"Kent State University"



By Dr. Ken



One of the first facts of life I discovered about collegiate football in the mid-sixties other than the primary fact that I wasn't big enough, fast enough, or good enough to compete well with the other players on the field, was that Ohio and Pennsylvania football was considered to be the best in the nation other than perhaps that played in Texas. Having had limited exposure to the many arguments among high school football fanatics about the relative merits of the  standard of ball played in either Ohio or Texas, the "talk" was new to me but fascinating. I learned about the Big 33 Game annually played in Hershey, PA and became a rapt listener to the conversations among my teammates and coaches. The original Big 33 Game began as an Intra-Pennsylvania game but the first game against Texas was played on August 1, 1964 between just-graduated All Stars from Texas against a similar host team of thirty-three squadmen from Pennsylvania in the stadium at Hershey, PA, the chocolate capital of the U.S. The Texas team was coached by former Texas and NFL great Bobby Lane but after the Pennsylvania team won 12-6, the word was that most of the better Texas players were involved in their annual North-South High School All Star game that was held in conjunction with their annual coaching clinic. The great stars such as Warren McVea from San Antonio Brackenridge H.S. who dazzled everyone at Houston and Greg Pipes of Fort Worth Paschal, alma mater of famous football writer Dan Jenkins and the infamous player Joe Don Looney never made it to Hershey. The PA guys howled that they had kicked butt and that was that. When the game was played on August 14, 1965 at the same time all of us were already in our UC camp, the Texans were able to bring their very best team as the Texas coaches' clinic had passed and they beat the northerners 26-10. As these were the only Big 33 Games played up to the point that I first was told about, the names Norm Bulaich, Chris Gilbert, and "Super Bill" Bradley didn't mean much to me but  my Ohio and Pennsylvania teammates were well-versed regarding the abilities of these players. Of course, Bulaich starred at TCU and then for the Colts and Dolphins while Gilbert was a star on Darrel Royal's first monster Wishbone team. Bradley, supposedly the best high school player in the nation that season, became a long-time defensive back for the Eagles. Someone named Terry Hanratty was the quarterback for the Pennsylvania squad and as I was told, they could gain but twenty-three rushing yards against the Texas defense. Wow, I was impressed. I later learned that after another two drubbings, the game was canceled as the PA high school coaches were embarrassed to be beaten so badly, with 45-14 the score in the 1967 finale. The game was revised so that the PA stars faced off against each other again, then against Ohio stars and later, those from Maryland before reverting to a PA vs. Ohio format. 
The conversations wound down a natural path to "who had the best freshmen team" and unbelievably, the Ohio guys who made up the majority of our frosh roster, seemed to agree that Kent State supposedly had a great squad for the past two seasons, one of the best in the country, and in subsequent conversations, a few of our coaches agreed. As usual, I had never heard of Kent State or most of the Mid-America Conference schools and was filled in by Larry Gordon who had transferred to UC from Kent and who was a part of this so-called super-freshman team. What I also learned something about was Massillon, Ohio football and again, having had no previous exposure to any of the information, I had a lot to learn. I recalled a Sports Illustrated article about a Massillon High School and what was to be, the oddest tradition of placing a miniature football into the cribs of the newly-born male babies in their local hospitals. Supposedly, they were a powerhouse that was considered one of the best teams in Ohio on an annual basis which by inference meant that they were also considered one of the best teams in the nation on an annual basis. Leo Strang, the Washington High School Massillon head coach from 1958 through 1963 seasons had compiled an enviable 54-8-1 record and since almost all of the Massillon head coaches seemed to do so well and then go on to coach Midwestern college teams, it was no surprise that Strang was tapped to take over a floundering Kent State program in '64. With some of the most highly-sought players in the state on his own high school squad, Strang brought them en masse to Kent State with him and then went out and did some big-time recruiting to fill the Golden Flashes roster with excellent talent from Western Pennsylvania and the state of Ohio. 
