Champions 50 years later: Football classes reunite to reminisce on historic ’72 season


Isabella Schreck

A table at the Kent State 1972 championship football team reunion at Laziza in downtown Kent featured the ’72 football schedule and a helmet signed by then-coach Don James. The tangerines celebrated the team’s appearance in the program’s first bowl game that year.

Isabella Schreck, Sports Editor

Three years after Dix Stadium was built, the then-largest crowd in school history watched Kent State’s football team face Toledo in the season’s final Mid-American Conference game.

The date was Nov. 18, 1972. KSU starters included future four-time Super Bowl champion Jack Lambert at linebacker and Gary Pinkel at tight end. Five-time SEC coach of the year Nick Saban sat on the sidelines with an ankle injury.

“We were all locked in because we had a lot of great guys on that team,” Pinkel, Mizzou and Toledo’s winningest head coach, said. “We just kept getting better and better.”

Led by coach Don James, KSU had a 20-9 lead in the fourth period. Running back Larry Poole, who played for the Cleveland Browns from 1975-77, ran in a five-yard touchdown to end the game.

The Kent State football team had just won its first – and still only – MAC title.

“We’d done something nobody else has ever done in Kent State history,” Ken Dooner, a 1972-74 varsity tight end, said. “We were a very tight-knit group, very dedicated and hardworking. And when you win a championship, that really binds you tighter to the players on your team.”

The 1972 Kent State football team sits in Dix Stadium for its program photo. That year, KSU went 6-5 overall and 4-1 in the Mid-American Conference. The program would go on to win the MAC title. (Courtesy of Kent State Athletics)

The team then played in its first bowl game at the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando and lost 21-18 to Tampa. The Flashes finished 6-5 on the season – they had won five of their last six MAC games.

“We surprised everybody,” said Dan Kukura, who was a freshman JV linebacker that championship year. “But coach James was such a great coach. He got everybody ready.”

Kukura coached high school football in Ohio for 37 years.

Fifty years later, the 1972 team and members from the 1973-76 programs reunited for Wagon Wheel weekend. The Flashes defeated Akron 33-27 at Dix Stadium for their fourth-consecutive Zips victory.

The former players met at Laziza in downtown Kent Friday. Over a dozen alumni attended. All classes were recruited by James.

“I’m excited to see teammates that I haven’t seen in 50 years,” said Art Daniels, who played tight end from 1973-76. “We’re all at the age not where there’s not going to be too many more times where we get a chance to see each other there. I’m really looking forward to this opportunity to come down, and I’m very thankful for the athletic team who put things together for us so that we can have this opportunity to all get together.”

Daniels started his junior and senior years and was voted captain in 1976. He started his 35-year coaching career at Kent State, where he assistant coached for four years.

Former KSU football players Tom Buchheit (left) and Art Daniels attended the 1972 football team reunion at Laziza Oct. 21. Buchheit redshirted in 1972, and Daniels joined the team in ’73. (Isabella Schreck)

Tom Buchheit said he gets “a little choked up” thinking about his time with the program. He transferred from Staten Island Community College in 1972. As a safety, he was voted captain and named to the second team all-conference his senior year.

“These guys became so important in my life,” he said. “I can’t look at any of the guys that we played with without feeling my heart get a little bigger.”


When James came in as head coach in 1971, he inherited a 3-7 team from three-year coach Dave Puddington.

Pinkel, who modeled his own programs after James’ regime, said he will never forget his new coach’s first team meeting.

“He walked into the locker room, and he demanded focus,” the then-sophomore said. “He demanded, ‘Keep your mouth shut.’ He was the new guy in town running the program.

Coach Don James phones in during a 1972 Kent State football game. He coached the Flashes for four seasons and led the program to its first and only conference title. (Courtesy of Kent State Athletics)

“Back then, I would have never have understood the impact he would have on my life, well beyond what I learned at Kent State University. I was attached to him forever, and I have monumental respect for him.”

The team went 3-8 and 0-5 in the MAC that year. James coached from 1971-1974, going 25-19-1. He won MAC coach of the year in 1972. In 1973, his program posted its best record at 9-2 overall.

After his last year with Kent State football in 1972, now-Alabama head coach Nick Saban was an assistant coach under James for one season.

James assistant coached at four universities before coming to Kent State. From 1975-1992, he was head coach at the University of Washington. Pinkel had assistant coached for James at Kent State and Washington.

Tight end Gary Pinkel carries the ball during a 1972 Kent State football game. He played with the Flashes from 1970-73 and was an all-conference player in ’72. (Courtesy of Kent State Athletics)

Under James, the Huskies won the Orange Bowl, four Rose Bowls and a 1991 national championship. In 1997, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

“He is one of the greatest college football coaches of all time,” Buchheit said.

The former KSU safety graduated in 1975 and had a free trial with the Buffalo Bills. He was released a few weeks later and coached as a graduate assistant at Kent State for two years.

During his two seasons with James, Kukura said he learned how to remain driven.

