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Interview: Kent State head coach Sean Lewis reflects on first year, future of the program

We talked to the second-year Golden Flashes coach to see how he’s settling in to his new job, and what he expects moving forward.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 Kent State at Bowling Green Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sean Lewis makes for an intimidating figure on the sideline.

Lewis is fairly tall, rivaling some of the tallest players on the team at six-foot-seven, looking every part of a former Wisconsin tight end. His luxurious, flowing red beard and piercing eyes commands quite the presence whenever his football team takes the field.

For all the intensity about his persona on the field, Lewis has found himself to be an amiable and relatable figure off of it; someone who is easy to get along with. At 33, Lewis is still the youngest head coach at the FBS level, even with a year under his belt, and it is this combination of intensity and confidence which makes Lewis an intriguing head coaching prospect.

When Kent State hired him to be their new head coach following the departure of Paul Haynes, a lot of people didn’t really know what they’d be getting, other than a protege of Dino Babers, who he had been a staffer with since the former’s days at Bowling Green.

It’s been just over a year now, and Lewis has had a chance to establish himself as a coach in his own right. Thus far, it’s resulted in one 2-10 season, but the record doesn’t indicate the fight the Golden Flashes showed in 2018.

Four losses were by one score (including their season opener against Illinois), as was one of their two wins. They held their own admirably against another Power Five program in Ole Miss, and won back the Anniversary Award for the first time in five years against rival BGSU, and narrowly lost out on the Wagon Wheel trophy against Akron in overtime. They even won their FCS game in convincing fashion, which was something that couldn’t be said a couple seasons ago.

The program seems to be trending in the right direction under Lewis so far, and so the opportunity felt right to get to know Coach Lewis a bit better. Our entire interview with Lewis is below, lightly edited for clarity.

Hustle Belt: How have you adjusted to being a head coach so far, in a general sense?

Lewis: I feel good about it. There’s some things when you take the job you think you have an idea of what the head man is going through. So you sit in that chair and you really don’t know and you’re going to learn from experiences. I was very fortunate to learn from Dino Babers for six seasons, and he’s a phenomenal mentor and friend in this profession. He did a really great job of preparing me for the position. I’ve been able to still use him as a resource and bounce things off of him, so it’s been smooth, it’s been good. Obviously, getting into year two and the second time going though everything, because there’s a greater understanding within our family here of what’s expected in the way that we do things, things have been better.

Hustle Belt: You mentioned Dino Babers in your previous answer. What kind of advice did he give you in terms of being a head coach?

Lewis: The biggest thing he always shared was to be yourself, you’ve got to be authentic. The kids are going to respect that the most, and obviously to have a plan, to be prepared. That way, when you get into situations, you’re going to have to react, whether it be a game situation or things that pop up daily on your desk. You’ve got to be true to yourself, and be honest with what’s happening, which are common sense things. I think that he always stressed if you do the simplest things in the best ways, you’re going to be just fine. You probably covered Coach [Babers] when he was at BG and we were at BG, and observed him from afar. He’s an authentic personality that people really gravitate towards and that’s really benefited him well, and I think the same things are working well for our staff here.

Hustle Belt: You said the biggest thing was to be yourself. “Yourself” is somewhere in your lower 30’s, which would make you the youngest coach at the FBS level. How do you think that might help you on a day-to-day basis?

Lewis: You know, I think a lot is made about that, and I think everyone thinks about that a heck of a lot more than I do, just because I am as old as I am. I am as I am, as Popeye would say. I think it helps me with the kids in the sense that’s there’s some similar music we listen to. Though, to be honest, this past year, the mumble rap right now that’s out there… I’m starting to feel like an old guy. [chuckles] I don’t relate to that as much. But, you know, I have a video game system here in the facility, and when the kids are hanging out, I can jump on the sticks and play video games with them so I think having those shared traits, those similarities with the kids provides for good relationships, meaningful relationships. There’s a level of comfort where the guys know they can come in, sit down and have a conversation and [say] “wow, this doesn’t feel like the principal’s office,” so to speak.

Hustle Belt: I get you on the mumble rap thing. That’s the way I feel about K-Pop. I hear it or see it on the timeline and I’m like “whoa, what’s… this? I don’t get it.” And I’m 25!

Lewis: [chuckles] The mumble stuff I don’t get, but the kids love it. It’s fine, I mean, it’s one of things where we go “give me something on the playlist” and before, I’d let that thing ride and it’d be good, and now there’s probably three or four songs on it I can vibe with. [laughs]

Hustle Belt: What would you say are your main philosophies, both in an on-the-field sense and an off-the-field sense?

