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Paul Haynes' first season as head coach at his alma mater proved to be quite an experience.
After Kent State defeated Liberty in the season opener, a rugged early schedule and a rash of key injuries dashed any dreams of repeating last year's incredible run to the Mid-American Conference East Division title and a school-record 11 wins.
After suffering a heart-breaking 27-24 Week 7 loss at Ball State, which would go on to earn 10 wins during the regular season, the Golden Flashes bottomed out when a five-game losing streak was capped by an ugly 16-7 setback at arch-rival Akron.
But Kent State picked itself off the floor and won two straight to close the season, including a 44-13 dismantling of host Ohio - the MAC East Division preseason favorite - in a nationally televised season finale. Those two wins made Flashes backers wonder what might have been had their squad faced a softer schedule and stayed healthy, but more importantly restored hope heading into the offseason.
Haynes recently took time out of a busy recruiting schedule to discuss the 2013 season, and what lies ahead for his football program:
How important was it to end such a trying season on a positive note?
"It was good that we ended the way we did, it was good that we started to get everyone healthy. If that was maybe some other teams you wouldn't have been so successful (at the end of the year). I think the thing the guys are encouraged about is the things we talked about (started happening). Why couldn't we be that way all the time, though? That's the challenge. If we were, we would have been in more games at the end."
The 2013 schedule included back-to-back road games at LSU and Penn State, a stretch of five road games in six weeks, and no bye-week among other things. Looking back, how difficult did the schedule make it to succeed this year?
"The schedule was tough in itself just with the teams we were playing, and in a row. I think the other thing that played a factor is the times of the game. I go back to LSU (7 p.m. start), Penn State (3:30) and Western Michigan (7) in a row (on the road), our guys didn't get back (to Kent) until four, one and four in the morning three weeks in a row. Then you've gotta keep going, there was no break. Then right after that you had Northern (Illinois) and Ball State, two of the better teams in the conference, right after you got back home at four o'clock in the morning. That to me was the tough part - besides the teams you were playing, the times you were getting back (to Kent). When I look back that was hard. In the Big Ten you played at noon or 3:30 almost every week, we had just one or two night games and that was it. Plus you're flying everywhere. Our Western Michigan game was over at 11, the you've got a five-hour bus ride back. Those things take tolls, and I didn't take those things into account. You don't think about those things until afterward. Nobody takes into account the athlete. It's about TV, getting people to the games cause people want night games, and this and that, but they don't take into account the student-athlete, in my opinion. You ask anybody who was on that bus who was non-football and it took a toll on them, my wife for one. She was like 'I don't know how you guys do it', cause it takes me two days to recover. These guys have to go to class on Monday."
Is there anything you can do about it?
"I think no (he chuckles). I think you address it - here's the schedule, here's the times, you've gotta push through. You've gotta talk about it. I look back on everything from fall camp through the season that we talked about, things we had to do, and there's nothing I look back and say we didn't cover except that. It's the one thing I think about afterward that we didn't address."
The back-to-back road games at LSU and Penn State seemed particularly challenging. Is playing your two 'money games' back-to-back something you'd like to avoid in the future?
"I wouldn't want to do it unless we have to. I know we're gonna play two big teams each year, which is fine, it's what we have to do, but again I look at the times of those games and what's happening after those games or even before those games, and how can we help ourselves out the most. But I don't make those decisions. A lot of it has to do with the MAC. It is what it is."
Looking back, what else did you learn during your first season as a head coach?
"I knew from playing and coaching (in the MAC) that this was a very competitive league, but I think when you look at it from top to bottom a lot of the talent level is about the same. This is a league that it just comes down to the little things. It comes down to streaks, believing, doing the little things right. To be successful in this league, that's what it really comes down to."
Since your season ended so soon, you had a chance to get a jump on recruiting. How's that going so far?