We did not play Kent State and did not until 1971 but my interest level was up. Trevor Rees had been their long-time head coach, serving from 1946 through 1963 and winning most of his games with a 92-63-5 record but the '61-'63 teams racked up but eight wins and it was decided that it was time for Rees to retire. Reaching just down the road into Stark County, Kent State named the hugely successful Strang as their new head coach. He introduced a Wing-T with unbalanced line that had worked so well for him at Massillon and after a 3-5-1 debut, looked towards his super frosh squad that had beaten Pitt and four other teams by the tune of 128-46, to lead the way in 1965. Larry Gordon was one of those freshmen but bailed out to play closer to home in Cincinnati. Veteran Ron Mollric would be pushed by Strang's high school QB Ron Swartz; '64 rush leader would not be able to hold off Sewickly, PA's High School All American Don Fitzgerald who was the frosh top's ground-gainer, averaging over one-hundred-and-twenty yards per game; sprinter Billy Blunt of Massillon was expected to and did in fact take over the wingback spot; Doug Landis would quickly become the starter at fullback. So it went with an almost all-soph squad on the field and the record improved to 5-4-1. At the end of the season, I tagged along as a number of us drove to Kent State to visit the high school teammate of one of the fellows. We met Coach Strang who rolled out the red carpet and let us know that if we were at all unhappy and interested in transferring, he was interested in talking with us. I am quite sure he was making a general statement that was not in violation of any NCAA rules and certainly, he would not have made such a blatant or specific overture to a scrub like me! I met Fitzgerald who was a stud, perhaps 5'10" and a block of muscle at 230 pounds. He seemed reserved and extremely nice and took a lot of time answering the hundred questions I had about the type of running and lifting he was doing to be such a stud player. As the other guys rolled their eyes and asked questions about the offense, defense, probability of playing time, and demeanor of the coaching staff, I wanted to know about sets, reps, how many steps one could run in the stadium, and biology lab time. 
None of us transferred to Kent State and even with all of the available talent, Strang didn't fare well, going 4-6 in 1966 and 5-5 despite the awesome rushing display of Fitzgerald and the support of the Massillon crew who were now seniors, in '67. Kent State opened up a week before we did in '66 and some of us saw their opener where they were nipped 27-23 by a very mediocre Buffalo team so we knew there was a chance they were not going to be as good as expected or advertised. Fitzgerald captained the '67 team but had his best season in 1966, setting an NCAA record with 296 season carries, forty-seven of them against Western Michigan. He finished second in the country that season in rushing yards, totaling 1245 yards and in his career, rushed for 2221. As a first-team All MAC back, he was definitely "the man" in Ohio, giving the Ohio State fullbacks a run for their money in the power department. Fitzgerald was drafted in the fifth-round by the Cardinals for the 1968 season but did not make it out of camp, considered to be a step too slow for the pros but he was a guy who went all out. I kept tabs on Kent State football even after becoming a high school coach and Strang's successor, Dave Puddington, another successful Ohio high school coach who had been the head man at Washington University in St. Louis prior to taking over the Flashes program in 1968, sent me his Wing-T offensive playbook when I became a high school coach. Strang had a great uniform design with a helmet that featured a blue "K" with lightening bolts on a white shell. With the basic blue jerseys, white front and back numbers, and "KENT STATE" across the chest above the front numbers, the Flashes cut a sharp figure on the field. 
Unfortunately, the tragedy that took place on May 4, 1970 where four were killed and nine wounded by the Ohio National Guard during a student protest, put Kent State on the national map in a negative manner that drove Puddington from his coaching post, as he noted that neither the student body nor players had the heart to pursue football after such a horrible event. It took the hiring of Don James, who later had great success at Washington University, to turn the Kent State program around during his tenure from 1971 through 1974 and the play of Jack Lambert and his teammates, to put the Flashes back onto the football map. Unfortunately, and despite being located in the heart of excellent high school football territory, Kent has the dubious distinction of having one of the lowest winning percentages in Division I football.