They have celebrated one conference championship in the history of Kent State’s football program. One. Oklahoma, this ain’t. In 1972, the Golden Flashes won five of their last six, including a season-ending triumph over Toledo that clinched the title and earned a Tangerine Bowl berth.
It couldn’t have come at a more important time in school history.
Until the championship — and for many, after it still — Kent State had been known for one thing: the horrific deaths two-plus years earlier of four innocent students at the hands of National Guardsmen trying to stop a rally on campus protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Today, the haunting lyrics of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio” continue to resonate, and those who were there remember.
“All that stuff that happened at Kent State united the students,” says Alabama head coach Nick Saban, a member of the ’72 title team and a student at the time of the shootings.
“They were looking for something to identify with. There was probably more interest in the football program at that time than ever before.”
We often overemphasize the restorative power of sport in times of tragedy. The Golden Flashes’ title didn’t bring back the dead. It couldn’t fill the holes in the hearts of survivors. But it was a positive at a time when the name “Kent State” stood for something catastrophic and divisive.
Saban was there, playing safety. So was head coach Don James, who would lead Washington to a national title nearly two decades later. Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel was a two-time all-conference tight end on the team, and Hall of Fame linebacker and four-time Super Bowl champion Jack Lambert patrolled the middle of the defense. It was a remarkable confluence of talent at a school not necessarily known for it at a time that absolutely needed it.
“I think everybody felt like something really good had to happen at Kent State,” James says. “The school needed positive publicity, and the community wrapped its arms around the sport.”
The four men took interesting paths to the school, but their arrivals helped shape Kent State’s history and contributed greatly to the school’s healing process. In the late 1960s, James was working as defensive coordinator at Colorado under Eddie Crowder and met Mike Lude, then a scout with the Denver Broncos. When Lude took the athletic director’s job at Kent State, he called James and offered him the head coaching position. James had grown up in Massillon — only about 35 miles from the KSU campus — and his brother had earned a degree from Kent, so the move made good sense.
Lambert wanted to go to Miami (Ohio), but coach Bill Mallory wouldn’t recruit him. Said he was too small. And, in fact, Lambert played quarterback in high school. So, the Mantua, Ohio, native ended up at Kent State. Talk about a perfect housewarming present for James. After sitting out the ’70 season (freshmen weren’t eligible until 1972), Lambert became a force as a sophomore.
“He was ideal,” James says. “He came into my office one day and said, ‘I know you’re concerned about our academic eligibility and going to class, but in my case don’t worry. Football is too important for me to mess that up.’
“What a great competitor.”
Kent State wasn’t Saban’s first choice, either. In fact, he was all set to go to the Naval Academy. But in the spring before he was to report to Annapolis, he “decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do.” Saban didn’t have too many other scholarship opportunities, so he was left to decide between Miami (Ohio), Ohio and Kent State. He chose the Golden Flashes.
“They were the absolutely worst program of the bunch,” Saban says. “But I had an uncle in Canton, which was only 30 miles away, and since I was a shy kid from (Fairmont) West Virginia, I wasn’t comfortable not knowing anybody.”
Pinkel wasn’t too keen on straying so far from home. That’s why the Akron native chose Kent State, which sits about 15 miles from his home. He arrived in ’70 and played three seasons for James. He also had the distinction of rooming with Lambert. “I like to lie and tell people that I knocked his teeth out,” Pinkel says with a laugh.
The Golden Flashes weren’t cracking too many people in the mouth during the first half of the 1972 season. They started the year 1–3–1 and looked ready to assume their historic spot near the bottom of the Mid-American Conference standings when they visited 3–0–1 Bowling Green.
“We had to beat Miami, Bowling Green and Toledo to win the league, and the other coaches were saying we could never do it, because we weren’t good enough,” James says.
But the Golden Flashes were good enough. They bumped off Bowling Green, 14–10, and despite a loss to Northern Illinois, closed the year with a 21–10 spanking of Miami (Ohio) on the road and a resounding 27–9 win at home against Toledo to conclude the season and clinch the title. The crown was worth a spot in the Tangerine Bowl, where Kent State lost to Tampa, 21–18, in the school’s second and last postseason appearance.
“We had a lot of good young players,” says Saban, who was a senior on the championship squad. “We had a good young quarterback (freshman Greg Kokal), and as the season went on, we got better and better. We were pretty good at the end.”
Because Saban was a year older than Pinkel and Lambert, he was on campus when the shootings occurred. In fact, he had an English class with Allison Krause, one of the people shot to death on May 4, 1970. He had thought about attending the rally, which included 3,000 Kent State students, but decided to eat lunch first and wasn’t present when the National Guardsmen opened fire.
The incident impacted him, and Saban has admitted that every May 4, he “really thinks about” what happened. He considers often the impact James had on him as well. After graduating with a business degree in 1973, Saban became a graduate assistant under James before joining the staff full-time.
“He was a fantastic person and class guy,” Saban says of James. “He was systematic about everything he did and defined what the expectations he had for everything in the organization were. He worked hard and did things the way I thought they should be done. He did a good job developing players there and a good job recruiting players.”
James didn’t recruit Pinkel, but he certainly benefitted from the All-MAC tight end’s accomplishments. Pinkel caught 34 passes in 1972 and 36 in ’73 at a time when the passing game was nothing like it is today. “He had great hands, ran well and was smart,” Saban says. “He was a good character guy and an outstanding player.”
Pinkel was an honorable mention All-American in 1973, when the Golden Flashes went 9–2. Even though that record was better than the ’72 edition’s accomplishment, it wasn’t good enough for another MAC championship. Still, 18 Kent State players were on the All-MAC lists, and the Golden Flashes allowed a mere 11.9 points per game. Only a 20–10 loss to undefeated Miami prevented them from repeating as league champs. “They were a much better team than the 1972 team,” Saban says.
Pinkel bounced around a couple NFL camps, but like Saban, returned to Kent State to be a graduate assistant in ’74 and ended up spending 15 years on James’ staffs at Kent and the University of Washington.
“If Pinkel gave the NFL a little more time, he could have made it,” James says. “He could block and had excellent hands.”
And then there was Lambert, the nine-time Pro Bowler and seven-time first-team All-Pro linebacker on some of the Steelers’ greatest teams.
James tells a story about coaching in a postseason all-star game after Lambert’s senior year. He warned fellow coach Dick MacPherson that the team would have to practice with at least helmets and shoulder pads, because “we have a guy who won’t let anybody go through his area.” McPherson insisted on practices in sweats only, but after seeing Lambert in action during the first workout, told the team to wear helmets and pads for the rest of the practices.
“He was one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever been around,” Pinkel says about Lambert. “He was a smart guy. He was a very dedicated football player.”
Lambert was so tough that he played a game with two hip pointers, a bruised chest and a swollen elbow. James once said that Lambert felt responsible every time the opponent gained an inch. “I came to Kent with a background of putting your game face on Thursday, not Friday,” James says. “His game face was on every day.”
For four years under James, Kent State had the right attitude, and Lambert, Pinkel and Saban were big parts of it. At a time when a wounded campus needed something around which it could rally, the Golden Flashes provided it with a championship and some great moments that allowed a healing school to be known for something more than tragedy.
“Winning that championship had a profound impact on the university as far as its attitude,” Pinkel says. “I’m proud of that.”
This article originally appeared in Athlon Sports monthly, available in newspapers nationwide.