KENT (AP) — Alabama coach Nick Saban is elated by a team that’s bowl eligible, leads the nation in turnover margin, just knocked off a hated rival and has an entire campus buzzing.
No, not his top-ranked Crimson Tide.
Kent State has made him proud.
“It is my alma mater,” said Saban, class of ’73.
For the first time since Saban played safety on a Golden Flashes squad that included Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, Kent State (8-1) has climbed back onto college football’s main stage. In its second year under coach Darrell Hazell, Kent State has won seven straight games and is knocking on the door of the AP’s Top 25.
With a signature road win two weeks ago at Rutgers (ranked No. 15 at the time) and their longest winning streak in 72 years, the Golden Flashes have raised the school’s profile, given the underrated Mid-American Conference something else to brag about and brought excitement to the quaint campus about 40 miles from Cleveland.
“It’s crazy,” senior defensive end Jake Dooley said. “It’s amazing what we came into and what we’re leaving with. A lot of that is due to Coach Hazell. He has really turned the program around in a respectable way. Teachers now congratulate me when I come into classes. That’s something that has never happened before. The environment around campus is totally different now than what it was. It’s great.
“We have to keep it going.”
Hazell deserves much of the credit for Kent State’s turnaround.
An assistant for seven years on Jim Tressel’s staff at Ohio State, the confident Hazell inherited a program that had just six winning seasons since 1974 and hasn’t been to a bowl since the 1972 Tangerine. The Golden Flashes started 1-6 last season, and just when a here-we-go-again attitude was beginning to take root, Kent State got hot.
Hazell, a New Jersey native, got his players to believe. He put an emphasis on the running game, and the Golden Flashes took off, winning four of their last five and played for bowl eligibility in the season finale. Five of Kent State’s opponents last season went on to win their bowls, including Saban’s national championship squad at Alabama.
“You could feel something change then,” Hazell said, looking back to 2011. “There was a quiet confidence in our locker room. Now, it’s a lot louder. Guys are having fun. It’s a lot louder in the stands, too. I wear double headsets, but I can see the passion from the fans. And you can just feel it, too. Fans are coming out of the woodwork and I love it.”
Before last Saturday’s matchup with Akron, fans tailgated around Dix Stadium, where loud music echoed in the distance and fireworks exploded during player introductions, again after a go-ahead 30-yard touchdown run by speedy junior running back Dri Archer and following a 35-24 win over the despised Zips in the annual tussle for the Wagon Wheel trophy.
Slowly, fans are returning each Saturday to watch football at Kent State, which in recent years has produced NFL stars James Harrison, Antonio Gates and Josh Cribbs, but hasn’t had many teams worth celebrating.
“I went to school here when Jack Lambert did and I’ve always kind of supported the football program ever since,” Jim Mitchell of nearby Medina said while sitting in the stands. “We have had so many coaches come in and promise to build a winner. Coach Hazell did it in two years. The team is winning, but it is the way it is winning, by playing exciting, up-tempo football. This is just great. I used to come to one or two games a year.
“I haven’t missed a game since coach Hazell was hired.”
However, it took an Oct. 27 win at Rutgers — Kent State’s first over a ranked opponent in 23 tries — to convince the Flashes’ faithful that this team was for real.
Kent State rolled up 224 yards rushing on the nation’s then-No. 3 ranked run defense and won 35-23, ruining Rutgers’ homecoming but giving Hazell a nice return to where he spent three years as an assistant. The Golden Flashes intercepted six passes and forced seven turnovers, which has been a major component in their new-found success.
“Our team played extremely well in all phases at Rutgers,” the 48-year-old Hazell said. “We made some plays on both sides of the ball. It was a great win for our program. We have a good football team and we are starting to play with some discipline. We play extremely hard and prepare extremely hard. I am not surprised (at the turnaround), but we have stayed humble and have to keep working at it.”
The Golden Flashes have a tough stretch ahead. This week, they’re at Miami of Ohio, which handed then-No. 23 Ohio its first loss earlier this season. On Nov. 17, Kent State travels to Bowling Green before wrapping up the regular season on the day after Thanksgiving at home against Ohio in a game that could decide the MAC East champion.
Then, Kent State gets to go bowling, something foreign to generations of fans.
“My husband said this year’s team is bowl eligible,” said Ann Bullington of Stow, Ohio. “I didn’t even know what that meant.”
Hazell knew a reversal at Kent State was possible. He had recruited in the football-crazed region and was certain finding talent wouldn’t be hard.
All that was missing was belief.
“There were a lot of good players in the locker room when I got here,” he said. “We went about getting them to do things the right way, take pride in every game, every practice. I told them that they were winners, they just didn’t quite know it yet.”
Now they do, and that makes Saban smile.
“I always kind of look and see what the Kent State score was, kind of follow them week to week,” he said. “It’s really good to see that they’re having a great year. It means something to me.”
Freelancer Chuck Murr in Kent, Ohio, and AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.
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