Enthroned On The Hilltop; Kent State Welcomes Back Don James & 1972 MAC Champs
Editor's Note: To coincide with the 40-year reunion of the 1972 Golden Flashes, this retrospective was written to be featured in Wednesday's reunion program as well as Thursday's game program.
By Ty Linder
Kent State Athletic Communications
Early 1972 saw the theatrical release of The Godfather. It seemed fitting that just a year earlier, Kent State Athletic Director Mike Lude conducted his own casting call – to fill the roll of head football coach. And so he enticed Don James away from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to serve as the Golden Flashes' leading man in 1971 and, beyond. His defenses at Colorado were mean, tough and physical. Just what Kent State was in need of most following a 1970 season that saw the team allow an average of 25 points in it's seven losses.
Still James was brought in as a football coach, not a miracle worker. His first season ended with a 41-6 loss to the champion Toledo Rockets, which dropped the Kent State to 3-8 on the year. That season's Golden Flashes went winless in five conference games – the closest setback coming by 13 points at the hands of Bowling Green – a cool October afternoon the rookie head coach wouldn't soon forget.
"I remember walking out of the stadium after one of the onslaughts and overheard one of the fans saying 'I'm sure glad we hired a defensive genius as a head coach'," James recalled.
The dramatic turnaround James and the Golden Flashes faithful had sought would have to wait for the sequel.
TRAINING CAMP CASUALTY
James had transfer Bob Bender penciled in as the opening day starting middle linebacker for the 1972 season.
"He was a good player," James remembered. "We were counting on him to be our middle linebacker and he quit during fall camp. We were down. I was down."
Then, during one of the regular coaching meetings, assistant coach Dennis Fitzgerald – along with James and the staff – came to a conclusion: you play your best player at middle linebacker.
"It was Jack Lambert," James said. "So by losing Bob Bender we brought Jack Lambert to a position where opponents couldn't run away from him. That really helped us."
A GOLDEN OFF-SEASON
The world turned its eyes to Munich, West Germany in the summer of 1972 for the Games of the XX Olympiad. Kent State football coaches had additional incentive to follow the events in Europe, as a superb athlete whom James had encountered at Miami's Coral Gables High and lured to Ohio to play football by the name of Gerald Tinker, would be representing the USA on the track.
Tinker and his cousin, Larry Black celebrated Black's silver in the 200-meter dash on the town in Munich on the night of September 4. A few hours later, after the celebrations had run their course, the two athletes headed back to their dormitories in the Olympic Village.
They were not prepared for what awaited them.
"Military people caught us at the gate and told us there was an incident going on in the village they were going to escort us to our rooms and stand guard 24/7 outside our rooms until the incident was cleared," Tinker said. "We didn't find out until the following morning exactly what was going on."
In total, 11 athletes and one police officer were killed in the attacks. But despite the perspective-forcing moments, the Games went on. And when they resumed, one of the newest Golden Flashes was prepared to shine.
Tinker, along with Black made up half of the United States' 4x100-meter relay team, missed the 1971 season due to transfer rules. He was to run the third leg of the relay while Black would open the race. The family tandem – ironically fierce rivals in high school – helped the US blow by the Soviet Union in record time to seize gold.
"Standing on that podium was one of the top moments in my life, but being there with my cousin who I'd been running against all my life – nothing is better than that," Tinker said.
As the cousins celebrated Olympic gold, the Golden Flashes were opening the 1972 season half a world away in the Rubber City.
A FAMILIAR START
After three quarters of play at the Rubber Bowl, Kent State trailed the Akron Zips 10-0. With an offense handcuffed by the early loss of quarterback Larry Hayes, the Golden Flashes sought their first points of the season on the fresh arm of junior Darryl Hall. After a slow start, Hall guided Kent State down the field twice in the waning moments of the fourth period to tie the game at 13. But a missed extra point kept the neighbors deadlocked at the end of regulation and the Golden Flashes started the season with a tie.
A 27-point second quarter and defensive letdown allowed the Louisville Cardinals to post a 34-0 win over Kent State in Kentucky a week later. The Cards amassed 454 yards of total offense against Kent State and the 34 points was the largest margin of victory in the history of the series.
"You try not think about it," James said. "You are always thinking win the next game. With our schedule we weren't going to be favorites a lot of times."
Things looked much better the next week when the team returned home to Dix Stadium. Freshman Greg Kokal was called upon to take the snaps against the Ohio Bobcats and the Euclid product definitely felt the butterflies.
"I was nervous as hell," he said. "But fear of failure is a great motivator."
