As the MAC celebrates its 75th year, impact on college football continues to be felt

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This story is part of USA TODAY Sports' 25 days to college football countdown.

As the Mid-American Conference embarks on its 75th season, the league’s impact continues to reverberate around college football. In many cases, that impact manifests itself at other schools with bigger names, but the league’s overall longevity and positive legacy shows there’s something to be said for stability.

The 2021 campaign officially kicks off Thursday night with several MAC teams taking the field, including defending champion Ball State hosting Western Illinois. Fans can expect to see plenty of historic highlights on TV and streaming broadcasts during this 75th season.

The MAC’s membership has, with just a few exceptions, remained largely unchanged for the past half century, and it has cultivated a well-earned reputation as a proving ground for up-and-coming coaches. It has managed to carve a niche with its popular package of midweek televised games under the catchy #MACtion hashtag. Its collection of schools stretching across the Great Lakes region frequently punches above its weight, pulling off the occasional upset of a major conference team, and sometimes cracks the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll Top 25 as Ball State and Buffalo did at last season’s conclusion.

But winning often means coaching turnover in the MAC. One exception to that has been Frank Solich, who just retired as the league’s winningest coach with 115 victories over 16 seasons helming the Ohio Bobcats’ program.

Nevertheless, the MAC’s identity as a stepping stone destination for coaches rising through the ranks remains a point of pride throughout the conference. One MAC school in particular, Miami (Ohio), became known as the "Cradle of Coaches" thanks to its association with the likes of Ara Parseghian, Woody Hayes and Paul Brown. But several other schools in the league have provided career launch points for coaches at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

That list includes, but is not limited to, Urban Meyer (Bowling Green), Brian Kelly (Central Michigan) and, yes, even Nick Saban, who spent a single 9-2 season at Toledo in 1991. The MAC pipeline has continued more recently with P.J. Fleck rowing his boat from Western Michigan to Minnesota and Matt Campbell leading Iowa State to unprecedented heights after a stint at Toledo. The latest power-five program to dip into the MAC pool is Kansas, where former Buffalo coach Lance Leipold will try to bring the woebegone Jayhawks back to respectability.

Ball State won the Mid-American Conference title in 2020 and beat San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl.
Ball State won the Mid-American Conference title in 2020 and beat San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl.

The MAC has sent its share of players to the next level as well. Arguably the most successful of them in the modern era is longtime Steelers’ quarterback and Miami alum Ben Roethlisberger. Some have joked that the best football player to come out of Kent State played basketball, referring to all-pro tight end Antonio Gates, who led the Golden Flashes to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight before embarking on his standout NFL career.

That punchline isn’t entirely accurate, however, as KSU also claims NFL Hall-of-Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, who was part of Pittsburgh’s legendary Steel Curtain defense.

Follow Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: MAC keeps on giving, even entering its 75th season