Sports with Shook: Enjoy the ‘Hazell Era’ while you still can

Head+Coach+Darrell+Hazell+runs+back+to+the+locker+room+after+leading+his+team+to+victory+against+Akron+during+the+Wagon+Wheel+Challenge+at+Dix+stadium.+Photo+by+BRIAN+SMITH.

Head Coach Darrell Hazell runs back to the locker room after leading his team to victory against Akron during the Wagon Wheel Challenge at Dix stadium. Photo by BRIAN SMITH.

Nick Shook

Each night I spend working as a copy desk student correspondent at the Akron Beacon Journal, I walk through the photo section toward a kitchenette and see a photo of Kent State head coach Darrell Hazell tacked to a cubicle wall. While walking past the cubicle with the photo Sunday evening, I began to wonder about the future of the Kent State football program.

Sure, the Flashes are in the midst of a dream season, especially for Kent State, a school previously notorious for failure in football. The team hasn’t been to a bowl game since 1972. So it’s great to enjoy the banner season right now — but how long will it be before the familiar image of Hazell in his signature white vest is just a fond memory of the glory days?

The question I’m asking here is, how long will it be before Hazell becomes the latest coach to make the jump from mid-major school to major conference program? Washington State is on the verge of possibly firing head coach Mike Leach in connection to allegations that he verbally and physically abused his players. What happens if the school fires Leach, scans the list of the top up-and-coming coaching prospects at mid-major schools, and dials the football office inside the M.A.C. Center? How will Hazell respond?

We’ve seen this happen plenty of times before in the MAC. Urban Meyer left Bowling Green for Utah, then left Utah for Florida, and is now at Ohio State. Don James left Kent State after 1974 for the head-coaching job at the University of Washington and won a national title with the Huskies in 1991. But not every coach is a success story waiting to blossom.

Turner Gill was the head coach at Buffalo from 2006-2009, and led the Bulls to its first MAC title in 2008 on a 42-24 victory over Ball State in the MAC Championship. Gill stayed at Buffalo for the 2009 season after signing a contract extension, but left to accept the head coaching position at Kansas in 2010.

Gill failed miserably as the head coach of the Jayhawks, going 5-19 in two seasons before being fired. But there was an underlying indicator about his potential future success, or as it turned out, lack thereof at Kansas. Gill’s overall record at Buffalo was 20-30, and his team went 5-7 in 2009.

Hazell’s current record at Kent State is 14-8 through less than two seasons; his conference record of 10-4 is even more impressive. I understand 22 games isn’t exactly a long track record, but he spent time at major programs like Rutgers and Ohio State, where he worked under Jim Tressel. Plainly speaking, it is my belief that Hazell has a much better chance of succeeding at a major college football program.

Now is not necessarily the time to ponder such questions, and, if asked, Hazell will undoubtedly respond with nearly that exact answer. Now is time to focus on this year’s team and the goal of a MAC title. The team is one victory away from clinching a trip to Detroit and a berth in the MAC title game. I honestly never thought I’d type those words while still enrolled at this fine institution, especially with how the 2011 season started.

When Hazell proudly informed reporters prior to the 2011 season that the gold helmet, emblazoned with the Kent State logo, was the team’s bowl helmet, I’m sure a few people laughed. But the man accepted the job and came to the school with a plan.

The Flashes are 9-1 and undefeated in MAC play. Matt Underwood of SportsTime Ohio even referred to them as “the Kent State juggernaut” during their victory against Miami. When I looked at the schedule before the season, my highest hopes were 8-4. This team has exceeded my expectations and the expectations of most people. Hazell and company knew what they had, and with consistent hard work and dedication, they could achieve it.

Now, this season isn’t done yet. The Flashes still need a win in the final two games to clinch the MAC East and a spot in the MAC Championship at Ford Field. And what is a better time than now, immediately after their first appearance in the Top 25 since 1973, to hop on the Kent State bandwagon?

That moment is here and the time is now. I’m calling on you, Kent State fans. Soak it all in while you still can.

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected].