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Last word on Kent State's greatest football team: 'Life would be different if I hadn't gone there'

The year 1974 was proof positive Plan A often comes unglued.

On June 4, 10-cent beer night in Cleveland got the crowd thrown out of a baseball game.

On Aug. 8, Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate less than two years after blowing out George McGovern in a Presidential election.

On Oct. 26, Frank Sinatra opened the Richfield Coliseum, but all some people remember 49 years later is the mother of all traffic jams, post-show.

The Kent State Golden Flashes went into 1974 favored to win the Mid-American Conference and exited singing that year's No. 1 song, "The Way We Were."

Oct. 12 was the day the music died.

1974 Kent State football team comes up short of expectations despite some highlights

The Golden Flashes went to Bowling Green with a 4-1 record.

But ...

Kent State head football coach Don James talks on the sideline with quarterback Greg Kokal during a 1972 game.
Kent State head football coach Don James talks on the sideline with quarterback Greg Kokal during a 1972 game.

Quarterback Greg Kokal was dealing with a shoulder injury from a win at Syracuse.

Jack Lambert was gone to Pittsburgh, helping the Steelers win their first Super Bowl.

Gold-medal sprinter Gerald Tinker was gone, drafted 44th overall by the Atlanta Falcons. Lambert went at No. 46, six spots after the Browns took Billy Corbett, a tackle from Johnson C. Smith College who would never play an NFL game.

Kent State vs. Bowling Green was a rivalry game.

James and Don Nehlen were the coaches, on their way to becoming legends at Washington and West Virginia.

Don Nehlen, a former head coach for Bowling Green and West Virginia, talks during a media session for 2005 College Football Hall of Fame inductees in New York, Dec. 6, 2005. Nehlen guided WVU to two undefeated seasons, 17 winning seasons and the 1993 Big East title.
Don Nehlen, a former head coach for Bowling Green and West Virginia, talks during a media session for 2005 College Football Hall of Fame inductees in New York, Dec. 6, 2005. Nehlen guided WVU to two undefeated seasons, 17 winning seasons and the 1993 Big East title.

"We knew each other well," recalls Nehlen, 87. "I was a Canton guy, and Donnie was a Massillon guy. He was an outstanding person and an outstanding coach."

Mark Miller, fresh out of Canton South, was Nehlen's quarterback.

Mark Miller in action in an undated photo.
Mark Miller in action in an undated photo.

"We beat Kent State 26-10," said Miller, who was on his way to being a Round 3 draft pick by Cleveland. "That sounds like a comfortable victory, but, man, were they good.

"We overachieved that day. They underachieved. They had the most talented team in the league."

Kent State's Larry Poole set MAC career touchdown record

James' final Kent State season had its moments.

Running back Larry Poole set an MAC record with 35 career rushing touchdowns, then spent three years with the Browns.

Kent State running back Larry Poole finds running room against Toledo.
Kent State running back Larry Poole finds running room against Toledo.

The only MAC team to give Miami a game was Kent State. It was a 19-17 Kent State loss against a program on an astonishing roll.

Miami's 32-1-1 record from 1973-75 included Tangerine Bowl wins over SEC members Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Miami of Ohio tailback Bob Hitchens (40) evades University of Florida defender John Lancer (60) to gain a first-quarter first down in the Tangerine Bowl, Dec. 22, 1973, Gainesville, Fla.
Miami of Ohio tailback Bob Hitchens (40) evades University of Florida defender John Lancer (60) to gain a first-quarter first down in the Tangerine Bowl, Dec. 22, 1973, Gainesville, Fla.

"We played those SEC teams, and we beat other teams from bigger conferences," said John McVay, who was a senior All-MAC safety for Miami that year. "I say to this day the best team we played in 1973 and 1974 was Kent State."

Putting Don James' run as head football coach at Kent State in perspective

A 7-4 finish gave James a 16-6 record for his last two seasons.

