Darrell Hazell has used inspirations as far and wide as Norman Dale and Jim Tressel to lead his team to a historic season, but the Kent State head coach and former Ohio State assistant is sticking to one of the maxims of the coaching profession going into a potentially historic weekend for his team.
That adage is that everything must happen one day and one game at a time. Media attention on the Golden Flashes has exploded this week as No. 17 Kent State (11-1) prepares to take on No. 21 Northern Illinois in tonight’s MAC Championship Game in Detroit based on the fact the team has a chance to make a BCS bowl with a victory and some help, but the second-year head coach isn’t putting the cart before the horse.
“Those rankings are an honor for our football program, but our focus right now is to prepare as hard as we can for this game Friday night,” Hazell, the MAC Coach of the Year, said on a teleconference with media members earlier this week. “It’s a huge game for us, obviously. We’re looking forward to getting up to Detroit and playing a good football team.”
In many ways, that’s the mantra he’s installed at Kent State since being hired in December 2010, mere days before the tattoos and memorabilia scandal that would rock Ohio State – and result in the dismissal of Tressel – broke.
Hazell had to know what he was walking into at Kent State, one of the most moribund NCAA teams of the past four decades. The program had qualified for only one bowl in school history, a 21-18 loss to Tampa – yes, Tampa – in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl. His predecessor, Doug Martin, compiled a 29-53 record in seven seasons, and the Flashes hadn’t had a winning record since current Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees led the squad to a modest 6-5 mark in 2001.
In other words, the resurgence wasn’t going to happen in a day, and Hazell has made the one day at a time mentality one of the binding philosophies of his program.
“When the year began, we were worried about the first game,” said defensive lineman Roosevelt Nix, a three-time first-team All-MAC honoree who leads the team with 14 tackles for loss. “Things like these amazing honors such as the BCS bowl and stuff like that, they all fall into place as you continue to do what you’re supposed to do as you continue preparation for your daily life.
“We’ve put ourselves in a situation that obviously hasn’t happened in a long time, but all we can do is do what we do and let the rest take care of itself.”
If that mantra sounds like one developed under Tressel, it very well could be. Hazell was hired as wide receivers coach by the former OSU mentor in 2004 and became assistant head coach a year later, spending seven years by the side of one of the most successful coaches in Buckeye history.
Even now, as Tressel works off the field at Kent State’s rival, Akron, Hazell can point to the OSU legend as one of the driving forces in his development as a coach.
“He’s a great mentor to me,” Hazell said. “He’s a guy that I could close the door with in many situations and he could give me great insight in how to deal with players and coaches and everything in general. I could go to him and he could give me all types of insight.
“Without even knowing it, I’m sure I’ve used quite a bit of it, but you try to use what he gave me and put my own little spin on it.”
That started from the moment he was hired at Kent State. Tressel often spoke of family when discussing his OSU program, and Hazell delivered that message in his first team meeting with his new squad.
“He made it clear that we were going to be a family and we were going to need the people that were in the room with us,” Nix said. “There were no attitudes and stuff like that. He really wasn’t going with that. He changed it up and he changed it up quick.”
Given the traditional struggles the program had encountered, Hazell quickly went about setting up the mind-set of both accountability and confidence that often accompanies such a turnaround in football.
“I think any time that you go into a program where it’s struggled for so long, I think the first and the hardest and biggest thing that you have to change is the mind-set, that they are winners and here’s the formula, how to win,” Hazell said. “It took a little time, but I think we figured it out.”
Kent State got off to a tough start in 2011 under Hazell, losing six of its first seven games, but the worm started to turn near the end of the season with a four-game winning streak that led to a 5-7 mark. Along the way, Hazell noted an increased toughness and closeness among his players that led to better on-field results.
Sensing he might have a special team this year, he pulled out some tricks during training camp. With the heat of August camp beating down, Hazell gathered his team for a surprise trip.
The buses got as far as Oberlin, Ohio, a small town in Lorain County about an hour west of Kent. Hazell’s first coaching job was at Oberlin College, and he had a plan straight from the movie “Hoosiers” for his squad.
