Josh Cribbs used to dread Saturdays.
That’s when his Browns teammates talk college football, regaling their schools’ successes and needling those whose teams are struggling. Cribbs, a former Kent State quarterback, hated being on the wrong end of that smack.
Then came the 2012 season, when coach Darrell Hazell led the Golden Flashes to an 11-2 record, a berth in the Mid-American Conference championship and the school’s first bowl appearance in 40 years. No. 25 KSU takes on Arkansas State at 9 tonight (ESPN) in the GoDaddy.com Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala.
“I can finally brag on my school,” Cribbs said last month. “It’s really a burden lifted off my shoulders. I can actually join in the conversation.”
The breakthrough for Hazell’s team was one of many in what could be deemed “The Year of the Golden Flashes.”
In baseball, they reached their first College World Series and knocked off top-seeded Florida.
In men’s golf, they finished with their highest-ever national ranking of No. 5, their season including an NCAA playoff victory over perennial power Florida State.
In wrestling, they sent a school-record seven qualifiers to the NCAA Tournament.
In men’s basketball, they reached the 20-win mark for the 13th time in the past 14 years.
In the fall, KSU student-athletes combined for their best semester grade-point average, a cumulative 3.07. The football team contributed its highest in-season GPA in recorded program history (since 1982), with 45 players carrying a 3.0 or better.
Before the KSU contingent left for Mobile, men’s golf coach Herb Page thanked Hazell, who has been hired by Purdue. Page was the kicker on the last Golden Flashes’ bowl team in 1972 and on the 1973 squad that previously held the school’s victory mark at 9-2.
“It’s the best fall I’ve had at Kent State,” Page said. “The [1972 football] reunion. My team is ranked in the top 20; we won the Jack Nicklaus Invitational at Muirfield Village. The football team kept winning. October and November became relevant.”
One of Page’s best non-golf days was Nov. 17. After a recruit left on Saturday morning, two close friends invited him to the new Panini’s downtown to watch KSU’s football game at Bowling Green, where the Flashes wrapped up the MAC East title.
“When’s the last time Herb Page sat in a Kent bar and had a burger and watched Kent State?” Page said last week. “Ben Curtis showed up. There were 10 or 11 guys sitting around a couple tables. It has never happened. I just had a moment, ‘How awesome is this?’ ”
No one is sure if Kent State’s special 2012 was a culmination of years of program-building or the right stars aligning. In the case of baseball and golf, it’s mostly the former. But there are a few common threads in the Golden Flashes’ successes.
Foremost is a special group of Kent State coaches who have managed to convince their players that they can succeed on the national stage.
“There was a feeling throughout this department since I’ve been here that we have enough talent, we have enough coaching, we have enough support to really do some special things,” said Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen, hired in March 2010. “We started to see it [in 2011], whether it was gymnastics [going to its first NCAAs] or [wrestler] Dustin Kilgore winning the national championship that instilled this belief and it carried itself through. Men’s golf has always had it; to see those guys take it to that next level and to win that playoff against Florida State, I could see that ratcheting up a little bit.
“I’ve talked about this whole belief characteristic for a year now. It’s probably one of the strongest characteristics in human beings. We seem to have it right now throughout the department.”
Nielsen believes that is especially true in football, where Hazell succeeded with many of ex-coach Doug Martin’s players. Former KSU Director of Athletics Laing Kennedy agreed.
“Darrell had some pretty good upperclassmen, but he changed their heart and he changed their soul and really developed a championship-quality football program,” Kennedy said. “The chemistry, he turned it into, ‘We can really do this.’ ”
Some of that belief might have been sparked as far back as 1996-97 when Gary Waters arrived to coach the men’s basketball team. In 2002, coach Stan Heath added now-Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates to a nucleus of players recruited by Waters and took them to the NCAA Elite Eight. In 2003, Curtis, the world’s 396th-ranked player playing in his first major championship, captured the British Open.
