MOBILE, Ala -- While 40 years between bowl games has been difficult for Kent State football fans to endure, it also made Sunday's appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl that much more special.
Thousands of Golden Flashes backers arrived at Ladd-Peebles Stadium hours before kickoff, relishing every moment of the long-awaited journey into postseason play. Among the alums spotted in Mobile were Kent State baseball coach Scott Stricklin, former star tight end Jason Gavadza, and Brian Windhorst, who once covered Kent State football as a sportswriter for the Akron Beacon Journal and now covers the NBA for ESPN. Also on hand was retired administrator Judy Devine.
On the east side of the stadium, the Kent State University Alumni Association sponsored a tailgate party for 280 pre-registered guests, who enjoyed food and beverages along with several gifts. Kent State University President Dr. Lester A Lefton addressed the crowd.
"I told then this is a long time coming for the loyal fans and alums who never gave up and never stopped believing," said Lefton, as he made his way to his press box suite before the game. "Now the Kent State nation has to continue to move ahead."
Lefton introduced Flashes Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen, who spoke briefly to the crowd before introducing new Kent State football coach Paul Haynes. A star defensive back for the Flashes from 1987-91, Haynes and his family enjoyed the festivities over the weekend along with over 35 of his former Kent State teammates.
Just outside the stadium, Greg Relyea of Akron was spotted tailgating.
"Three of us came down, my friend Chris from Brady Lake and my friend Don McPhee from Suffield," said Relyea. "We've been going to Kent games for 20 years now. We all graduated from Kent, my parents met at Kent and they're here. I grew up in Elyria, graduated from Kent in '89, and I've been a Flash fan ever since."
As a Kent State fan since that time, Relyea and his friends have witnessed some tough times on the gridiron.
"It's been painful," he said. "We went up to the MAC Championship Game (in Detroit), and that didn't work out so well, but it was still an unbelievable game. Now this game is huge. We're gonna have fun, and I think we've got a good shot at winning this."
In the southwest corner of the stadium, a long line formed at the Kent State Will Call and Player Pass Gate. Among those waiting in line were fans sporting the jerseys of star Kent State players Brian Winters, Roosevelt Nix, Dri Archer and Pat McShane.
Making their way into the stadium were Kyle Stevens, John Garver and Steve Rokicki, who drove 14 hours from Pittsburgh to support the Flashes. Stevens, a Kent State student, was not about to miss seeing his Flashes break their postseason drought.
"I was pretty depressed when they lost to NIU, but at that point you knew they were going to a bowl game," he said. "And I was definitely going, no matter where it was."
Garver is a University of Pittsburgh fan, so a unique trip quickly came together when bowl bids were announced, putting the Panthers and the Flashes both in Alabama.
"We figured it out and had enough money to do it," said Stevens. "It's Kent's first bowl game in (40) years, so we had to get down there. We drove to Birmingham first to see Pitt play in its bowl game. It was a bad game (Pitt lost to Mississippi 38-17), so it allowed us to get down to Mobile faster."
While times have never been better for Kent State football fans, Lefton believes the best may be yet to come.
"I told everyone we'd see them back here next year," he said. "Or hopefully we'll see them (for a BCS bowl game) in Miami."