measured in dog years. But that's especially true in the Mid-American Conference, where bad coaches don't last and good coaches don't stay.

Lately, there have been more good coaches than ever. A league that is home to the Cradle of Coaches, Miami (Ohio), needs a lot bigger cradle. And a better nickname, because "Nursery of Coaches" just doesn't cut it.

But it's true. There are 13 head coaches among the AQ conferences who list a MAC school on their head coaching résumés. The list spans from Nick Saban of Alabama, who spent one season at Toledo in 1991, to Darrell Hazell, who left Kent State (11-2) last week for Purdue.

No other non-AQ conference has sent more than six head coaches to the AQ schools. That's how many former MAC head coaches have been hired in the last year. And that's no coincidence. The league is playing football as well as it has in recent memory.

MAC schools won 16 nonconference games this season, a league record. Four teams reached the Top 25 over the course of the season. And, of course, No. 15 Northern Illinois (12-1) became the first team to qualify for a BCS bowl. The Huskies will play Florida State in the Discover Orange Bowl, although they will be without head coach Dave Doeren. He hightailed it to North Carolina State.

Ohio head coach Frank Solich is the dean of the league. He just finished his eighth season with the Bobcats, who reached No. 24 in the BCS this season. A 7-0 start dissipated into an 8-4 finish after season-ending injuries to 14 players.

"When I first came into the league, it had good coaches," Solich said. "It was able to attract quarterbacks. It was able to attract wide receivers. The style of offense being played gave you a chance."

Ben Roethlisberger played at Miami. Dan LeFevour threw for nearly 13,000 yards at Central Michigan. The league still has quarterbacks. Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois (4,733 yards) outgained Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and everyone else.

"Players want to be part of exciting football," Solich said. "Some of the scores, as you well know, are 48-46."

The easiest way to compete against superior talent is to spread the field and make it harder to use that talent. When it comes to playing better teams, said Bill Cubit, fired last month after eight seasons at Western Michigan, "There's no way you're going to be able to run the ball against these guys. So you had to come up with a plan just to compete with those teams. A lot of people in this league, it was either the spread or just throwing the ball."

Offense was good. Offense still is good. But something has changed in the MAC over the last three seasons. It could be as simple as hiring the right young coaches. Hazell and Doeren came from top jobs on Big Ten staffs, stayed for two seasons and continued climbing the ladder. But there's more to it. They came to the MAC, and they got noticed.

A year after Dr. Jon A. Steinbrecher took over as MAC commissioner in March 2009, he convened a committee to raise the league's competitiveness and its profile. One of the biggest changes they made is in scheduling.

He urged them to make more home-and-home deals and play fewer paycheck games. Western Michigan played 18 AQ schools over the last six seasons. Northern Illinois played 12. If his teams played AQ opponents, Steinbrecher urged his schools to read the standings first -- less Wisconsin, more Kansas.

"If you're 8-4 in this league a couple of years back, you had a heck of a year," Cubit said. "Everybody was playing those BCS teams. Western is still doing it, but some of these teams are getting smarter and not doing it as much, giving themselves a chance."

Steinbrecher urged his members to move their nonconference games to the first five weeks of the season. That made conference games available for ESPN in mid-week during November.

"It provides just a wonderful window into our universe, quite frankly, for football fans across the country," Steinbrecher said. "Our coaches speak very consistently to the visibility it affords their programs. The fact that over the past two or three years, if you watched our league race play out, it has played out on national TV.

And it's made for just outstanding theater."

Whether you're playing once on it or you're on it five times, people know the MAC's on TV and you're able to go around the country and recruit.

-- Ohio coach Frank Solich

Solich said you can't overestimate the effect it's had among recruits, both in Ohio, the breadbasket of MAC recruiting, and across the nation. Solich began rattling off the home states of his players, from California to Oklahoma to New York to Florida. He said TV helps in Ohio, too.

"Whether you're playing once on it or you're on it five times, people know the MAC's on TV and you're able to go around the country and recruit," Solich said. "It even worked better for us in the state of Ohio. We had a tough time, when I first got here, getting recruits to come down and visit us. They had to pass so many MAC schools. Now that's not the case. We're winning. We're on TV. Our facilities are getting better."

Ohio is building a $15 million indoor practice facility. Soon every MAC school will have one. That's as deep into the arms race as the MAC is likely to get. Coaches like Solich and Cubit, who come to the MAC and stay, will be the exception, for the most obvious reason of all.

"I would not anticipate a million-dollar salary in this league anytime soon," Steinbrecher said.

But now, when the good coaches come, they find more hospitable schedules, more television exposure, more of the tools that it takes to succeed in college football in this day and age.

"The key to all of it [is] to make sure that this year is not the exception," Steinbrecher said. "It's going to be challenging. But what we need to make sure is that, and really strive for, that getting a team into a BCS game -- or, in two years, into an access game -- is not a once-in-a-decade or once-in-a-generation-type thing. It's great that we did it this year, but in three weeks we're going to put this year to bed and then it's time to get regrouped and do it again. And maybe see if we can do better. Easy to talk about; not so easy to do."