KENT: When arguably the greatest victory in Kent State football history was over and No. 18 Rutgers had been knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten on its Homecoming, coach Darrell Hazell and his team walked to the stands to sing the fight song with KSU fans.
Hazell had been part of a similar scene many times before during his seven years as an assistant at Ohio State. Only about 150 Kent State followers made the trip to Piscataway, N.J., nowhere near the crowd that stays for OSU’s Carmen Ohio tradition.
But Hazell noticed something at Rutgers he might not have seen every glorious Saturday in the Horseshoe. As he and the Golden Flashes sang, some of the fans had tears in their eyes.
Die-hard followers of Kent State might insist there were bigger triumphs in the era of coach Don James, perhaps citing a 20-14 victory at Syracuse in 1974. But years of heartache and mediocrity followed James’ four-year tenure, which included Kent State’s last appearance in a bowl game, a 21-18 loss to Tampa in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl.
In the 37 years since James departed for Washington after the 1974 season, Kent State has won more games than it lost in a season only four times.
The program has become a pipeline to the NFL, but the last coach to win six games was Dean Pees in 2001. Against teams ranked in the Top 25, the Golden Flashes carried an 0-22 record to Rutgers.
That’s why Saturday’s victory seemed to put the Golden Flashes (7-1, 4-0 in the Mid-American Conference) back on the college football map.
On the plane ride home, most on the charter watched televisions installed in the seatbacks. At halftime of the Alabama-Mississippi State game, there was Lou Holtz on ESPN’s College Football Scoreboard waving a Kent State helmet. Holtz awarded the Golden Flashes one of his coveted helmet stickers. Loud cheering broke out among the players, enough to make one passenger wonder whether it would distract the pilot.
Participants in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches poll also took notice. Kent State received 33 points in the AP rankings, fifth on the others receiving votes list, 26 from the coaches.
“Embarrassing Rutgers on their Homecoming, that was payback from 2004,” former KSU quarterback Josh Cribbs, now a Browns receiver, said Sunday.
Browns safety Usama Young, who played for the Golden Flashes from 2003-06, thought it was more than that.
“From the start you could tell Coach Hazell had those guys going in the right direction,” Young said. “Watching them against Ball State, you saw they could fight through adversity, that they were resilient. Rutgers, that’s going to be a major win. They’ve got to take it into the next week.”
Hazell would applaud Young’s last remark. The Golden Flashes are 11-2 since starting the 2011 season 1-6. They’ve won six consecutive games for the first time since 1940. They’re bowl eligible. But all Hazell is concerned about is the game Saturday at home against the University of Akron.
Deputy Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein saw proof when he sat next to Hazell on the way home from New Jersey.
“Until we got back, there was a great celebration,” Kleinlein said. “But the minute we got off the plane he started talking, ‘This is a huge week.’ Every week, ‘It’s a huge week.’ ’’
On Monday, Hazell said of the victory at Rutgers, “It helps you publicly across the country, but I don’t focus on that.”
When it was suggested it was part of what he’s trying to build, he said, “It is. Maybe four weeks from now I look back and say, ‘That was pretty special.’ If you do it right now, you can lose focus.”
Kent State’s football success draws attention to the university just like the baseball team’s trip to the College World Series, but it also puts the spotlight on Hazell. Judging from his reaction Monday, he seems uncomfortable with the glow.
It seems inevitable now that Kent State will lose Hazell soon. It might not happen after this season, but seems likely after 2013. There is a buyout clause in his contract that could make it difficult for some to afford him until he finishes his third season at KSU. It would also seem out of character for Hazell to jump at more money if the job is not the right fit. If he doesn’t think he’s ready, he might not want to risk becoming the next Turner Gill, who leaped from Buffalo to Kansas, only to be fired by the Jayhawks after going 5-19.
No one at Kent State wants to think about losing Hazell. Especially when the seeds of success he’s sown are not just sprouting, but growing like weeds.
Senior left tackle Brian Winters of Hudson praised him for bringing more tradition to the program, even though “a lot of people were iffy at first, didn’t know how to take it, because we were stuck to our old roots.”
Junior defensive end Mark Fackler from Kenton knows what the college football world is starting to see.
“He believes in us and we believe in him,” Fackler said. “As it showed last year, everyone started buying in and it continued this year. He’s a great leader and I’m glad he’s our coach.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.