KENT: He rode his Harley from western Pennsylvania, accompanied by his four-year college roommate whom he’d reconnected with after a long break in their relationship.
Dressed in Wrangler jeans, a leather biker vest over an orange T-shirt that had the sleeves cut short, a Harley cap and heavy boots, he entrenched himself at the bar and ordered his first beer.
It took hours before anyone who didn’t know him on the second floor at Ray’s Place realized they were in the presence of Jack Lambert.
A Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Lambert hadn’t returned to his alma mater Kent State in more than a decade, perhaps as long as 12 years, a school official said. But Lambert sent a contribution to the program recently, his check nearly going unnoticed because it was signed “John Lambert.”
About 40 to 45 members of the 1972 KSU football team returned for the 40-year anniversary of their Mid-American Conference championship, the Golden Flashes’ first and last league title and their only bowl appearance. They went 6-5-1, 4-1 in the MAC, and played in the Tangerine Bowl.
The festivities included a players’ reception at Ray’s on Wednesday night, a breakfast on Thursday and a halftime celebration at Dix Stadium during KSU’s season opener against Towson.
University of Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel flew in, arriving about an hour before kickoff and leaving as the third quarter started. Missing the event was University of Alabama coach Nick Saban.
All in attendance, including wives of deceased players, coaches or staff members, received 1972 MAC Championship watches, a replica of their helmets and a copy of the blue hat with a gold “K” that coach Don James wore on the sideline.
Former assistant Fred Gissandaner came to Ray’s in his old coaching shirt, the KSU emblem still visible on the ventilated fabric. Running back Larry Poole, a Garfield High School product who went on to play for the Browns (1975-77), hoped he’d have time to catch up with Pinkel, his former Kenmore foe.
The only one not wearing a nametag, Lambert was the biggest name in the room. But James, a Massillon native who turns 80 on Dec. 31, was the one they came to see.
That was the case even with Lambert, who spoke to Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen outside.
“He said coach James being here is significant. Whenever we get coach James back, everyone wants to come back and see Coach,” Nielsen said of his conversation with Lambert.
“It’s good to see Koke [quarterback Greg Kokal] and Lambert, but Don James is the guy. That’s why we’re here,” said ex-kicker Herb Page, longtime KSU men’s golf coach.
James left the reception early to address the Golden Flashes at their hotel in Aurora.
Now retired with his wife, Carol, and splitting time between their home in Palm Desert, Calif., and a condominium in Kirkland, Wash., James spent four years at Kent State and went 25-19-1. He departed after the 1974 season for the University of Washington, where he coached 18 years, compiling a mark of 153-57-2. A 1997 enshrinee in the College Football Hall of Fame, James took the Huskies to 15 bowls, winning four Rose Bowls and one national title (1991).
But his former players believe James worked his biggest miracle at Kent State in 1972.
Lambert, a junior from Mantua, wasn’t supposed to start at middle linebacker, earning the job only when transfer Bob Bender quit in preseason camp. Kokal, a freshman from Euclid, was the third quarterback James tried. Page, 5-foot-6 and using a soccer-style kick his teammates had never seen, was called up from the junior varsity midway through the season. He’d been playing golf and ice hockey.
“They called us a rag-tag group,” said Poole, who lives in Tampa, Fla. “Coach James and his staff brought us together and we got it done. To watch what he did after was damned impressive.”
James cherishes the ’72 team and its success, even though the 1973 team went 9-2.
“The amazing thing is it wasn’t done before or since,” James said of the MAC title. “We were probably a better team the next year, we won more games. [In 1972], we won the right ones.”
James said he hadn’t seen Lambert since the 20-year reunion.
But he didn’t hesitate to tell a Lambert story from 1973, when Lambert played in the North-South All-Star Game after his senior year. James coached the defense and Dick MacPherson, the future Syracuse coach then at the University of Massachusetts, handled the offense.
Before their first of three practices, James told MacPherson they would have to wear helmets and shoulder pads because of Lambert’s presence.
“Dick said, ‘We don’t need to do that, let’s just wear helmets,’ ” James recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve got a linebacker from Kent State who won’t allow anybody to make any yards or catch a pass.’ He said, ‘Doesn’t matter if we’re on his team.’ The next day we were in pads.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.