BOWLING GREEN: It’s safe for Jack Lambert to come out of the woods.
The Hall of Fame linebacker’s reclusive nature has nothing to do with the fact that for years his Kent State football program bordered on bag-over-the-head mediocrity. But if it did, Lambert would have ripped that paper to shreds Saturday afternoon like a Great White shark mauling an unsuspecting swimmer.
Kent State football is no longer a laughingstock.
No. 25 Kent State (10-1) buried the bad old days with a 31-24 victory over Bowling Green in Doyt Perry Stadium. It captured its first Mid-American Conference East title since the league split into divisions in 1997 and advanced to the Nov. 30 MAC Championship game at Ford Field in Detroit.
After that, KSU’s first bowl appearance since 1972 certainly awaits.
The Golden Flashes broke the 90-year-old program’s record for victories in a season, surpassing the (Don) James’ Gang’s 9-3 record in 1973, when Lambert was a senior.
They moved to 7-0 in the MAC, which they’ve never done in their 61 years in the conference. They earned their 14th victory in their past 16 games, one of five teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision that could make that claim going into Saturday night. They put up their ninth consecutive triumph, extending another KSU record. They won their sixth consecutive road game this season, another program record. And those numbers can still increase. The regular season concludes Friday at home with an 11 a.m. game against Ohio University.
Dominoes from 90 years ago and 40 years ago are falling. And the man responsible, the coach who restored the James Gang’s glory, was wearing a strangely shaped cap covered in grass.
“I think somebody stepped on my hat in the locker room,” Kent State coach Darrell Hazell said.
In just his second season, the former Ohio State assistant head coach/receivers coach might be surprised by how fast the Golden Flashes learned to become winners.
“When I took the job a year and a half ago and looked at what kind of players we had, I thought we had a chance,” he said. “We’ve taken off a little bit, we really have.”
He was still recovering from his second career Gatorade shower, his first since a victory at Akron in 2011. He couldn’t tell which flavor he’d tasted, all he knew was it tasted good. He had no idea it was nose tackle Dana Brown who ambushed him from behind with a bucket of lemon-lime.
“Totally caught me off guard,” Hazell said. “It’s on film, though, I’m sure. They got me good.”
Hazell was more concerned with what the MAC East title meant for the university, for the players, for the town, for the graduates who have wanted to wear their sports gear proudly during football season, but had nothing to be proud about.
“What a wonderful win for this football program and all the people who have ever put on football uniforms, ever put on a Kent State sweatshirt,” Hazell said. “To think what our team has accomplished this season and the end of last season, it’s mind-boggling. It tells you when guys put their minds to something and they work the plan, so much can be accomplished.”
Hazell sounded almost in awe of what’s being done by his players, who were rejected by big schools.
“They have been so humble, their preparation has been incredible and they’re so driven,” Hazell said. “You’d think after getting five or six wins they would take their foot off the gas pedal, that has not been the case at all. Not for one second have they let up.”
In some ways, KSU junior Roosevelt Nix typifies what Hazell has done. He took a 5-foot-11, 245-pound Reynoldsburg High School product who some thought was too small to play defensive tackle and helped make him a force. That force broke up a Bowling Green pass on fourth-and-2 from the KSU 17 with five minutes remaining to help preserve the victory.
“There’s been plenty of times coaches came up after games and said, ‘We were wrong.’ I just like to prove people wrong,” Nix said. “I joke with coach Hazell all the time; he was at Ohio State.”
Nix reveled in the Golden Flashes’ ghost-busting victory.
“It’s an amazing feeling, you know the history behind our program, just to change it up,” Nix said.
Junior strong safety Luke Wollet of Poland Seminary, who had a game-clinching interception with 21 seconds remaining, was another who appreciated the accomplishment not just for himself, but for Golden Flashes everywhere.
“Aw, man, this is just a big moment for this city and this football program,” Wollet said, sighing before he spoke. “I’m sure there’s 40 years of players that just sat back in their chair and had a big smile. It feels great to do this for them and to do this for us. So many Kent State football players and students who have wanted to come watch a nice football team … we’re hoping we can build on that.
“It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Behind the stadium, Kent State fans who traveled to Northwest Ohio were joyously congratulating players and coaches. There were hugs and handshakes and even a few tears. One KSU administrator wiped his eyes before he entered the locker room.
Old burdens had been lifted. No one who ever put on a Kent State uniform may have been spared an emotional response, perhaps not even Lambert.
“I hope Jack calls,” Hazell said excitedly.
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.