A once-in-a-lifetime team came together at Kent State in 1972. It triumphed amidst turmoil and in the aftermath of tragedy.
The Golden Flashes, coached by the legendary Don James, featured Jack Lambert, Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel and won their first — and only — Mid-American Conference championship. (Side note: Herb Page, who was Ben Curtis’ golf coach at KSU, was also the placekicker on that 1972 football team. Curtis worked with Page on his putting before he won the 2003 British Open.)
Kent State beat Toldeo 27-9 in the regular-season finale to clinch the MAC title and a berth in the Tangerine Bowl, the sports moment judged the greatest in Kent State history.
It came just two years after after four students were killed by National Guardsmen trying to stop a rally on campus protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
The region and nation were still reeling from that, the bombings in Laos and the Vietnam War.
The football team allowed “Kent State” to mean something other than death — a thought that still resonates today in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's haunting refrain "four dead in Ohio."
The team was something positive connected to the university.
“All that stuff that happened at Kent State united the students,” Saban, now head coach of defending national champion Alabama, told Athlon's in 2011.
“They were looking for something to identify with. There was probably more interest in the football program at that time than ever before.”
Saban had chosen Kent State over Miami (Ohio) and Ohio even though they were "absolutely worst program of the bunch.”
“But I had an uncle in Canton, which was only 30 miles away," he added, "and since I was a shy kid from West Virginia, I wasn’t comfortable not knowing anybody.”
Saban's team was not in a comfortable position when they visited 3-0-1 Bowling Green on Oct. 14. The Golden Flashes were 1-3-1.
“We had to beat Miami, Bowling Green and Toledo to win the league, and the other coaches were saying we could never do it, because we weren’t good enough,” James told Athlon's in 2011.
But they did, knocking off the Falcons 14-10. Then they beat Xavier and after a loss to Northern Illinois closed out with victories at Marshall (16-14), at Miami (21-10) and against Toledo.
But Kent State lost to Tampa, 21-18, in the Tangerine Bowl. It would be another 40 years before the Golden Flashes reached the postseason again.
Lambert, a nine-time Pro Bowler and seven-time All-Pro linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, played for four Super Bowl champions as a member of the Steel Curtail defense.
Pinkel, an All-MAC tight end, became the winningest head coach in Toledo and Missouri history, leading the Rockets to the MAC championship in 1995.
James, who posted a 25-19-1 record in four season at Kent State, including a 9-2 record in 1973, led Washington to the national championship in 1991.
Saban, meanwhile, has won five national championships as head coach, including one at LSU and four at Alabama.
And all four won a MAC title at Kent State.
“We had a lot of good young players,” said Saban, who was a senior. “We had a good young quarterback (freshman Greg Kokal), and as the season went on, we got better and better. We were pretty good at the end.”
Contributing: Kathy Kudravi
• Kent State Hall of Fame Members
Above: Kent State students protest the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and involvement in Vietnam on May 4, 1970. (Courtesy Kent State University Library)
Middle and on the cover: Kent State's 1972 MAC champions, including Nick Saban first from left in front row and Gary Pinkel eighth from left in third row. (Courtesy Kent State University Library)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Kent State and Lafayette
• Tuesday: Lake Superior State and Lamar
• Wednesday: LaSalle and Lehigh
• Thursday: Liberty and Longwood
• Friday: Louisiana Tech and Loyola Maryland