Stephanie Storm

KENT: When Kent State hired Paul Haynes to replace Darrell Hazell as football coach in December, there was one immediate benefit he brought to the program.

As a walk-on defensive back at Kent State from 1987-91 who later served as an assistant coach for two seasons (1999-2000), Haynes is well versed in KSU’s intense rivalry with the University of Akron.

That’s why he wasted little time following the Flashes’ (2-7, 1-4 Mid-American Conference) loss to visiting Buffalo before turning his team’s attention to the 3:30 p.m. Saturday game against the Zips at InfoCision Stadium.

“It’s Akron week,” Haynes said during his opening statement in last week’s post-game news conference, no more than a half hour after walking off the field following a 41-21 loss to the Bulls. “We said in the locker room that every ounce of energy, mind, body and soul goes into this game. Whatever we have to do, we’re going to do it to win this game. It’s life or death. You don’t lose to Akron — bottom line.”

Some of Haynes’ passion for defeating Akron (2-7, 1-4) is fueled by his personal 2-4 record against the Zips. (He is 2-2 as a player and 0-2 as an assistant coach.)

On Monday, Haynes was emotional when speaking about the Zips.

“It’s Akron week,” he began, “it’s everything. It makes and breaks seasons. You throw records out the window. You throw what has happened in the past out the window. It does not matter. It just comes down to what happens at 3:30 on Saturday. This is the season. … whatever it takes, however we have to do it, whatever we’ve got to do, it’s got to get done.”

Haynes’ education in rivalries only intensified when he served an eight-year stint as a defensive assistant at Ohio State under former coach Jim Tressel, who coincidentally now is in his second stint as an employee at the University of Akron. After many years of embarrassing losses to rival Michigan, Tressel turned around the Buckeyes’ fortunes, winning eight of nine, including the last seven, against the Wolverines.

So it was no surprise when Haynes borrowed a page out of Tressel’s rivalry week playbook earlier this week as the Flashes prepared to face the Zips.

“We started a new tradition [Sunday],” he said. “We brought the band in and had them perform the fight song. Then we had them go through what they [usually play] on first down, second down and third down. Then our guys grabbed the instruments and they started playing the fight song and we marched down to the 50-yard line.

“That’s something that we did [at Ohio State] that I thought was pretty neat. I wanted to bring it here, get the band involved with the football players and the players involved with the band. Everybody is involved in this game. It’s not just about the players on the field.”

Like Hazell — another longtime Tressel assistant coach — before him, Haynes made sure there were plenty of reminders plastered on the walls in the football facility to keep his staff and players aware of how big this week’s game is to the program.

“I remember all the signs being up.” Haynes said of the Beat Michigan signs at OSU. “One of the first questions I asked [KSU director of football operations Zack Tilves] is if we have [beat Akron] signs, and he said we did. [I figured] Coach Hazell did that, and I’m sure [Ohio State] is where that came from.”

Rivalry-intensifying props aside, all it takes to get Haynes really emotional about KSU’s rival is to get him talking about the Wagon Wheel, the trophy that the winning team of the KSU/Akron game displays until the next season when the teams face each other again.

“One of the hardest things to do when you talk about that wheel is have them run over and take it,” Haynes said with a noticeable quiver in his jaw. “That’s what you can’t have happen. You just cannot, by any means necessary.”

The Flashes are proud of the fact that the wheel has been mounted on a wall in their locker room for the past three seasons, since claiming it back from the Zips on Oct. 9, 2010.

“The best thing about the Wagon Wheel is having it,” said junior defensive end Nate Vance, who as former assistant coach Zane Vance’s son has been around the rivalry longer than most players. “It’s right when we walk [into our locker room], front and center. Right where it should be. As long as it’s in our locker room, we’re good.”

Stephanie Storm can be reached at sstorm@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Kent State blog at https://ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.