When it comes to high-scoring weeknight college football, there’s only one name to know. Well, it’s more of a portmanteau: MACtion.
The Mid-American Conference exploded out of the Rust Belt and into our hearts by filling Tuesday nights each fall with high-scoring games headlined by two-star recruits. The MAC has been a welcome oasis from previous football-less weeknights and the incubator where several future NFL stars build legacies on broadcasts shunted to ESPNs 2 and U.
The MAC has been college football’s bargain bin through most of its existence. It is simultaneously a space for overlooked recruits to make good on a national stage and their coaches to begin an upward trajectory that leads to bigger and brighter lights, even in front of half-filled bleachers on a rainy work night. Few teams understand that value quite like the 49ers — their defensive identity is rooted in it.
Two of 49ers’ most important assistant coaches trace their roots through the MAC
Last week, The Ringer’s Kevin Clark threw one of the more notable “this really happened” college football facts out into the Twitter universe.
The 2004 Central Michigan coaching staff had Brian Kelly as head coach, Matt LaFleur and Robert Saleh as GAs, Butch Jones coaching running backs and went 4-7, and 3-5 in the MAC. No lesson here, just funny. MACtion.
— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) January 20, 2020
Kelly went on to coach Notre Dame to nine bowl appearances (and counting) in 10 seasons. Jones followed in Kelly’s footsteps as CMU head coach before making Cincinnati football pretty good and then keeping Tennessee’s program mediocre, brick by brick. LaFleur stood on the opposite sideline in the NFC title game as head coach of the Packers.
Then there’s Saleh, currently the architect of one of the NFL’s most dangerous defenses. The San Francisco coordinator oversees a unit that ranked second in the league in defensive efficiency (per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric), second in sack rate (nine percent), and second in yards allowed. He’s not the only MAC veteran to make be influential in the Niners’ rise from four-win team to NFC champions, either.
One year before Saleh arrived at Central Michigan as a graduate assistant, Joe Woods wrapped up a three-year stint as defensive backs coach at Western Michigan (he’d also spent the 1996 season in the same role at Kent State). He’d jump to the NFL in 2004, then eventually work his way up to the Broncos defensive coordinator position in 2017 and 2018. Though Vance Joseph’s firing left him jobless, the Niners were able to provide a soft landing spot.
Woods is now San Francisco’s DBs coach as well as the team’s defensive passing game coordinator. He inherited a group that had just two interceptions in 2018 and helped turn it into one of the league’s most fearsome no-fly zones. The 49ers raised their interception count by 600 percent while holding opposing QBs to an 83.0 passer rating — down from 105.4 a year before.
That MAC influence doesn’t end with the coaching staff
Since 2007, seven MAC players have been first round picks in the NFL Draft. The 49ers selected two of them — each of whom remains a starter in San Francisco.
Central Michigan alum Joe Staley made the switch from tight end to offensive tackle in that 2004 season when Saleh coached the Chippewas. He excelled at his new position en route to all-conference honors and has been a standout for San Francisco since being drafted 28th overall in ‘07. He’s earned six Pro Bowl invitations along the way. Though he missed a chunk of time during the regular season due to injury, Staley has been a reliable presence at right tackle throughout the playoffs.
Jimmie Ward was a product of Northern Illinois’ mini-dynasty that won conference championships in 2011 and 2012 while forcing its way into an Orange Bowl invitation in January 2013. That made him the Niners’ first pick in 2014 — 30th overall. While he hasn’t been as prolific as Staley, he is coming off his best season as a pro. With Saleh and Woods leading the way, he’s held opposing quarterbacks to just 5.3 yards per target in coverage while making a career-high 13 starts.
The Chiefs have also relied on a bit of MACtion to get to their first Super Bowl in 50 years
Kansas City has the 49ers doubled up when it comes to MAC grads. Left tackle Eric Fisher, another Central Michigan star, was the first player from the Mid-American to be drafted first overall when Kansas City selected him in 2013. Like Staley, he missed a portion of the regular season before returning to the starting lineup in time for his team’s run to the Super Bowl.
He’s joined on the active roster by little-used defensive end Demone Harris (Buffalo), backup tackle Ryan Hunter (Bowling Green), and starting tackle Andrew Wylie (Eastern Michigan). Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo also spent two seasons as defensive backs coach at Bowling Green in the mid-1990s — sandwiched in between stints with the WLAF’s Barcelona Dragons and NFL Europe’s Frankfurt Galaxy.
The MAC influence may not run especially deep among the coaching ranks in Super Bowl 54, but key members of each staff each put in time shuttling between Ohio and Michigan as college assistants. They’ve gone from toiling in mid-major college spots for teams that could only find national broadcasts on Tuesday nights to the biggest football game in the world. Come Sunday, a new class of Mid-American alumni will rule over the rest of the gridiron world — even if their stays in the MAC were fleeting.