"Recruiting is going really well. We're almost ahead of schedule a little bit, but with these mid-majors you've gotta do a good job of staying on guys and being ready when guys fall off (de-commit from other teams). You've gotta continue to recruit."
What are your positions of emphasis while recruiting this season? "We'll always start inside out and up front to back. We always will recruit offensive linemen and defensive linemen first, then the next positions that are important are your linebacker/defensive back/wide receiver-type guys, cause those are your special teams guys too. Those are positions that we'll always be heavy on. We're kind of heavy on our defensive ends and light on our inside guys, so we'll try to find inside guys a little bit more this year. Then we lose two guys on the offensive line and were a little thin there already, so we'll recruit guys at that position. When you look at the roster the talent is there, we've just gotta fill some holes."
What needs to improve for the program to become a consistent MAC title contender?
"Our issue to me moving forward is just what we believe and our attitude - not that we had a bad attitude this year, but it just needs to improve. Our motto for 2014 I told them already is be the best team we can possibly be, and that's it. There's no 'the rest of it.' If I can be the best on Monday that means I've gotta practice the best, lift the best, do everything I can possibly do to be the best. Then how many games we win will depend on how good we are. That's it. A championship program to me it about a culture, the culture of the place. There's the saying 'the law of the price tag,' the No. 1 thing is everyone has to be willing to pay the price. And that's every single person, from the head coach to the trainer to the equipment manager to our secretary, administration, everyone. Every single person has to pay the price to be part of a championship program. It doesn't happen overnight. When you look at the programs that do it on a consistent basis it has taken time. You take (two-time defending MAC champion) Northern Illinois, they've had three coaches and things don't change there. That ain't just because of the coaches and players, it's everyone. You talk about the culture within the locker room, within studying film, within being competitive, with great leadership, the team polices itself. When you have those things you have a championship program, and right now we don't have those things on a consistent basis. I've said this from the beginning, as an alumnus here I don't care who sits in this (head coach) chair, I want the best for Kent State football. For us to have that we're gonna have to have that culture here. There's a lot of places in the country that have it, and I know the head coach is important but it doesn't matter who is sitting in that chair (in those places). The standard is there, it's set."
Continuity always helps when you're trying to build a winning culture. Do you believe your coaching staff will remain in tact?
"That's always an issue with mid-majors. I told these guys down this hallway I can't stop you and will not stop you and won't be upset if you can help your family out (by accepting another job). If you have another opportunity to better your family's situation, then by all means I'll help you however I can. And I'll do whatever I can here to try to help, because continuity is important. That's a thing that you battle at the so-called mid-major programs all the time. But I think our guys are happy here. I think our guys all like it here. It's a great environment to work in, a great location. But we'll see if they get other opportunities. We'll play that by ear and take it as it comes, but hopefully we can keep everyone in tact and keep the continuity."
You held over coordinators Brian Rock (offense) and Brian George (defense) from the previous staff. How did that pan out?
"That was good. First of all, it was the best thing for our players. It takes time for a staff to gel. It's the first time that we've been through it together, and I told them now our honeymoon's over too. We've gotten to know each other, so now all that stuff is over. Let's continue to gel, continue to figure out what's best for the team. That's the No. 1 thing, what's best for the team, not individuals or anything else. Who are our best 22 guys offensively and defensively, and let's find a way to get them on the field regardless of position. That's our challenge right now, finding our best 22."
What are the primary goals for the offseason?
"The No. 1 thing for our team is we've gotta get stronger. That's first and foremost. You watch the film all year and we're on blocks or trying to get off blocks and we're just not strong enough to do it. There's also a couple special things we're gonna do to improve leadership qualities, cause I think that's the No. 1 thing you have to have for a championship program, great leadership. We're gonna identify guys, put them in leadership roles and also teach them what we want from leaders. It starts with me and what I think a leader is, what type of leadership I want. When the guys get back in January I'm gonna identify 17-18 guys that we'll sit down with and have weekly leadership meetings."
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