Since 1978, Kent State has finished with a winning record just three times. The program has just three bowl appearances to its name, losing the 1954 Refrigerator Bowl, the 1972 Tangerine Bowl, and the 2012 GoDaddy.com Bowl. The Golden Flashes have suffered six consecutive seasons of faring 4-8 or worse including back-to-back 2-10 campaigns.
In summary, this program can’t go anywhere but forward.
It’s odd Kent State has been stuck below the trenches so long considering the Golden Flashes’ elite alumni base. This is the same program that Jack Lambert, Nick Saban, Julian Edelman, James Harrison, Joshua Cribbs, Lou Holtz, and Antonio Gates (albeit on the basketball court) suited up for. Yet, despite producing arguably the most famous alumni base in the MAC, this program still consistently comes up short year after year.
Fall from Grace
There was a brief moment in time where all of Kent State’s pent-up misery seemed to vanish. Ranked No. 19 in the 2012 BCS rankings at 11-1, all the Golden Flashes were required to accomplish was beat No. 18 Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game to clinch a likely Orange Bowl berth. Instead, Darrell Hazell’s team fell 44-37 to the Huskies in heartbreaking double overtime fashion. Hazell bolted to Purdue after the game and Kent State dropped the GoDaddy.com Bowl 17-13 to Arkansas State, failing to finish with its first postseason AP ranking in history or first bowl win.
Since, it’s been the same story year after year. Kent State followed its 11-3 season with a struggling 4-8 finish in Paul Haynes’ first year as head coach. Then Haynes’ Flashes compiled records of 2-9, 3-9, 3-9, 2-10 before he was fired with a 14-45 record (9-30 in MAC play). Kent State endured a month without a head coach before taking a gamble on Sean Lewis, an offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach who served on Dino Babers’ staffs at Bowling Green and Syracuse. Lewis was hired at age 31 as the youngest head coach in the FBS, a title he continues to hold at age 33 entering his second season.
Culture Change and Rebuild
Kent State was at rock bottom when Lewis arrived, so why not build from scratch? Lewis, one of the masterminds behind Bowling Green’s air raid offense in the Matt Johnson era, scrapped the existing offensive scheme for one better suited for his players. Most noticeably, the Golden Flashes attacked the air 35 times per game in 2019, well up from 19.5 attempts in Paul Haynes’ final season.
Sean Lewis’ youth and energy have also benefitted the Flashes in recruiting. According to 247Sports rankings, Kent State ranked fifth in 2018 and fourth in 2019 in recruiting classes. Prior to Lewis’ arrival, the team suffered consecutive seasons with the 11th ranked class in the MAC. Acquiring talent has been a speciality of Lewis, and now it’s time for that talent to develop.
Kent State showed signs of an upward trend in 2018 and reason to believe things will come into fruition in 2019. The team battled Power 5 opponents Illinois and Ole Miss until the fourth quarter in out-of-conference road matchups and nearly knocked off Ohio, allowing three fourth quarter touchdowns and squandering a 9-point lead in the final frame. Better execution should arrive in Lewis’ second season, and luckily for the coach, he’ll be working with a similar batch of players from his first year.
Kent State hasn’t produced an NFL Draft pick since Dri Archer was selected in the third round in 2014 as a result of his near-record-breaking 40 time in the Combine. While the Golden Flashes don’t have any players on the roster who are clear-cut NFL talent, Lewis’ role in player development could shatter the program’s NFL Draft drought.
Not too many longstanding programs have accomplished as little as Kent State has in its 99-year history. If Lewis is able to convert his strong recruiting classes into instant victories, Kent State becomes an attractive destination for future recruits seeking to create history. The program has several several empty boxes on its checklist as it is still awaiting its first bowl victory, its first postseason AP ranking, and its first conference championship since 1972. The desire to contribute to historical feats for a struggling program can motivate recruits’ decisions, as we have recently seen with UAB’s classes.
First, before any bowl eligibility occurs, better results must be seen on the field. In 2019, wins will be hard to come by in non-conference play considering Kent State has scheduled road trips at Arizona State, Auburn, and Wisconsin. The goal heading into Lewis’ second season should be to drastically improve upon the 1-7 record in MAC play, considering the conference seems as wide open as ever. This program has nothing to lose going forward and with a new-look offense, a veteran defense, and a vigorous coaching staff, Kent State could be on the verge of transforming its program image.