It showed as Kokal sliced up the Bobcat secondary to the tune of a 10-for-18, 190-yard, two-touchdown afternoon. The Golden Flashes rolled, 37-14. Aside from Kokal's emergence, it was James' decision to move Lambert to middle linebacker, which started to bear fruit as the 6'5 junior totaled 10 tackles, intercepted a pass and blocked a kick.
Unfortunately for Kent State, agonizing losses to San Diego State (14-0) and Western Michigan (13-12) put them at 1-3-1 to start the season, 1-1 in MAC play – and the breaks were certainly starting to beat the boys.
"I remember we got called for a 15-yard penalty and I asked the official what he saw and he told me 'well he hit him too hard'," James recalled. "I thought that was one of the ideas."
The special teams problems which haunted Kent State in the tie to Akron and again in the one-point loss to Western Michigan as the Golden Flashes' missed two field goals, a PAT and a two-point conversion paved the way for a mid-season call-up which would provide another sign of destiny in just a few short weeks.
Tipping the scales at 140 pounds and standing 5'6, Markham, Canada's Herb Page was summoned from the junior varsity ranks midway through the 1972 season to assist with the Golden Flashes' struggles in the kicking game.
"A lot of us, myself included, had never seen a soccer-style kicker before," Kokal remembered.
A member the Kent State golf team and also a part of the Golden Flashes' hockey squad, Page's witnessed the previous seasons' struggles from the stands.
"I was not even on the pre-season roster in 1972. I was playing golf and ice hockey," Page remembered. "I thought it was the coolest thing playing football. In the locker room I'd sit back in the corner and try to hide and stay out of everyone's way!"
"I wasn't real big," James said. "And Herbie wasn't as big as I was."
Barely a month removed from his overseas trip to West Germany for the summer games, Tinker found himself in the crosshairs of a moment many feel was the turning point of the season.
Better than 20,000 watched in frustration as the heavily-favored Bowling Green Falcons scuffled to put the Golden Flashes away on a mid-October afternoon. Bowling Green had erased a 7-3 halftime deficit and led 10-7 nearing the final frame, but a Falcon drive stalled and the home team prepared to safely punt the ball away as Tinker trotted out onto the field in return formation.
"All I know is one thing – with my teammates, I just asked them to get in front of somebody," Tinker said. "Because I'm running scared as hell anyway! You have no time to think, you are just reacting to what's happening around you. It was 63 yards and I don't remember a single one of them!"
"That turned the season around," Kokal stated.
Tinker's sprint silenced the Falcon fans and vaulted Kent State into immediate MAC title contention.
HUSHED IN HUNTINGTON
Kent State split its next two games, knocking off Xavier 26-16 at home and falling 28-7 at Northern Illinois. There were three games remaining. At 3-4-1 and 2-1 in the MAC, the good guys entered a unique atmosphere in their Nov. 4 game against Marshall.
On Nov. 14, 1970, a Douglas DC-9 carrying 37 members of the Thundering Herd football team crashed into a hill, killing everyone on board. Much like Kent State, members of the Marshall community were trying to move on from tragedy. They used football as an outlet, and although the team was struggling, thousands of boisterous fans flocked to the stadium each week.
On this day, they roared with approval as the locals erased a 13-0 deficit to take a 14-13 lead with short time remaining. Kent State seemed destined to fall victim to an emotional upset on the road.
Mr. Page had other ideas.
Starting at their own 29, the Golden Flashes marched down the field as time ticked away. The drive finally stalled at Marshall's 12-yard line and the redheaded James pointed silently at the smallest man on his roster to save the day.
Page lined up, approached the ball with his soccer-style approach and connected.
Fans in two cities held their breaths.
"I ran out there just thinking how far those goal posts were from me," Page remembered. "It felt like they were 50 yards away. It really was a blur. It was a perfect snap and the crowd noise was just so loud."
The rickety scoreboard at ancient Fairfield Stadium reluctantly posted three points under "GUEST" and the final tally read: HOME: 14 GUEST: 16.
"That was a big, big win for us," James said.
Up to that point, the Miami Redskins and Toledo Rockets had combined for 12 MAC football championships between them. And as fate would have it, that formidable duo made up the final two games of Kent State's 1972 season. It was never going to be easy.
Fans at Miami Field filed in expecting to see another in a long line of scintillating performances by national star running back Bob Hitchens. With Miami leading 7-0, Kent State shocked the Oxford faithful with a pair of second quarter scores to push the Golden Flashes to a 14-13 halftime lead. It was an 80-yard interception return by Alonzo Curry however that spurred the Golden Flashes to a 21-10 third quarter lead they would not relinquish.
Hitchens would go on to finish as the national rushing leader, but on one blustery day in Oxford, he had no answer for James' defensive stars. He was held to just 78 yards on 27 carries as Lambert collected 19 tackles by himself.
