Lengthy bowl drought pushing Flashes

KENT, Ohio — If a few cookies get tossed in the midst of an indoor fieldhouse workout, it’s usually a sign of physical progress or exhaustion, maybe both.  

Kent State players say they’re just sick of seeing that banner from 1972 hanging alone.

To second-year head coach Darrell Hazell, that’s progress. And it’s almost time for this current group of Flashes to have its chance do something about it.

Forty years have passed since Kent State won a Mid-American Conference championship. Forty years have passed since Kent State played in a bowl game. The 1972 MAC champs lost the Tangerine Bowl to the University of Tampa 21-18.

The current team not only knows that but is tired of seeing the bowl-less streak grow. And whether it’s playing for all the potatoes in Idaho in mid-December or playing in Detroit, California or anywhere in between, its goals are simple:

Become the first team since 1972 to win the MAC. Become the first team since 1972 to make a bowl game.

“It is realistic,” Hazell said. “I like what this team is aspiring to be.

“The biggest thing (about making a bowl game) is what it would do for Kent State and this football program. It would validate the things we’re doing right now and the strides we’re making. If we can accomplish the goals in front of us we can open a lot of eyes across the country.”

Hazell isn’t afraid of his team thinking it’s more than coincidence that many members of that 1972 Tangerine Bowl team will be in attendance for a school-sponsored reunion Thursday night at the season opener vs. Towson.

“We’re reminded of it often, and almost always when one of the (’72) alums comes to talk to us,” Kent State senior offensive lineman Josh Kline said. “They always remind us. And it’s all around campus.

“You see the baseball and basketball banners hanging, and you see all their conference championships and NCAA tournament success. It’s right in our faces. It’s a lot of motivation.”

A little more than 10 weeks after the Kent State baseball team crashed the College World Series, the football team is out to end what’s been more than just a dry spell. Since that 1972 season, the Kent State program has won 130 total games while losing 295. The 2001 team, which went 6-5, is the last team to post a winning record and was only the second Kent State team to do it since 1977 (along with 1987’s 7-4 squad). Since 1989, 15 Kent State teams have won three games or fewer.

Last year’s team went 5-7 for the third straight year, just missing the minimum mark required for bowl eligibility. This year’s initial depth chart lists 18 upperclassmen as starters, indicating that the pieces are in place. A talented and experienced defense will be asked to lead. In his second year, Hazell has his systems in place, had 49 players achieve a 3.0 grade-point average or better last spring and isn’t afraid to challenge his players to maximize their on-field potential.

“We have to face adversity on the road, and we have to face history because it’s been so long,” senior defensive back Sidney Saulter said. “But we have the players here to do it, and we have the coaches here to do it. We’re not hiding from the fact that we have to win six or seven games to make a bowl game, and we want to win even more than that.”

Said Kline: “The big thing is Coach Hazell practices what he preaches. He’s a leader by example in his life. It reverberates throughout the team. I look around and see guys paying attention. I see guys buying in.

“We’ve had the talent here. You can see that on NFL Sundays and the guys who have come through here. Us getting there is an attitude, and it’s becoming a team. It’s every guy out here saying it’s time to put something on top of that 1972 banner.”

That 1972 team, coached by Don James, had some recognizable names on the roster. Among them are Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel. Among the Kent State alumni currently playing in the NFL are James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Joshua Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns, Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots and Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers, who played on the Kent State basketball team that made the Elite Eight in 2002.

For perspective on how long it has been since Kent State played in a bowl game, Hazell was 8 years old in December 1972. The University of Tampa gave up football in 1974, before three current Kent State full-time assistant coaches were born.

“Absolutely, we hear Coach say ’40 years’ all the time,” Saulter said. “We take it as motivation. We know there hasn’t been a winning tradition, and we’re trying to change that this year.

“It absolutely can change. We’re coming along, and we should be able to do it. We know that championship banner is there in the fieldhouse, but we don’t have to see it to think about it. We know it’s there. We know it’s time for another.”

Last year, Kent State played an impossible opener at Alabama and two weeks later was shut out at Kansas State. The Flashes went 0-6 against teams that played in bowl games, 0-5 on the road. Alabama won The Really Big Bowl last January.  

This year’s schedule is much more manageable. There are still seven road games, but Kentucky and Rutgers aren’t Alabama and Kansas State. Temple is gone from the MAC East to the Big East. The prohibitive MAC favorite, Ohio University, visits Kent in the season finale.

The regular-season finale. This Kent State team is thinking bigger.

“You lean on your older guys,” Hazell said. “If they set the tone and provide the leadership, we can set the path. I like the attitudes. It’s going to be critical for us to get off on the right foot early.”

Having the guys who won the program’s last league title around can’t hurt, but this team knows exactly what it’s shooting for.