Kent State's best back-to-back seasons since then are 16-10 (2011-12), 14-9 (1976-77) and 12-10 (1987-88). The 2012 team lost in the MAC title game and went 11-3.

Larry Poole runs the football for Kent State in an undated photo.
Larry Poole runs the football for Kent State in an undated photo.

In the last 45 years, Kent State's only four winning football seasons were 7-4 in 1987, 6-5 in 2001, 11-3 in 2012, and 7-6 in 2019.

The 2021 team bears mentioning, in that it went 7-7 overall and reached the MAC championship game.

But the point is, since the James era, there has been nothing like it.

James' 1972 team posted a modest 6-5-1 overall record, but it won the MAC title, still the only one in school history.

Team photo of the 1972 Kent State Golden Flashes who won the Mid-American Conference championship and played in the Tangerine Bowl.
Team photo of the 1972 Kent State Golden Flashes who won the Mid-American Conference championship and played in the Tangerine Bowl.

Don James heads to Washington, turns Huskies into powerhouse in earning 'The Dawgfather' nickname

James was 41 when he jumped to the University of Washington on a four-year contract paying $28,000 in the first year. The pay went up as his Huskies won conference titles in three of his first seven seasons.

His last three years produced three Pac-10 championships, a national championship and a 31-5 record.

University of Washington coach Don James, center, quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, left, and Beno Bryant, right, all agree they're No.1 as they accept the McDonald's Trophy in Anaheim, Calif., Jan. 2, 1992. They were chosen No.1 in the USA Today-CNN coaches poll.
University of Washington coach Don James, center, quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, left, and Beno Bryant, right, all agree they're No.1 as they accept the McDonald's Trophy in Anaheim, Calif., Jan. 2, 1992. They were chosen No.1 in the USA Today-CNN coaches poll.

He died in 2013.

Some of his Massillon friends are still around, including one a former Massillon Tiger teammate, Don Nist, who played golf at Ohio State.

As the 1980s unfolded, former Massillon coach Earle Bruce became associated with 8-3 seasons that were unacceptable by Buckeye standards.

Washington Huskies quarterback Warren Moon poses with coach Don James after the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Jan. 2, 1978.
Washington Huskies quarterback Warren Moon poses with coach Don James after the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Jan. 2, 1978.

James turned the Washington Huskies into a national contender, earning him a nickname, "The Dawgfather."

His 1984 team beat Miami (Ohio) 53-7 in a warmup to an 11-1 season including wins over No. 3 Michigan and No. 2 Oklahoma.

Iowa football coach Hayden Fry, left, and Washington football coach Don James met at the Rose Bowl Tournament House in Pasadena, Calif., Dec. 1, 1981 — one month before their teams met for the first time at the Rose Bowl.
Iowa football coach Hayden Fry, left, and Washington football coach Don James met at the Rose Bowl Tournament House in Pasadena, Calif., Dec. 1, 1981 — one month before their teams met for the first time at the Rose Bowl.

Nist stayed in the loop at Ohio State and helped the Buckeyes in recruiting.

"One time Don was home," Nist recalls. "He and I and Ducky Schroeder were playing golf at The Elms.

"I said, 'Don, any chance you'd be interested in the Ohio State job? He said, 'I'd love to coach Ohio State, but my wife and kids love Seattle, so I can't even think about it.'"

Assorted journeys followed for players from the Don James era

Kent State people from the James era have scattered.

Some huddle on occasion at Honeymoon Grille, a Portage Lakes spot where a James-era player, Dan Rector, is part of family ownership.

"We used to talk about women," said 1974 All-MAC safety Tom Buchheit, now a Massillon resident. "These days we talk about hip and knee replacements."

Bob Bender, the middle linebacker from earlier in this series who was replaced by Jack Lambert, is still working security for some of the music industry's big acts, currently Billy Joel. He had a long run as a Rolling Stones bodyguard.