“I tell you, when we looked at the schedule and saw we had to take a road trip seven times, that’s not easy for anybody to do,” Hazell said. “I thought we needed to set the mind-set right away. They looked at me like we were going to Cedar Point (amusement park), but we stopped a couple of exits early and we went to Oberlin.
“We spent the day there, there was nobody else on campus, and we worked extremely hard that day. The biggest thing that we could take out of that day was that no matter where we go this year, the dimensions all stay the same on a football field.”
While Hazell didn’t actually get out the tape measure like Norman Dale, the Flashes got the message. They downed Towson to start the campaign but looked like the same old Kent State team in a week two loss by a 47-14 score at Kentucky. Despite missing two first-half field goals, Kent State was down only 17-14 at halftime, but a fumble, a safety and some defensive breakdowns let the Wildcats quickly pull away with 16 points in a span of 3:44.
“I know exactly how we lost to Kentucky,” Hazell said. “There was a four-minute stretch in that game where we didn’t play very well. We missed fits, we missed tackles, we turned the ball over and it got out of hand. Sometimes, those things happen.”
But rather than get down on themselves, the Flashes fought back.
“I feel like that loss to Kentucky was the turning point to our season,” star tailback Dri Archer said. “That loss hurt a lot of people on our team. It just brought us together. We came together as one big family and we’ve been taking it from there.”
Indeed, Kent State took off after the game. The Golden Flashes downed Buffalo to open MAC play, then nipped Ball State in a 45-43 affair when the team moved 86 yards for the game-winning field goal with six seconds to play.
“That was really when our confidence peaked,” Hazell said. “I thought the whole mentality of our locker room changed for the rest of our season.
From there, Kent State ripped off double-digit wins vs. Eastern Michigan, Army and Western Michigan, but the Flashes got the nation to take notice on Oct. 27. Going on the road to take on unbeaten and 15th-ranked Rutgers, Kent State forced seven turnovers on the way to a 35-23 win.
The Flashes returned home to beat Akron for the Wagon Wheel, then finished the slate with wins at Miami, at Bowling Green and vs. previous unbeaten darling Ohio.
The reasons for success seem obvious when looking at the stats. Archer has been one of the most dynamic players in the country, rushing for 9.7 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns, catching four more touchdowns and returning three kickoffs for scores. His backfield partner, Trayion Durham, has added 14 rushing scores, while quarterback Spencer Keith has been a steady presence under center who often checks the team into the right plays.
Defensively, the Golden Flashes are in the top third in the nation in both rushing and scoring defense and have forced 35 turnovers, second in the country to only Oregon. Linebacker Luke Batton has 115 tackles and four fumble recoveries, while Nix and Jake Dooley have been terrors on the edge of the defensive line.
The BCS path seems fairly clear with a victory against Northern Illinois, a recent MAC power. The Flashes need to move up one spot into the top 16 to advance to what would likely be the Orange Bowl; a loss by No. 16 UCLA, coupled with 18th-ranked Texas falling to No. 6 Kansas State, should seal the deal for the Flashes.
It’s rare air for a MAC team, which hasn’t had a member sniff BCS consideration since Ben Roethlisberger’s Miami team in 2003, but the rankings are no mistake. The Flashes are above ACC Championship Game favorite Florida State in four of the BCS computer rankings and above UCLA in three.
Even if Kent State loses – or even wins and does not finish in the top 16 of the BCS, resulting in a trip to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit – the excitement that has been created this year has been palpable. The Flashes went to last season’s College World Series and finished fifth in the NCAA men’s golf tournament, and the football success is helping push Kent State pride even further forward.
“I think it’s neat,” Hazell said. “You talk about 106 players in the locker room and 25 coaches changed the how the country thinks about Kent State and Kent State football. This Kent State community, whether it’s local or national, it’s buzzing. It’s a fun thing to see and be a part of. We’re very honored and humbled to be a part of it.”