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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
No one outside the Kent State locker room has been more thrilled by the 2012 football season's unbridled success than the 1972 Golden Flashes.
The novelty of being the one and only Mid-American Conference football championship team in Kent State history wore off long ago for the '72 Flashes, who ironically enough celebrated the 40th anniversary of their championship season with a reunion hosted by Kent State University before this year's season opener.
"Who would have thought when we got together for that Towson game that this would be the year?" said Herb Page, Kent State's Director of Golf and men's golf coach, who was the Flashes' kicker in 1972. "I can't speak for all of my teammates, but I'm personally just so happy that we've got another championship team. And we've got this team going way far above and beyond where we went in 1972."
The 2012 Flashes (11-1, 8-0) captured the MAC East Division crown, the first KSU football title of any kind since 1972, with a perfect 8-0 league record. They have earned a school-record 11 wins, and will carry a record 10-game winning streak into Friday's MAC Championship Game against Northern Illinois (11-1, 8-0) at Ford Field in Detroit.
The 1972 squad is also the last Kent State team to play in a bowl game, falling to Tampa 21-18 in the Tangerine Bowl. But that drought will also end this year. The Flashes will receive a bowl bid no matter what happens on Friday, but a win -- coupled with losses by UCLA and Texas -- would likely land them in a BCS bowl.
The excitement generated by this year's Flashes makes Page recall 1972 like it was yesterday.
"I kind of know that feeling from being a player and experiencing that. It was a very, very exciting time, and I feel as excited this week as I did then," said Page. "It's a feeling I haven't had for 40 years."
Page's teammate, Kenneth Dooner, was one of several players from the '72 squad who echoed his sentiments by responding to an email asking for thoughts on this year's team.
"This is AWESOME for Kent State. I was at the OU game and it felt great to know Kent football is back. I was a member of the '72 team and Captain of the '74 team. I am a PROUD Kent State graduate."
Nearly 50 members of the 1972 program responded to an invitation to be honored by Kent State University before this year's season opener. According to Page, they all came back for one main reason.
"Coach James," said Page. "We came back for Don James."
James coached the Flashes from 1971-74, compiling a 25-19-1 record. He went on to become a coaching legend at the University of Washington, leading the Huskies to six PAC-8/Pac-10 titles and to the National Championship in 1991.
"The reason we were so good is coach James," said Page. "For two years I got the greatest coaching lessons of my life just watching him. Don James had you prepared to win every single week, and I see the same characteristics with (current KSU coach) Darrell Hazell."
Hazell, like James, has led the Flashes to a championship in his second season. They also both inherited programs that were struggling mightily before they arrived. Kent State hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 1965 when James took over in '71, while the Flashes had managed just one winning season since 1987 when Hazell assumed the controls.
"Don James came in when the program was suffering, and look what he did -- just like Darrell," said Page. "There are a lot of parallels between those two coaches. This year we have a great team, and the key guy is Darrell Hazell. He brought them together, just like Don James did. I don't want to say Darrell Hazell is another Don James, but he's pretty good in my book."
James actually spoke to the Flashes the night before their 2012 season opener.
"I don't know what he said, but I'm sure those kids listened," said Page.
The Flashes have been searching for a coaching savior since James left. After Glen Mason's successful two-year stint from 1986-87 Kent State had a chance to hire two men who played on the 1972 team, Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel, but passed on both. The program proceeded to go an abysmal 16-115-1 from 1989-2000.
Saban, of course, is now the head coach of defending national champion Alabama, while Pinkel is enjoying a highly successful run at Missouri after starting his head coaching career at Toledo in 1991.
The decisions to look past both Saban and Pinkel infuriated members of the '72 squad, many of whom are just now starting to put the grudge aside. Said Jim Conrad in an email:
"This is so exciting to see KSU football succeed after 40 years. It's kind of surreal. I always put the program on the back burner after Gary Pinkel did not get the (KSU head coaching) job in 1991. He became the Toledo coach and I pledged my allegiance to that program in that we had won championships in high school and at Kent together. I am now a die hard Missouri Tiger fan. But it is a tribute to the (Kent State) players, staff, university and community to rally around a phenomenal year of success and dedication."
The 40 years that have passed between MAC football championships make the success this year's Flashes are enjoying taste that much sweeter to everyone who has ever played for or supported Kent State's football program.
"It's just a great time to be at Kent State," said Page. "With the evolution of the new downtown, all the new buildings on campus, our baseball team finishing fifth in the College World Series, my golf team (5th at last year's NCAA Championship). And now we're playing for a MAC football championship, with a team putting the university in the national college football spotlight. This is the best yet."