In a polite text declining an interview, Bender cited "very conflicted feelings about that era."

Undersized linebacker Brad Cousino was chief villain of the 1973 Miami-Kent game that cost the Golden Flashes the MAC title.

Now living in Cincinnati, Cousino shared a story about not being one of the 442 players picked in the 1975 NFL draft.

"I had a long night … just really upset," he said. "I'm in my dorm room, 149 Hepburn Hall, when the phone woke me up the next morning.

"An older voice said, 'Is Brad Cousino there?' I said, 'Speaking.' He said, 'Brad, this is Paul Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals.

"He said, 'We'd be very interested in you tryng out for our team.'"

Cousino made three NFL teams, the Bengals, Giants and Steelers. One of his Pittsburgh teammates was Jack Lambert, 1972 MAC Player of the Year. Cousino beat out Lambert for that honor in 1973.

"Jack just had an edge to him, even when he wasn't plaing football," Cousino said. "You didn't know how to take him. He marched to his own drummer."

Lambert seldom does interviews but considered doing one for this series, with encouragement from a teammate. His perspective will be added as an epilogue if he makes himself available.

Pittsburgh Steelers connections to Kent State football

Kent State's first two head coaches after James were Dennis Fitzgerald and Ron Blackledge.

May 4, 1970 had a lingering affect.

"You couldn't get around it," Blackledge said. "You'd try to recruit a guy and the response would be, 'Oh yeah, that's where the shootings were.'"

Fitzgerald and Blackledge wound up on Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh staff for the last three years of Lambert's NFL career.

"Jack was a vicious son of a gun when he stepped on the field," Blackledge said. "As soon as he got off the field, his attitude was, 'We did the best we could. Now concentrate on next week.'

"We'd get on the plane and Jack would have the cards all dealt out for euchre. Fitzgerald and I would play against Jack and his partner and usually win."

This is a 1975, file photo showing Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert. The menacing Lambert, drafted in 1974, earned All-Pro honors five times.
This is a 1975, file photo showing Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert. The menacing Lambert, drafted in 1974, earned All-Pro honors five times.

Lambert lives about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh with the reputation of a recluse.

"He's scraped little league baseball fields, and he was a self-appointed game warden, picking up road kill, doing things for the community," Blackledge said. "He had a big lake up on his property.

"He was a pretty good citizen, even though he wanted to give you that other persona."

College Football Hall of Fame welcomed one Kent State star, awaits another

Some of the 1970s Golden Flashes are gone.

Nick Saban recalls paying a hospital visit to James on a Monday in 2013. As James neared the end, worn down by pancreatic cancer, Saban told his old coach of a gritty drill James used at Kent State that Saban still employs at Alabama.

"Coach James started laughing," Saban said.

Nick Saban, a Kent State assistant football coach from 1973-76, encourages the Golden Flashes from the sideline in an undated photo.
Nick Saban, a Kent State assistant football coach from 1973-76, encourages the Golden Flashes from the sideline in an undated photo.

Saban laughs about where he would be had he resisted James' insistance that he stay on as a graduate assistant after his last Kent State playing season, 1972.

He has coached teams to seven national championships. He regards his dad as his greatest influence and mentions James in the next breath.

Alabama coach Nick Saban and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood celebrate with the national championship trophy after beating Ohio State, Jan. 11, 2021. Saban has won seven national titles as a head coach.
Alabama coach Nick Saban and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood celebrate with the national championship trophy after beating Ohio State, Jan. 11, 2021. Saban has won seven national titles as a head coach.

Gary Pinkel, who made first-team All-MAC at tight end the year Kent State won the MAC title, cycled through a head coaching career that leaves him as the all-time wins leader at Toledo and Missouri.

"I talked to Gary at the 50th reunion of our MAC championship team," Tom Buchheit said. "He said us talking to the 2022 team about our 1972 team would have been like the 1922 team talking to us."

