December 22, 2012 at 1:00 am

Terry Foster

Central Michigan adds home-state spice to Little Caesars Pizza Bowl

Central Michigan coach Dan Enos and his Chippewas team will likely bring a strong contingent of CMU students to Ford Field Dec. 26. (Associated Press)

Detroit The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl always is better with a Big Ten team in it. There are higher television ratings, more people in the seats and a little bit more buzz around town.

But having Central Michigan in this year's game against Western Kentucky is the next best thing. In other words, having the maroon and gold in town means more green. Chippewa Nation turns out for this bowl game mostly because it is local and live, and many students are already home for the holidays in the Metro Detroit area.

CMU makes sense for Wednesday's game, even with a 6-6 record, because the Chips make a great dessert following Christmas. Besides, this bowl needs Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan to boost numbers. A Big Ten team has appeared in only three of the 15 bowls.

"Because of the geography and the fan base being so close, it makes for more excitement," said Little Caesars Pizza Bowl co-founder Ken Hoffman.

Home team needed

The bowl averages 52,695 fans when a Big Ten team plays here. The numbers are not bad with CMU and WMU in the bowl (50,578). But they are not so good when nobody from the Big Ten or the state plays (42,173).

Marshall and Ohio drew just 30,331 in 2009 and Toledo and Florida International just 32,431 the following year.

My guess is the numbers this year won't be strong because lower-tier bowls have become less appealing. In addition, CMU came in last time with the draw of quarterback Dan LeFevour.

He got so big that even Michigan and Michigan State fans knew who he was. This year CMU is trying to get back on the map. CMU needed to win four of its final five games just to qualify for a bowl.

Great exposure for CMU

Even then there were some disappointments. CMU played its most ambitious home schedule in history. The seven-game slate included Michigan State, Navy and rival Western Michigan. The Chippewas lost all three marquee games, including an embarrassing 41-7 loss to MSU. The Chippewas were not expected to beat the Spartans but were expected to be more competitive.

That is all water over the dam for CMU coach Dan Enos and his players. This bowl represents one more important game and they are in it to win it. They also are trying to build a future. Their recent past has not been so good. Since LeFevour's last game in 2009 the Chippewas are just 12-24 and have not come close to sniffing a MAC title. Now the Chippewas must take advantage of the extra 15 practices and the exposure in Detroit and a nationally televised game.

"There are a lot of positives playing in Detroit," Enos said before a recent practice. "We have a lot of players from Detroit and southeast Michigan, and we take more kids out of this state than anybody in the country. For us to be playing in there in front of high school coaches and high school players who come to see us play, the exposure is outstanding. We expect a great atmosphere and a lot of positives to come out of it. It is a neat thing for the city and state. We are very proud to be representing CMU."

Bowl game is still here

CMU and the Little Caesars/Motor City Bowl have been a good fit. This is the Chippewas' fourth trip here and it has played a role in this bowl sticking around. When the bowl was founded by former Michigan State football coach George Perles and Hoffman, his former public relations man, it was not expected to last long. The death watch of the then-Motor City Bowl began shortly after its first game in 1997 between Marshall and Mississippi.

Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr quipped about having a bowl in Detroit: "Are you nuts?"

Hoffman laughed at the comment, but is glad the game is still around.

"Yeah, we are still here," he said. "I feel really good about that. So yeah, I feel a sense of accomplishment, but thank God for a dome stadium. And this also speaks to the business community and the political community. And maybe as important as anything is the interest in college football in our state, because you can have all the other stuff, but when you don't have a crowd, what does that mean to the community? We have the good fortune to have all those things."

CMU is one of those good things. It has been a good fit for both sides.

terry.foster@detnews.com

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