OXFORD, Ohio -- Miami football coach Chuck Martin didn’t have much time to sleep after Tuesday’s monumental victory over Ball State at Yager Stadium.
There were phone calls to return, interviews to conduct and an abundance of congratulations to accept after leading the RedHawks to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.
“These have been a happy last 12 hours,” Martin said Wednesday morning. “It was great to finish and get our sixth win, and how we did it, down at halftime. At halftime I said, ‘This is your year, guys. Nothing has been easy. If we’re going to do this, we’re not going to make it easy on ourselves.’
"The kids and coaches did a great job.”
The RedHawks (6-6, 6-2 Mid-American Conference) made history as the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to start 0-6 and finish 6-6. By virtue of the 21-20 defeat of Ball State, which featured a comeback from a 17-7 halftime deficit, Miami clinched a share of the MAC’s East Division title and cemented its postseason eligibility.
Watch the team celebrate with a rendition of Miami's fight song after their victory below.
Miami will learn its bowl fate Dec. 4. The program’s last bowl game was the GoDaddy.com Bowl six years ago, a 35-21 loss to Middle Tennessee State.
A return trip to any bowl has been a long time coming for the RedHawks, and it started with Martin’s hire on Dec. 3, 2013. He was no stranger to success, having led Grand Valley State to a pair of Division II national championships before serving as a Notre Dame assistant coach for four years.
Miami, though, had a lot of problems to fix, least of all returning to the win column. The team went 0-12 (0-8 MAC) under Don Treadwell in 2013.
Martin said the rebuilding plan was to start from scratch.
“We treated this like we’ve never played football to build it from the ground up,” Martin said.
The turnaround included the identification and recruitment of talented players and the benefit of a $13 million Indoor Sports Center. This year’s team features 70 underclassmen and only 15 juniors and seniors, making it among the youngest groups in the country.
Keeping older players motivated was another challenge. But for those like Heath Harding, a cornerback who started at Miami during Treadwell’s last season, leaving wasn’t a question.
He’s among only eight left in his recruiting class. It originally had 22 players.
“If I start something, I’m going to finish it. So for me, it never crossed my mind to leave. I’m a Miami guy. I committed here for a reason,” Harding said.
“If anything, I wanted to win for my recruiting class. We all had dreams and goals. Most of the guys I came in with, we felt like we still had a chance to realize them, even at 0-6. We knew the season wasn’t over yet.”
Considering Martin’s passion and competitive drive, Harding felt the program was moving in the right direction. Harding said just being in a room with Martin “makes you want to win.”
The RedHawks’ big breakthrough came Oct. 15 in an 18-14 defeat of Kent State. Moeller product and Miami quarterback Gus Ragland returned from a spring knee injury to lead the team to victory.
Ragland’s skills and leadership proved to be a difference in other critical games. After Kent State, the RedHawks dispatched Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Buffalo and Ball State.
The official attendance for Tuesday’s regular-season finale was 13,824. Harding wasn’t sure what to expect from fans and students so close to the Thanksgiving break, so he was thrilled to join them on the field in the post-game celebration.
“It was pretty surreal, kind of like time stopped in a way. I initially didn’t know how to react,” Harding said. “Then everyone started running and storming the field and I stormed with them. Just to see the fans and everyone getting emotional was awesome.”
Harding’s phone blew up with congratulatory messages and calls after the victory. But that wasn’t the best part of the victory, he said. It was the palpable buzz about RedHawks football that ensued.
“With the history we have -- like the Big Ben [Roethlisberger] glory days and back in the ’80s and whatnot -- you want that to happen with you, too. For a long time here, even up until this year, you just felt like kind of a disappointment because you haven’t won much and all your dreams and aspirations kind of went to the wayside,” Harding said.
“To be on this streak and be able to be bowl eligible and to accomplish your dream of going to a bowl game… It’s just awesome.”