Lewis: Overall, it comes to our core values, which is embodied in our Flash Fast way of life. The number one core value is that we wanna have fun with what we’re doing. That really boils down to having a passion and purpose for what you’re doing, what you’re chasing. To me, that’s fun. There’s fun in the process of working with your brothers, working with your teammates; working hard to get an A in a class, and the reward and the joy of earning something at the end of the day. That’s something that we preach, day in and day out.

We need guys that are going to be accountable to one another. Guys that you can trust within the family here, player-to-player, guys know they can trust one another. Player-to-coach, there’s a level of trust. Coach-to-player and coach-to-coach, across the board, in all things that we do, there has to be that trust.

Our third core value is to be smart in what we do, and again, that really stems a lot from what Coach Babers instilled in me, just having good common sense. I don’t need a whole team of guys that are all going to be a 4.0, but I do need guys that are going to have great common sense with all the decisions they make both on and off the field, that represent our university (and a fine university it is) to the best of their ability.

Lastly, I’m a big believer in that you have to be physically and mentally tough. I think football is one of the greatest games there is because of the mental and physical demands it places on the people that are involved with it. It’s the same thing that life does to you; ultimately, that you’re going to be tested, you’re going to have adverse times. If you’re mentally and physically tough, and you’ve trained prepared for those moments, you’re going to come out on top of it, and you’re going to respond the right way, when certain events occur.

So, those four pillars of having fun, being accountable, being smart and being tough, are really where we hang our hats.

Hustle Belt: You do mention being tough, so I want to transition into last season’s results. Last year, you went 2-10. We’re talking about being mentally and physically tough. Just the stresses of a season result like that can be a bit of a strain. What are the lessons you think the team might have learned from last season, and how do you hope to build on that?

Lewis: Oh, there’s a ton of great lessons to be learned from last year. I think the number one thing the guys really took away from everything was that they’re ultimately in full control of their destiny. A lot of those games where we came up short, you can look to some of the penalties, some of the unforced errors, if you will, and the self-inflicted wounds we caused to ourselves that directly related to us coming up on the short end of the stick.

That’s a major lesson we’ve been talking about ever since we’ve been back, going through conditioning and spring ball, and now going into summer conditioning and we’ll be carrying it through into training camp, just having that self-discipline and limiting those self-inflicted wounds. If we do that, if we have our mind and focus in the right place, and our effort is unmatched, I think we got a good amount of talent that we can do some things and really have better results at the end of the day if we focus on those habits that will drive the outcomes we are looking for.

Hustle Belt: Where do you think the teams’ strengths currently are right now and where do you think they can improve going into the season?

I feel really good about where we’re at with the quarterback position with our top two guys. We’re very fortunate to have a signalcaller in Woody Barrett who’s got some experience and some talent that’s coming back and has two more years to play. I feel very fortunate that we have a more-than-capable backup in Dustin Crum, as well. So the signalcalling room is really good.

I also feel that our back end, with our DB’s, our safeties and corners, is really solid as well, with Jamal Parker, Elvis Hines, KJ Sherald and those cast of characters in the back end and the way they’ve developed, I think those are two areas that are some of our strengths. Our O-line and D-line need to continue to come along and continue to develop as well.

Hustle Belt: You guys have a really brutal out-of-conference slate coming up. Arizona State, #8 Auburn, #11 Wisconsin, and Kennesaw State (11-2, #2 in the FCS.) How do you get your team ready to go against those sorts of teams, knowing how tough it’ll be?

Lewis: Again, whether it’s those opponents, conference opponents, or life in general, things are hard. We talk a bunch about controlling the controllables, and attacking each day. We focus in on ourselves and our habits, and when those opportunities come, whether it’s August 29 in the opportunity we get against Arizona State, or if it’s when we graduate here and we have an opportunity to interview for a great job, you’re going to be trained, or you’re going to be untrained. You’re going to be prepared, or you’re not for that moment. We really boil it down to what’s happening right now, the item that’s in front of us, the task that’s in front of us, and focusing on that. [We’re] not really overly concern[ing] ourselves with who the opponent’s going to be. Because again, we’re in control of what we’re doing, we’re in control of our destiny, and whoever happens to be on the opposing sideline when we get to that week, we’ll really drill down into what they do well, what their strengths are, what we need to take away, so we can maximize from a matchup perspective. But ultimately, we need to make sure that our house is right first and foremost before we concern ourselves with everyone else that’s on the schedule.

Hustle Belt: Should there be any players to look out for in the upcoming season that you’re really high on?

Lewis: Starting with the old faces, Woody [Barrett] has the potential to be pretty special going into year two. Nate Warnock, one of our offensive linemen, will probably going to be our starting center, is going to be a good player. Julian Sams, who played as a true freshman last year and started every single game on the O-line, will really start to grow and develop as a true sophomore this year and we expect good things out of him. From a wide receiver perspective, “KT” [Kavious] Price, our slot [receiver], is having a phenomenal offseason. Mike Carrigan, looking for big things from him.