“You look at Ben Curtis winning the British Open, you look at our men’s golf team being fifth and sixth in the country [in 2008] and always being a contender for the top 10, you add to that the success of our women’s golf program with 14 consecutive MAC championships, you think of a tradition of excellence,” Kennedy said. “I think back when we were having athletic directors’ meetings in the MAC and my colleagues would say, ‘I know Kent will be there.’ That’s a tribute of respect.”
It wasn’t always that way. Page, a 1974 graduate who also earned his master’s from Kent State in 1976, remembers a time when he referred to the MAC in a derogatory fashion.
“When Michael Schwartz was president they took the caps off of what I used to call ‘The Mediocre Athletic Conference,’ ” Page said of Schwartz, who arrived at KSU in 1976 and served as president from 1982-90. “In 1991 we weren’t even fully scholarshipped in wrestling, baseball and golf. In ’91 and ’92, that’s when we started raising money. At least the playing field became even.”
Donations pour in
Success has sparked a fundraising boom, with more than $3.5 million coming in for football and baseball, most in the past year. Some of the money has gone into higher salaries and facilities upgrades for Dix Stadium and baseball’s Schoonover Stadium, which is scheduled to install lights in the spring. A hitting facility for baseball and softball is planned, with about 75 percent of the funds raised, Nielsen said. Baseball coach Scott Stricklin went to Mobile in hopes of putting that project over the top. In 2007, golf opened the Ferrara and Page Training and Learning Center, which Page calls “one of the finest in the nation.”
The facility helps Page recruit, but so, too, does the university’s improved academic standing.
“There’s been a complete switch in golf. These young men with a great academic background will choose Kent State,” Page said. “We’re getting people from Walsh Jesuit and St. Ignatius, a Hudson man, John Hahn. There were years when a good student-athlete from Hudson probably wouldn’t come to Kent State. Now our rosters are full of those young men and women.”
It might help that Kent State is wooing such student-athletes with six coaches who have degrees from the university. Page is joined by baseball coach Scott Stricklin (class of 1995), wrestling coach Jim Andrassy (’95, master’s in 2002), women’s gymnastics coach Brice Biggin (’83), women’s golf coach Mike Morris (’76) and Hazell’s successor Paul Haynes (’92). Biggin has been at KSU for 33 years, 22 as coach. Andrassy has been in its wrestling room since he was 18.
“This is one of the first places I’ve ever worked that not only had this many coaches who are alums but the ultra-success that they’ve had,” Nielsen said. “I didn’t hire an alum when we hired coach Hazell, [men’s basketball] coach [Rob] Senderoff or [women’s basketball] coach [Danielle] O’Banion. It’s not as though I said, ‘This is the blueprint and I’ve got to stick to it.’
“But it is something that runs through my mind every time we go out searching, not only for head coaches, but for assistant coaches or support staff or people in our department. There’s something going on and I haven’t put my finger on it totally yet.”
Luck on their side
But no one will discount a little bit of the lucky star factor in the Year of the Golden Flashes, especially in the run to the College World Series.
Reaching the NCAA regionals five of the past six years, Stricklin thought it was key that they played in Gary, Ind., in 2012 because host Purdue’s facilities were deemed inadequate.
“The three previous years we had to go to Arizona State, UCLA and Texas. Going to a top-five team and having to play in front of their fans all the way across the country, that’s really tough to do,” Stricklin said. “Not that going to Gary, Ind., wasn’t a tough draw, but it was a neutral regional site. That was the first break we got. But I think we earned that.”
When they reached the College World Series, Cribbs got caught up in the frenzy, organizing a bus to take fans and even some players’ parents and siblings to Omaha, Neb. That trip came in June, giving Cribbs a chance to talk up his Golden Flashes during minicamp.
“It was their year,” Cribbs said of arguably the most special sports year in KSU history. “I was actually boasting, ‘What did your baseball team do? Are you ranked? You went to Syracuse? USC? What are they doing?’ ”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. 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.