“Don James was a wonderful man,” he said. “The number one thing I learned was, whatever you’re doing, make sure you’re preparing for your goal. There were signs on each of the coaches’ desks in the office that read, ‘Is what you’re about to do getting you closer to your ultimate goal?’ We didn’t do things just to do them. We did things that were going to make us better.”

Rich Oden, who played under Puddington and James, remembered an emphasis on off-the-field focus.

“It was always ‘student first, athlete second,’” Oden said. “‘This is one of the best institutions in the world. Get your degree. You can’t play football forever.’ We didn’t see that at 18 or 19 – we thought we were invincible.”

On the freshman team in 1969, he played quarterback and then moved to running back from 1970-72. His senior year, he was one of three team captains.

After the championship win, Oden received his team’s most inspirational player award.

In 1973, the Kent State football team posted its best record under James, going 9-2. The Flashes finished second in the MAC at 4-1.

“We learned how to win,” Pinkel said. “That next year, we went to a different level. We learned how to prepare.”

Pinkel, who will be named a Southeastern Conference Legend in December, and Lambert were seniors. Saban became a graduate assistant for the team.

Lambert played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974-1984. During his NFL career, the linebacker was named NFL defensive player of the year in 1976, made the Pro Bowl nine times and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1900.

Linebacker Jack Lambert gets into position in 1972. He played for Kent State’s football team from 1971-1973 and was named MAC defensive player of the year in 1972. (Courtesy of Kent State Athletics)

KSU finished the 1974 season 7-4 and tied for fourth in the conference. Three-year coach Dennis Fitzgerald took over in 1975.

For Daniels, while the tenured coach has high expectations for his program, James was also the team’s greatest supporter.

“There’s just so many things I learned from him and his staff,” Daniels said. “They were great motivators. They pushed you hard – but they loved you hard, as well.”

Coach Don James and his champions signed the championship ball after their 1972 win. The ball was brought to the reunion Oct. 21. (Isabella Schreck)

James died of pancreatic cancer in 2013 at 80 years old.


For years, Buchheit, Kukura and Dooner have gotten together with their teammates still in the area about once a month for lunch – half a century later.

Dan Rector, Mike Meenan, Walt Vrabel, Andy Ferree, Al Schoterman and Bob Adair are some of the former players who attend.

“All of us really enjoyed our time at Kent,” Dooner said. “The camaraderie of winning a championship really brings you close together. It’s great.”

Oden, who grew up in Akron, distanced himself from Kent State for nearly two decades after his graduation. His wife Josett would later convince him to attend the 20th-anniversary celebration.

“My senior year, I played every game, but I didn’t carry the ball,” he said. “My backup became the lead blocking-back, and my attitude shifted. I felt devalued.”

“When we won the championship, all the festivities took place in January 1973, and football was done for me because I was focused on graduating. I didn’t go back to any games because I was still angry. I knew my opportunity to play professional football was gone.”

Oden moved to Georgia in 1975 to play for the Atlanta Falcons but was never drafted.

In 2008, he became the first person of color chairman and CEO of the Rockdale County government. He held that position until 2016.

With Josett’s support, Oden decided to attend this year’s reunion. He had not been to campus in over 20 years.

Without Kent State football, Oden said, “I wouldn’t be living today. I would’ve been back to the streets.”

“I have been blessed beyond measure,” Oden said. “Everything I do is based on integrity, character values, transparency and accountability. This is what the Golden Flashes’ system has poured into me. That is why I am coming back for the celebration.”


In 2012, the football team won its first MAC East title and appeared in its first bowl game since 1972.

Five seasons later, current-coach Sean Lewis took over the program – it’s his first collegiate head coaching gig. He is the only Kent State coach in the last ten years to renew his contract.

In his first season with the Flashes, Kent State went 2-7 overall and 1-7 in the MAC. In 2019, his 5-3 team qualified for the Frisco Bowl and won the program’s first ever bowl game.

After a 48-47 overtime defeat of Miami(OH) in November 2021, KSU won the MAC East for the second time in school history.

“He was an excellent choice,” Art Daniels said. “He’s done nothing but improve things and get things exciting at Kent State again on the football field. Even the games that they lose, they’re very exciting and will keep you to the end of the game.”

In the MAC championship in December, the team lost to Northern Illinois 41-23.

This season, the Flashes are 2-5 on the year and tied for fourth in the MAC at 1-2. Expectations are high for the reigning East division champs.

The Kent State football team celebrates after scoring a touchdown at the homecoming game against Ohio Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. The Flashes won the game 31-24 in overtime. (Matthew Brown)

“Hopefully these guys can win a championship this year and forget about us,” Dooner said.

Winning was not everything to Don James’ players. Now 50 years later, they remember the sense of belonging the program and the university gave them.

“I worked hard to get everything I got, but I was not all-conference,” Dan Kukura said. “We had so many great coaches and great teammates, so I felt important. I was a Golden Flash, and I was proud of that. And to this day, I am still a Golden Flash.”

Isabella Schreck is sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].