The rise of Kent State football isn’t as easy as “If you build it, they will come.”
Because they don’t come for nothing.
As the Golden Flashes replace Purdue-bound coach Darrell Hazell with Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes today, officials likely discovered what it costs to stay on the college football map.
For over two years, athletic administrators have made the sport their top priority, even at the expense of the tradition-rich men’s basketball program. They got what they hoped for — probably sooner than expected — in Hazell’s second year. A record-setting 11-2 season fell just short of a BCS bowl bid with a 44-37 double-overtime loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game.
The success cost them Hazell, who announced Dec. 5 he was leaving after KSU’s first bowl appearance in 40 years.
The Flashes broke the school record for victories, surpassing the previous high of nine in 1973 under coach Don James. On Jan. 6, KSU will take on Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
But now that the Flashes have stepped up, it’s time to pay up. Haynes surely believes the program is on the way up, but he likely did not come cheaply.
When he was hired in 2011, Hazell received a guaranteed $300,000 per year, $100,000 more than his predecessor Doug Martin. But director of athletics Joel Nielsen conceded in a blog post earlier this month on kentstatesports.com that even with the increase, Hazell’s pay ranked last among coaches in the 13-team Mid-American Conference in 2012.
And that’s after two years of fundraising brought in more than $2.5 million, according to Nielsen’s blog, the bulk of which went toward salaries for Hazell and his assistants.
Now Hazell is departing for a $2 million-per-year job at Purdue University. But as Nielsen sought someone with the same leadership qualities, he likely didn’t have carte blanche from university President Lester Lefton.
A pay scale that ranks last in the conference didn’t land a name like Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, reportedly not interested, probably because his salary is $750,000, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
The coffers might need refilling even for Haynes, a former KSU walk-on. At Arkansas, he earned $475,000 this season, according to ArkansasSports360.com, in the multimillion dollar land of the Southeastern Conference.
Haynes and Hazell spent six years together under Jim Tressel at Ohio State. Haynes coached safeties until he moved up to co-defensive coordinator under Fickell in 2011.
Other names mentioned during Kent State’s search included Mark Snyder, who worked for Tressel at Youngstown State and Ohio State, and current KSU assistants Jon Heacock and Brian Rock.
According to USA Today’s database, Ohio’s Frank Solich tops the MAC salary list at $500,000. The University of Akron, which has won one game each of the past three seasons, paid new coach Terry Bowden at least $400,000 this year.
In the short term, Kent State could spend part of its one-thirteenth share of bowl revenue. With a record seven MAC teams receiving invitations, the per-team payouts (according to collegefootballpoll.com) total $21,512,500. That means KSU will have more than $1.65 million coming its way. Northern Illinois’ Orange Bowl bid brings the league $17 million.
With that, perhaps KSU football can leave the MAC salary basement and even afford new turf in its practice facility.
Nielsen hopes football success will lead to more alumni donations, just as KSU’s first trip to the College World Series did. Baseball coach Scott Stricklin received a contract extension and stadium lights, an indoor facility and other improvements are on the way.
But Nielsen has to keep the charismatic coaches such as Hazell coming to get KSU graduates to contribute to the football program. It will be interesting to see if Haynes has similar qualities when he is introduced.
With the turnaround under Hazell, who started the 2011 season 1-6, it might have been easier for Kent State to sell Haynes on what the Flashes can achieve. But even then, KSU might never be anything but a stepping stone for top coaching talent. Nielsen is in this position again two years later because he made the right hire in Hazell.
If he repeats that feat with Haynes, Nielsen will have created a vicious cycle, filled with thrills but fraught with change. And this time around, with KSU’s football mission reaching fruition, the ante probably will be higher.