Former Kent State players look back on historic 1972 season
An 0-1-1 team didn’t seem like a bowl-bound team after two games, but the 1972 Kent State University football team changed that perception.
Game 3 of the 1972 Kent State football season took one of many turns that may have led the Golden Flashes to the Tangerine Bowl (now Capital One Bowl) in Orlando, Fla.
KSU hosted Ohio University in Game 3. Greg Kokal, a freshman from Euclid and 1972 Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School graduate, got his first start under center.
The rookie quarterback went 10 of 18 for 190 yards and two scores as the Golden Flashes beat the Bobcats, 37-14.
“I had some good fortune the next four years and as a freshman,” Kokal said.
Kokal, whose sons Michael (Warren G. Harding) and Anthony (John F. Kennedy) both played at Miami of Ohio, deflects any credit for this Kent State team.
“All of a sudden, it was the third or fourth game,” Kokal said. “I’m not at all means saying I had anything to do with it. Jack Lambert came out of nowhere. Nick Saban was on that team and Gary Pinkel. All of sudden, we won a couple of games. It’s like anything; it’s all about momentum.”
Add to that star-studded list Gerald Tinker, who was on the United States’ gold medal 1972 4×100-meter relay team.
Kent State lost Games 4 and 5 to San Diego State and Western Michigan, but rebounded to win five of its next six – including a 27-9 win against Toledo to win the Mid-American Conference.
The Golden Flashes had great leadership, said 1972 Campbell High School graduate Walt Vrabel, who played on both offensive and defensive lines.
“You want to talk about having great leadership,” Vrabel said. “Jack didn’t take anything from anybody. Nick was unbelievable as a safety. Gary Pinkel had hands that had Velcro on them or something. He caught everything in the world. I forget how many one-handed catches he made. He was just phenomenal. We had great players put together.”
In those final games leading up to the bowl, Kent State started to pack the stadium.
“It was a crazy atmosphere,” said 1972 John F. Kennedy graduate Jeff Wood, who played split end and special teams.
Unfortunately, Wood was injured during the first scrimmage of the ’72 season.
“I got clipped,” Wood said. “I missed the championship picture because I was in the Cleveland Clinic. I was in a leg cast.”
The Golden Flashes (6-5-1, 4-1-1 MAC) prepared for the ’72 Tangerine Bowl against Tampa, which incidentally doesn’t have a football team today.
The Spartans had standouts like Freddie Solomon, Paul Orndorff (who later became professional wrestler ‘Mr. Wonderful’ Paul Orndorff) and John Matuszak, who was an eventual No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.
“We were ecstatic,” Vrabel said. “The first time we won the MAC. We practiced the week before at Kent and then we practiced another week down there.”
When KSU got to Florida, all the media wanted to talk about was the May 4, 1970 shootings in Kent.
“The fresh thing on their mind was the Kent State shootings,” Vrabel said. “When we would go down and be interviewed, they wanted to know about the shootings rather than us being down there.
“We kind of got upset about that. We kind of were pushing that this was our first time down there and we’re going to represent the MAC well. We wanted to prove we belong down there. Toledo was the one winning before that. We really wanted to make a statement. We were down there and we were down there to win.”
Tampa was coached by former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, mentoring the Spartans to a 9-2 mark – a team that was led by Matuszak.
Bob Adair, who was a ’72 Mineral Ridge High School graduate, was a first-team kickoff receiving and second-team offensive tackle but didn’t have to face the former No. 1 NFL pick.
“If the guy in front of me got hurt, I would’ve had to block John Matuszak,” Adair said. “I told that guy, don’t you dare get hurt.”
Tampa ended up edging KSU, 21-18.
Kokal, who passed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the following seasons at KSU, had two touchdowns against the Spartans – including a 76-yard pass to Tinker.
“A lot of those stats are 10-yard passes and 70-yard runs,” said Kokal of his passes to Tinker during his career.
CRADLE OF COACHES
Don James, a Massillon native, was the architect behind the success Kent State had leading up to the ’72 Tangerine Bowl appearance.
“He had every down, distance and plays, tendencies,” Adair said. “He knew what teams were going to run at what part of the field, what down and distance are the left hash, right hash, what time of the game it was. What they do now-a-days, he did 40 years ago with us. He had us that well-prepared for games.”
The ’72 season was the first year freshmen could play on the varsity team. Kokal, Vrabel, Adair and others were among first-year players to make their way into the Golden Flashes’ upperclassmen roster.
It took something special to remain on the field for Kent State.
“We had a lot of freshmen that had great high school careers that never finished one week of two-a-days,” Adair said. “They got lazy. They didn’t expect it was going to be that hard or what it was. I felt very fortunate coming from Mineral Ridge. I’m up there against guys that came from Triple A teams (Division I). I moved ahead of them. I was fortunate to have a coach and a coaching system that rewarded you for your hard work and that’s what it was.”
James also expected his players to remain studious.
“He was also tough on the academics,” Adair said. “He made sure we all went to class. He told every one of us, ‘You go to class and make an honest effort in every class, I guarantee you will never flunk a class. If you’re having troubles, we’ll go and adjust. But if I go there and you’re not going to classes, you’re in trouble. We’re in trouble.’ I went to class, even the ones I hated.
“I graduated in four years. I didn’t go to summer school and I didn’t have an advisor.”
James’ coaching spurned other players to follow his lead like Saban and Pinkel.
Saban is once again seeing his Alabama Crimson Tide playing for the BCS National Title Monday against Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Pinkel, whose Missouri team just made a switch to the SEC, has been a steady force for the Tigers’ program.
Dom Capers, who was a graduate assistant at Kent State from ’72-74, coached the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texas. Capers, a Cambridge native, is the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator.
“He’s emulated Don James,” Vrabel said of Saban. “He still holds true to a lot of the stuff that was taught to him and to all of us. Gary Pinkel is the same way. That’s the reason why they’re so successful. What they had with their leader Don James was just phenomenal. He was a man that dealt with detail. He was a man that dealt with everything that had to be done for the game.
“Those guys do the same thing now.”
One player that has never changed through the years is Lambert, who was a junior along with Pinkel. Saban was a senior.
Lambert switched from defensive end to middle linebacker during that ’72 campaign, a move that would alter the fate of arguably Kent State’s best player.
Lambert, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was an undoubted leader of the Golden Flashes.
“He got in my face when we were playing San Diego State,” Kokal said. “I threw three picks in the first half. I can’t repeat half the stuff he said to me. He was the leader of the team, put it that way. If he got in your face, you listened to what he had to say.
“… Lambert was the baddest man on the planet.”
After Lambert was drafted by the Steelers, Adair said he spent a good deal of time down in Pittsburgh working out and learning the Steelers’ system.
“Jack was an intense person,” Adair said. “I tell people he was bound and determined to play in the pros. That’s what he wanted to do. He worked hard for it. He was fast. He lifted weights well. He got drafted by the right team. We played a pro 4-3 defense, that’s what the Steelers played.”
Tonight, Kent State faces Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala. This year’s Golden Flashes are 11-2 and the most successful in school history, actually topping the 1973 team that went 9-2.
Kent State’s coach Darrell Hazell is coaching the game, even after taking the Purdue job after this year’s MAC Championship game against Northern Illinois.
“Darrell did the right thing. It’s classy on Purdue’s part as well,” Kokal said.
Vrabel is happy this year’s Kent State team has that same team concept that drove his Golden Flashes team to the Tangerine Bowl.
“They had that extra effort that went on afterward,” Vrabel said. “That comes from pride of being a Kent State Golden Flash. We always had that. We’re so glad we had a team that is really going to do that and really did that in this season.”