And, for Kent State director of athletics Laing

By Allen Moff Record-Courier staff writer Published:

And, for Kent State director of athletics Laing Kennedy, doing so at this point and time is rather enjoyable.

Kennedy and I recently sat down to conduct our annual discussion on the plight of Kent athletics, and the primary issues the school's athletic program currently faces.

Here's what he had to say.

Mr. Kennedy you're about to enter your sixth year at Kent, which is arguably coming off its best overall athletic season ever. Talk about where the program is, compared to where you thought it may be at this point.

Coming in my goals were simple: I wanted to have the best sports program in the Mid-American Conference and the best-run department on campus. And we're certainly making strides toward accomplishing those goals.

We're coming off a phenomenal season, when we won six MAC championships of some kind. Our men's basketball team won the MAC Tournament and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Our women's teams won the Jacoby Cup (awarded to the MAC's top women's sports program), and our men's and women's teams combined were second. Over the last three years we're No. 1 combined in the MAC, even with a football team that hasn't been competitive.

We've certainly went beyond my expectations.

You mentioned the football team's lack of competitiveness, coming off an 0-11 season in Dean Pees' first year. Can you discuss the current state of the program?

I see significant improvement in the foundation of our football program under Dean Pees and his staff. Eventually that will produce wins, but when I don't know. All I can say is that Dean is under no pressure to win right now, other than the pressure he imposes on himself.

I certainly hope we don't go 0-11 again, and I don't believe we will. But Dean is under no pressure to win X amount of games this year.

How important is it for Kent to field a competitive football team? Will athletics at Kent ever be fully embraced by the campus and community until that happens?

I go back to last spring, when we had the best thing going in the MAC. Our men's and women's basketball teams were playing for championships every night for a seven-day period, creating enthusiasm on this campus the likes of which I have never experienced. My colleagues at the MAC Tournament were saying, 'wow, you've really got things going.'

But now another year rolls around and the paranoia is back.

Now people come up to me and say, 'great season last year Laing. Is our football team going to win a game this year?' It really creates a roller coaster of emotion for me personally. But until our football team wins, this is the way it's going to be.

I realize how important football is to a college community, and I know how long it's been since we've been successful here at Kent. We need more than anything right now to have a breakout season, just like our men's basketball team did a year ago. We need a major win over a conference opponent that makes people say, 'hey, this team isn't bad.' Obviously, the sooner the better.

I'm not into making predictions. I just know that right now we have a coach, facilities and a commitment from the administration that's second to none (in the MAC). So eventually the breakout will happen, and I don't want to miss it.

You've recently extended the contracts of both men's basketball coach Gary Waters and women's basketball coach Bob Lindsay. How difficult is it to keep successful coaches such as Waters and Lindsay at Kent?

I'm flattered when major universities show an interest in our coaches, but we work extremely hard to retain and reward them. And yes, it's becoming increasingly difficult to keep them here.

Fortunately our administrative support staff has willingly done everything I've asked of them to help us keep our coaches, without hesitation. But we do have limitations. So if a major program decides they want one of our coaches, we in all likelihood won't be able to keep them.

Your track record of hiring coaches at Kent is quite impressive so far. Is that an aspect of your job you enjoy?

It's the most difficult part of the job, but it's my favorite part.

Here at Kent, we aren't in a position to hire proven head coaches. We have to work hard to find rising stars, people that we believe have what it takes to be outstanding coaches. You have to take a chance on people you believe in, and when they have success that's the most rewarding part of this business.

Through luck and good management, we've been able to select some very good head coaches. As I look back over the past five years, that's the most gratifying accomplishment for me personally.

You've also put a great deal of emphasis on gender equity since coming to Kent, and you seem to be well ahead of the game at this point.

By adding women's soccer and golf, and reducing our men's sports numbers through roster management, we've nearly equalized our participation rate. It should be close to 50-50 this year. So we're on schedule, but we have to work really hard to stay that way.

I'm proud of the fact that we've had some phenomenal women's teams in the past several years. You can equalize things by making them equally poor or equally strong, and our teams have been equally strong. That will continue to be our top priority.

Do you believe roster management has hampered your men's teams?

Personally, I don't think it has. The way the NCAA currently requires teams to count players does make it tough, because any player that receives coaching at any point is counted even if he is eventually cut. That's caused some frustration, because it cuts down on the number of walk-ons our coaches can accept.

I believe rosters should be counted on opening day. That, to me, makes sense.

Will additional women's sports be added in the near future?

Down the road we will need to add another sport, but we're not necessarily zeroing in on women's tennis (as is rumored). Personally, I'd like to see the MAC look into adding a women's roster sport, such as lacrosse.

Here at Kent we already have the facilities to house lacrosse, and the large 30-40 player roster would help balance the participation numbers immensely for all MAC schools. I personally think it would be a great MAC sport.

Rumors continue to circulate about possible changes and additions in the area of facilities. Will there be any moves within the next several years?

We're at a crossroads with our baseball facility, where we need to either invest in the current site or relocate. One or the other will happen in the next two to five years.

Relocating the baseball stadium to Dix Stadium is a very real vision. It would be a cost-efficient thing to do from the standpoint of space, land and the ability to share lockers and other facilities that are already in place, and I like the idea of having an athletic complex in the Dix Stadium area. That's a very realistic move in the short to medium range.

I'd also like to demolish Dix Stadium's east bleachers and construct permanent stands. That's on our short list.

We're extremely pleased with the artificial turf. It looks great, and we've actually been able to use it even more than we expected when we installed it two years ago. It has really made Dix Stadium an up-to-date athletic facility.

This year, the Kent and Akron men's basketball teams play only once. Scheduling and other problems continue to plague the MAC. Can these issues be resolved?

Of course they can.

First of all, the fact that we're only playing Akron, our arch-rival, a team 12 miles down the road, once this year is absolutely ludicrous. Last year our women's team only played Akron once, and a second game sure would have been interesting.

I have a lot of faith and confidence in our new commissioner, Rick Chryst. He is very committed to our current two-division format and devising a fair division schedule, and he understands the importance of increased television exposure. He will deal with these issues in the near future.

Personally, I don't feel as strong as my colleagues do about adding a 14th team to the conference. I'm amazed at the mystery scheduling has created. I believe our teams need to play each team in their division once in football and twice in basketball. Cross-division games should also count equally, and it does get confusing when you try to schedule those games with six teams in the East Division and seven in the West. But it can be done.

Overall, how do you feel about the state of Kent athletics heading into the 1999-2000 campaign?

We certainly enter the season in a position of strength. We've overcome tremendous challenges to get to this point. But once programs do well, it becomes even more difficult to stay at that level.

Last year you said you wanted to finish your career at Kent. Has anything changed?

Not in my mind. I feel very well-supported at Kent State, and this is

where I want to continue to apply my trade.

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