Defensively, on the D-line, looking for Theo Majette to have a big year. Jabbar Price, a JUCO addition who’s been here since the spring in the D-line, he’s doing some good things. Matt Harmon, a young man that’s an outside linebacker we redshirted last year, will be a redshirt freshman this upcoming season and I’m expecting some good things from him. Cepeda Phillips is really the heart and soul of our defense, our inside linebacker. He started the second half of last year, and we’re really expecting some good things from him. Like I said, Jamal Parker, Elvis Hines, KJ Sherald in the back end.

For the young guys, the only thing I’ve seen them do so far is them run and lift, and they all look good in shorts and t-shirts right now. I don’t want to be too quick to anoint any of those guys before we put the pads on them and see what they can really do. I think we got some players in there. But they all come very highly recommended from their high school coaches.

Hustle Belt: I want to loop back around to Kent State as a program. Last year was your first year as head coach there. What was it about KSU in particular that attracted you to the position?

Lewis: Everything. The location of the job, first and foremost. The ability to recruit such a depth of prospects locally. We’ve been really fortunate on a daily basis, when it’s not a dead period, kids will hit us up and say “hey Coach, can I drive up and hang out at campus?” and that was something that for the two years I was at Syracuse, really didn’t happen. So, from a recruiting standpoint, you get to be so close to such great players and such a great high-school football state like Ohio, that’s first and foremost. The community, the town, the university, the conference…. I absolutely loved my time in the MAC when I was at Bowling Green. It was a great opportunity, and I felt that it had everything, all the tools and resources that we need, and the support from our administration to really become a player in this league.

Hustle Belt: Bowling Green was your first coaching job, right? Or did you have some jobs before that?

Lewis: I had quite a few. Started out as a high school coach on the south side of Chicago for two years [offensive coordinator at Richards (IL) HS], left there. Went to the University of Nebraska-Omaha [as tight ends coach], was there for a year, left there. Was at That School Down the Road [Akron, as a graduate assistant in 2011], left there. Was at Eastern Illinois [interior receivers/tight ends coach] for two years, made it over to Bowling Green [wide receivers (2014), co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach (2015)] for two years, and then Syracuse [co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach] for two years.

Hustle Belt: So let’s talk about Nebraska-Omaha really quick then, as that was your first college job. What was a unique event that happened to you there that made you want to coach at this level or was otherwise memorable?

Lewis: Well, the most memorable thing that happened there was, I went to sleep one night, and I had a job, and in the middle of the night, I was woken up by one of my players with a phone call saying the football program had been shut down in the middle of the night and that we didn’t have a team and I didn’t have a job. So, that was pretty memorable, and a pretty eye-opening experience after my first year at Nebraska-Omaha, to what college football is all about. We became the best junior college overnight, working our tails off to make sure all of our kids had an opportunity to go play football the following year. I was very fortunate to hook up with some people that I knew from my playing days at Wisconsin, and that became my next job with That School Down the Road. That was a memorable experience of things that can happen and all the things that are quite honestly out of your control in this business.

Hustle Belt: Okay, so finally, a little softball kicker here of a question: what’s something people might not know about Sean Lewis?

Lewis: I think I’m a heck of a cook. I enjoy cooking. I think that’s something a lot of people don’t know.

Hustle Belt: Oh? What’s your favorite dish, your specialty?

Lewis: Well, I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but it’s one I made recently. For the Fourth of July, I made a tomahawk steak on the grill and it was absolute butter. It was awesome. It’s kind of on the top of the summer grilling, summer cooking list right now. It was pretty good!

[A brief exchange of recipes ensued]

Oh, we did a little sweet-and-sour shrimp pineapple red pepper skewers last night on my grill. It was all right, a little less flavorful than I thought it was going to be, but still, a lot of fun. I enjoyed doing it because I got a little three-year-old son so, he helps me and it’s a good father-son bonding time, which obviously, in this profession, you don’t get a ton of, so I like soaking that up with him.

To me, [cooking] is a great stress reliever, to be able to create something with your hands and go forward. Mix and match all the different ingredients, and all the different things you can create with the same ingredients with the different ways you can put it together, it’s really awesome.

Hustle Belt would like to thank Coach Lewis for taking the time to talk with us, as well as Taylor Czajkowski and the rest of the Kent State Athletics staff for their help in arranging the interview.

Coach Lewis can be followed on Twitter @TheOC_CoachLew, while Kent State Football can be followed on Twitter @KentStFootball.

(Updated at 6:57 p.m. to reflect the correct social media handle for Lewis.)