During a rally celebrating the University of Akron's College Cup victory, head soccer coach Caleb Porter was presented with a key to the city and the mayor of Akron promised city-limit signs would recognize the region's first national title since 1964. Porter, as well as the eight players who were either graduating or entering the MLS SuperDraft, all spoke during the rally. They thanked many people, ranging from family members to coaches, but one group was mentioned by virtually everyone: the AK Rowdies.
"Every time we get a chance, we always give a shout-out to the AK Rowdies," said Kofi Sarkodie, one of Akron's team captains in 2010 and the No. 7 overall pick in the most recent MLS SuperDraft. "Those guys are front and center for us. We appreciate everything they've done for the past couple of years."
Plenty of colleges have student rooting sections, but few of them have embraced soccer to the degree they have at the Akron. The AK Rowdies regularly pack "The Hill" behind the east goal at Lee R. Jackson Field, oftentimes numbering more than 1,000, and have earned a reputation for being among the most devoted college soccer fans in the country. For a road match against cross-state rival Ohio State, they filled six buses. After his team managed only a tie, Porter felt compelled to deliver a first-hand apology to the hundreds of Akron fans who made the approximately 125-mile trip.
Prior to matches, the AK Rowdies escort the team into the stadium. During matches, they stand and cheer throughout. But it's during their post-victory celebrations that they really shine.
After wins, the AK Rowdies welcome the players into their section where they perform a chant that is almost immediately goose-bump inducing. The capo starts off screaming "I." The crowd calls back "I." Capo: "I believe." Crowd: "I believe." Capo: "I believe that." Crowd: "I believe that." Capo: "I believe that we." Crowd: "I believe that we." Capo: "I believe that we have won!" The crowd then joins in, jumping up and down while screaming "I believe that we have won" over and over again. Horns blare and a drum core wildly plays.
"It’s a real football environment," said Christopher Stimler, AK Rowdies president. "We feel a part of the team. We feel their pain; feel their rejoicing.
"The team comes over and supports us. If five students make a trip on their own, (Porter) will go over and thank them. That connection, knowing we’re appreciated, makes us feel a part of the team."
The Rowdies' involvement with the soccer team is no accident. Porter was hired shortly after the group was founded and made a point of reaching out to them, at first luring them to games by promising to buy pizzas at halftime if they could get 100 students to show up.
More than 1,000 students now heed the call for Goal Patrol most home games, and the school now has to limit the free tickets they give students. While the pizza-at-halftime routine may not be a standing promise, that doesn't mean Porter's connection with the Rowdies has weakened.
"It all starts with coach Porter," Stimmler said. "If it wasn’t for him reaching out to the students, none of this would have happened."
Porter takes every opportunity to return that appreciation. He has repeatedly cited the AK Rowdies and the environment they help create at the recently overhauled stadium as one of the major reasons he chose to sign a 10-year contract extension (worth about $350,000 a year), despite reportedly being lured by such MLS teams as DC United.
"That’s why I want to be here long term," Porter said of the overall environment at Akron. "At this point, why would I leave? No one would have more than we have. It’s a special place here. Soccer is the biggest thing in this community."
Following Akron's College Cup runner-up finish in the 2009 season, the program received an influx of donations that allowed them to expand grandstand seating at Lee R. Jackson Field to 1,650 and boosted total max attendance from 2,400 to 4,300, including standing room. That prompted the school to sell soccer season-tickets for the first time in its history and sold out the grandstands for every game. They averaged 3,213 fans per home game, second best in the nation behind UC Santa Barbara (5,873). More additions are currently planned that would further expand seating.
The playing surface, irrigation system and lighting were also upgraded. The team now has a new turf outdoor practice field, upgraded locker rooms and coaches' offices, as well as a full-sized indoor training area that has allowed the team to not lose ground during the harsh Northeast Ohio winters. Basically, they have access to the kind of facilities most Division I football programs would drool over.
Of course, it wasn't always this way. When Porter took over, the Zips were coming off a season in which they had gone 18-1-4 and reached the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight, but had played in front of home crowds that averaged 1,006. More importantly, their once state-of-the-art stadium had been neglected, something that occasionally cost them chances at hosting NCAA tournament games.
Porter was hired to replace Ken Lolla, who had been coaching at Akron for 13 years before being hired by Louisville. Lolla had succeeded in returning national recognition to Akron (after losing in the 1986 title game, the Zips had failed to return to the NCAA tournament prior to Lolla's hiring), but was never able to quite push his teams over the hump.
Considering he left Akron for a school that played in a much bigger conference (the Big East) and had first-rate facilities, it's hard to second-guess Lolla's decision. He has helped make Louisville a perennial NCAA tournament participant, and even led the Cardinals to this year's championship game against Akron. While acknowledging that he laid some of the groundwork for Porter's success at Akron, he spoke glowingly of what Porter has accomplished someplace he never could.
"The success that is going on needs to be credited to Caleb and what he’s done," Lolla said. "We had some success, but he’s done a tremendous job with the players he’s brought in and the program that he’s built in a short period of time."
It has been five seasons since Porter replaced Lolla. In that time, he has transformed a Rustbelt city in Northeast Ohio into a virtual soccer mecca. His teams win with a style that is enjoyable to watch. He has created an environment where athletes are encouraged to be students and where students feel an honest bond with Porter's team. Despite losing some of the best players in the nation almost every year, his teams only seem to get better.
"I’m extremely proud with the direction that Akron has gone and believe it is going to continue," said Blair Gavin, who played for Akron from 2007-09 before being the No. 10 overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. "There’s a reason behind all this success. Caleb has this great mentality, and I know that anyone that goes there will have success as well."
It seems crazy to say, but this may all be a mere prelude of what is to come as Akron's influence grows. The Zips' playing style, facilities and fan culture have become the envy of their competitors and a model colleges and professional franchises undoubtedly hope to follow. Their players will likely be featured on half of the 18 MLS teams' rosters next year and are pushing for spots on various national teams. To a man, they speak with a thoughtfulness and honesty that is refreshing.
It doesn't take long to know from where it all comes.
"Take the field with pride, play with passion, appreciate the sport and play it the right way," Porter said of his philosophy. "This is Akron, be proud of it."
Jeremiah Oshan is the North American soccer editor for SB Nation.