LIVE VIDEO: Channel 3 News Today    Watch
 

Kent State turns football program around in a flash

11:11 AM, Nov 30, 2012   |    comments
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +

Two years ago on Dec. 20, newly hired Kent State coach Darrell Hazell strode to a podium in the school's student center and promised, in so many words, a brand-new era for football at the school.

"I know we can win," he said.

Two years later, Hazell has delivered on his promise -- and done so to a level few believed imaginable, given Kent State's woebegone history as the weakest program in major college football.

Kent State is the only program in the Bowl Subdivsion with roots in the 20th century with a winning percentage below .400; the Golden Flashes entered this season at .388, ahead of only Florida International, which christened its program in 2002.

Before this fall, Kent State had one winning season since 1988. It had never won more than nine games in a single season. Since 1975, it had more double-digit-loss seasons, nine, than six-win seasons, five.

Yet the Golden Flashes head into Friday's Mid-American Conference championship game against Northern Illinois (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) at 11-1, ranked No. 19 in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll and within striking distance of a Bowl Championship Series berth.

What makes Kent State's ascension into the national conversation all the more remarkable is how it came together. "Are we a little bit ahead of schedule?" Hazell asked. "Absolutely."

Linebackers coach Marcus Freeman said, "I told my players the other day, if you had asked me before the season, even before fall camp, if I thought we'd be 11-1 ... I probably wouldn't have said that.

"I did think we could make it to the MAC championship, I thought this team could be MAC champions, absolutely. Would I have bet my house on being 11-1? Probably not, at the beginning of the season."

Hazell said, "It's Rocky Balboa. It's Cinderella. It really is. In real life. If you think about it, it's happened here so quickly."

At his first team meeting shortly after being hired, Hazell put forth a three-point plan for reversing the Golden Flashes' history as an FBS bottom-feeder. The meeting began with a question: What does it take to be successful?

Be respectful, Hazell told his new team. Watch your language. Have class. Go to class. Focus on academics. Be proud of your image. Be proud to play football at Kent State.

The plan is simple, said Hazell. One, we're going to win with the guys in this locker room. Two, we're going to change the way we look at ourselves.

"That's the most important thing," Hazell said. "Because at the time they didn't see themselves as accomplishing anything or their self-worth was not very good."

Three, we're going to win in November. The Golden Flashes went 4-17 in the season's final month from 2005-10. You win championships in November, Hazell told his new team.

"They needed some direction on what exactly it takes to win football games," Hazell said.

It didn't take from the start: Kent State started 1-6 in 2011, though three of those losses came by a touchdown or less. The tide turned down the stretch of last season, however, with the Golden Flashes winning four of their last five to finish 5-7. Three of those four wins came in November.

For returning players such as defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix, a first-team all-MAC selection, the strong finish was the "steppingstone" the program had been waiting for.

"I always believed we were going to win," said Nix, a junior. The Golden Flashes were just waiting for a jolt; the 4-1 conclusion to 2011 "got things rolling. It just made us a new team."

"You could just tell last year that they started believing," Freeman said. "When they got here for fall camp, and our strength staff did a great job, they had the belief that we could be something special. We can win."

"You never see nothing coming, but I knew we had a good team," said running back Dri Archer. "We just had to come together as one team. Coach Hazell brought us together. Anything was possible."

It helps to play in the MAC. Few leagues are as prone to rapid-fire turnover, as seen not only in Kent State's climb but in Central Michigan's slide over the past three years: Central Michigan went 12-2 in 2009 but has won 12 games over the past three seasons combined, ceding the West Division to Northern Illinois and Toledo.

"The thing about this league, and one of the reasons I took this job, was there's so much parity and teams are so comparable that you do have a chance to win week in and week out," Hazell said.

Kent State's active winning streak dates to Sept. 19, when the Golden Flashes followed up a 47-14 loss to Kentucky with a 23-7 victory vs. Buffalo. The win against the Bulls was one of 10 in a row; alone, the 10 wins are more than the previous school record for victories in a single season.

Kent State is getting it done on offense, thanks to a devastatingly effective running game, and in the return game" in both cases, thanks in large part to running back Archer, one of the most dangerous players in the country.

The Golden Flashes have also forced 35 turnovers, second-most in the FBS, and are +20 in turnover margin, which is tied with Kansas State for the best mark in the country.

"We've been fortunate in a lot of ways that you have to be fortunate to go on a run like this," said athletics director Joel Nielsen. "We've haven't had a lot of injuries. And we've forced a lot of turnovers, and sometimes that takes a tip of the ball here or a bounce of the ball there."

"This was 106 guys who from day one said, we got a new coach, we're going to do something different," Nix said. "We're not going to take nothing from nobody. We're going to play like how we were put on this Earth to play."

Kent State's focus remains on Friday, when it will become the latest MAC team to attempt to slow Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. "I still think this next game is critical for this program," Hazell said. "If you can win this one, to be able to win an outright MAC championship, that would be absolutely huge."

Win or lose, is this year's climb sustainable? After nearly a century of middling to little success, is this the new normal for Kent State?

"To have this type of year again will be extremely hard next year and the following year because this is an absolutely remarkable year," Hazell said. "But I always think you can hang around the top of the conference. You've got to try and maintain where we are as best you can."

At some point -- perhaps soon -- Hazell and his staff will reflect back on one of the most unexpectedly successful seasons in major-college history, and on the road Kent State took to get there.

"I think our defensive coordinator (Jon Heacock) said it best," said Freeman. "He said that one day, you'll sit back and think about the process it took to get here. I don't know if you'll sit here and remember everything that happened in the championship game or you'll think about what happened in the big games, but you'll remember the process it took.

"And I think once this season's over, we'll look back and say it was a special process and we accomplished some great things."

By Paul Myerberg, USA TODAY Sports

 

Gannett/USA Today

Most Watched Videos