Legendary Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel eaves as he accepts his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 6, 2022, in Las Vegas, Nev.
Legendary Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel eaves as he accepts his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 6, 2022, in Las Vegas, Nev.

Players who were inherited by or recruited by James and became NFL draft choices were Don Nottingham, Lambert, Tinker, Poole, Cedric Brown, Chuck Celek, Greg Kokal, Larry Faulk and Art Best.

Faulk changed his name to Abdul Salaam with the New York Jets and became part of the famous "New York Sack Exchange." Jets star Mark Gastineau was a loose cannon who sparred with some teammates.

The Jets' "New York Sack Exchange" — from left, defensive end Joe Klecko, defensive tackles Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam, and defensive end Mark Gastineau — pose for a photo, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 1982, at the team's training facility at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I.
The Jets' "New York Sack Exchange" — from left, defensive end Joe Klecko, defensive tackles Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam, and defensive end Mark Gastineau — pose for a photo, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 1982, at the team's training facility at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I.

"Abdul was the solider of peace," Gastineau said in a recent interview. "He kept peace in the locker room. He kept peace on the field.

"He was in the middle of the line, big and husky and as tough as anybody that played.

"If it wasn't for him, it would have been really, really, really tough for me. He would say, 'He would always tell me, 'Marco, hang in there.'"

Salaam was in Canton this year to take in "Sack Exchange" teammate Marty Lyons' Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement.

"I attribute a lot of the discipline that helped me in the pros to Don James," Salaam said. "He was a heck of a friend, not just a coach. He taught us about being not just a ballplayer, but a man."

Kent State quarterback Greg Kokal looks to throw during a 1972 game.
Kent State quarterback Greg Kokal looks to throw during a 1972 game.

Kokal was a quarterback and a character. He was inducted into Kent State's athletic hall of fame in 1990, the same year as Lou Holtz.

At the banquet, Kokal turned to Holtz and said, "You don't realize the influence you had on my life."

It was a joke. Holtz was head coach of the Jets in 1976 when he cut Kokal.

Kokal played in the biggest game in Kent State football history, a loss to Miami (Ohio) in 1973.

Strange. On Sept. 16, 2006, Kokal's son Mike played quarterback for Miami in a 16-14 loss to Kent State, quarterbacked by Julian Edelman.

Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman is about to be tackled by Miami University linebacker Joe Hudson during second quarter at Dix Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2007.
Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman is about to be tackled by Miami University linebacker Joe Hudson during second quarter at Dix Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2007.

Cousino has three children who became Miami athletes. He wrote "Unwanted, Unworthy, Unshackled," about his personal journey away from an abuse-filled childhood. The book was published last December.

Daryl Hall, Don James' first starting quarterback, took a broader approach in "Flashback: A Young Man’s Search for Truth About the Kent State Shooting," published in 2019.

Hall has two lasting memories of his two most famous teammates:

"One was Lambert knocking me out in a spring scrimmage and spending 24 hours at the KSU health center. Two was Saban catching me under my chin with a forearm which split my chin wide open."

Kent State linebacker Jack Lambert (right) gets set to make a tackle in a 1972 game.
Kent State linebacker Jack Lambert (right) gets set to make a tackle in a 1972 game.

No hard feelings.

"They were both good friends," Hall said.

Herb Page is in Kent State's hall of fame as a golfer and a golf coach. He won 23 MAC championships in the latter capacity. In football, he kicked for two years after beginning a relationship with James on the golf course.

"To this day, I regard Don James as my mentor," Page said. "The further away you get from it, the more you appreciate what was accomplished."

Page was a high school senior in Canada when the May 4 shootings occurred.

"My dad said, 'You don't need to go there,'" Page recalls. "My life would be a lot different if I hadn't gone to Kent State."

Reach Steve at steve.doerschuk@cantonrep.com

This article originally appeared on The Repository: Kent State football's golden era under Don James wraps up