Saturday, Nov. 18, 1972.
While the weather was normal in Kent for mid-November, there was a feeling in the air on the gray fall day no one had ever felt. Summit Road became the biggest parking lot in the state as kickoff approached.
A title was at stake.
James' first season at Kent State culminated with a lopsided loss in Toledo as the Rockets claimed the conference crown. Now it was the Golden Flashes who held the precious home field advantage. Not even the wildest dreamers on the Kent State roster could have envisioned what awaited them as they poured out of the tunnel.
"We used to stay in Korb Hall on Friday nights before games so obviously we needed to bus out to the stadium," Page reminisced. "And it was a traffic jam. I remember so vividly that stadium being full and just thinking it was the coolest thing."
It was the Canadian who struck again for Kent State as Page's pair of second quarter field goals gave the Golden Flashes a slim 6-3 edge at the intermission. The much-anticipated battle was living up to all the hype as 20,715 looked on from Dix.
"I made a couple field goals and I think we led 6-3 at halftime and you could literally feel the nervousness," Page said.
Toledo kicked off to start the second half and looked to have Kent State pinned deep as the kick was buried to the Golden Flashes' five. Unfortunately for the Rockets, junior Eddie Woodard – interestingly no taller than Page at 5'7 – cleanly picked the pigskin and watched in glee as a perfect wall started to take shape. Executing flawlessly, the Kent State specialists sprung Woodard free and he seared down 95 yards into the end zone sending the thousands of long-suffering Golden Flashes fans into a state of delirious celebration.
"That was the play of the year," Page added. "It was crazy. I can still hear the roar and I get goosebumps."
Armed now with a 13-3 lead – and with their 12th man shaking Dix Stadium to its core – the Golden Flashes defense anchored in. The unit which had been burned badly by Toledo just a year prior, completely diffused any potential Rocket uprising, throwing up a zero in the third frame. That zero – coupled with the first of two Larry Poole touchdown runs – gave Kent State a commanding 20-3 lead heading into the fourth period.
The final period was merely a curtain call – an exorcism of the demons of seasons' past. Poole rumbled to pay dirt again and when the dust had finally settled, the stadium scoreboard's brightness could no doubt be seen six counties away: KENT STATE 27 – TOLEDO 9 – 0:00.
For the Golden Flashes, any chance to celebrate alone was thwarted in an instant. An estimated throng of thousands had achieved the ultimate security breach – racing from the stands to the playing field. Quickly it became clear that the defending champs weren't the only ones going down on this November in Kent.
"Somehow the fraternity kids got down onto the field and went after the goal posts," James said. "And believe it or not they made a plaque for me with part of the post on it."
Dix Stadium's north end zone goal post fell to the earth like a California redwood – and with it brought an end to decades of frustration and futility. Indeed, on this day, anyone who had ever wore the blue and gold of Kent State had a reason to stick their chest out a little. Kent State's football team had reached the unreachable star.
"One of our alums had heard one of the coaches in the league say on his radio show Kent could never beat Bowling Green, Miami and Toledo," James said. "I took that and copied it and played for the team. You do whatever you can to focus and get ready to play."
A BITTERSWEET FINISH
Though Kent State's furious rally against Earle Bruce's Tampa Spartans fell three points short in late December, the Golden Flashes won over the Hall of Fame head coach both as a team and individually.
"Kent State is a well-coached football team, offensively and defensively. Kokal is a good one. Lambert was the best player on the field tonight. Kent State did a great job of fighting back – they stuck in there," Bruce told reporters after his team's 21-18 victory in Orlando.
Back in MAC country, the Golden Flashes were earning quite a haul of hardware. James was a natural choice for Coach of the Year and Lambert – a converted high school quarterback – earned Defensive Player of the Year honors. For the season, Lambert finished with 117 solo tackles and assisted on 116 more.
A LASTING LEGACY
"There was a tremendous spirit on that team," Page said. "It was because of Don James. He would not let you give up. And that was the attitude we had all the time."
"It was one group of guys who played their hearts out for a great leader," Tinker said proudly. "We had guys who stuck together, played together, lived together and won together at all times. Don James was a winner and he made us all believe we were winners too."
The Golden Flashes of 1972 came together perfectly. A Mantua quarterback who was moved to defense and then placed at middle linebacker when the projected starter left the team. A placekicker from Canada who silenced thousands with a 30-yard field goal. A freshman quarterback thrust into the limelight when injury struck. An all-around athlete from south Florida who in the span of four months won an Olympic gold medal and helped start the turn around which brought Kent State its first MAC football title.
All neatly tied together by a Massillon native who was lured back home.
And all of whom – despite their current mileage distances – all stand together upon the hilltop as Kent State University's first championship football team.