In the early 1970s — in the aftermath of one of the worst tragedies on a college campus — the Kent State University football team put together a memorable run under head coach Don James. It peaked 50 years ago in 1973 with arguably Kent State’s finest football team. CantonRep.com sports writer Steve Doerschuk spent many hours in recent months researching that team, the teams leading up to it and interviewing some of the key people from that era, including now legendary Alabama football coach Nick Saban, for a series of stories.
The story of the best football team in Kent State history is full of more fun than you might imagine … and plenty of questions.
A good question:
What’s so great about a team that didn’t even win a league championship?
Where does one begin?
With Nick Saban, who went on to be … Nick Saban?
With Don James, the future national championship maestro who got Saban into coaching?
With Jack Lambert, who knocked out quarterbacks in the NFL after doing so on his own college team?
Stick with this series and you’ll meet the best Kent State player who never was … Mick Jagger’s bodyguard.
In simple terms of “the best football team in Kent State history,” 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of a season that peaked in a snowstorm.
All will be explained over the course of seven articles, peppered with present-day flashbacks from people who were in the middle of it all.
Mid-American Conference football’s ‘golden era’
We begin with the beginning of the Mid-American Conference, shortly after World War II shut down Kent State football for three years.
Roughly the first 25 years were the best the MAC has seen.
“That was the greatest era of the Mid-American Conference, in my opinion,” said College Football Hall of Famer Don Nehlen, a Canton native who played in the 1950s and coached in the 1970s for Bowling Green. “I don’t think there’s any question that was the golden era.”
Some gold nuggets:
- Miami University head coaches, Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian and Bo Schembechler became legends at Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan. And it wasn’t even them who piloted Miami past SEC opponents in three straight Tangerine Bowls.
- Currently famous coaches Jim Harbaugh and John Harbaugh were a gleam in their father Jack’s eye when the latter played for Bowling Green in the heart of the Doyt Perry era (77-11-5 record).
- In one of the two 10-0 regular seasons posted by the 1960s Ohio Bobcats, quarterback Cleve Bryant, from Canton Glenwood High School, went wild in a 60-point game at Cincinnati.
- Newspapers wore out the headline “Holy Toledo!” when Chuck Ealey quarterbacked the Rockets to a 35-0 record from 1969-71.
Ohio U was a charter member when the Mid-American Conference was born in 1946. Miami joined in 1948, followed by Toledo in 1950, Kent State in 1951 and Bowling Green in 1952. Cincinnati dropped out in 1953, after which there were no new members from Ohio until Akron came aboard in 1992.
Trevor Rees guides Kent State football to its winningest era, trip to Refrigerator Bowl
Kent State kept up with all of the above under head coach Trevor Rees.
Rees might have been as big as Woody Hayes.
He and Hayes were born the same year and played high school football in Tuscarawas County at the same time.
Hayes, from Newcomerstown, wasn’t good enough to draw interest from Ohio State and wound up playing tackle at Denison College, 60 miles from home. Rees, from Dover, starred at Ohio State and then achieved instant coaching success at Cleveland Shaw High School.
Next came a stint at Ohio State under head coach Paul Brown, followed by World War II duty as a U.S. Navy commander, and then, from 1946-63, a head coaching run at Kent State.
The Flashes weren’t quite golden, but they were quite competitive.
In Kent State’s first eight MAC seasons, Rees steered them to second or third place six times.
His 1954 team took an 8-1 record to the Refrigerator Bowl in Evansville, Indiana, king of the USA in the manufacture of the appliance.
Kent State cooled off at about the time Evansville’s fridge biz and bowl game hit the skids. The MAC record in Rees’ last three seasons, 1961-63, was 4-14.
Coaches from Massillon, Canton guide Kent State football into the 1970s
The next head coach was Leo Strang, straight out of Massillon Washington High School. Strang’s Massillon replacement, Earle Bruce, went 20-0 in the next two high school seasons.
Strang went the other way, posting an 8-14-2 MAC record across four years.
The Daily Kent Stater article detailing Strang’s dismissal quoted him as saying, “There will be a real good football team here next year if the same bad breaks and bugaboos don’t reappear.”
The next year, 1968, was ugly − coach Dave Puddington debuted at 1-9 − but the 1969 team improved to 5-5.
“The Kent State shootings” of 1970 changed everything, including Puddington’s life.
Puddington’s death in Gainesville, Georgia, on Oct. 18, 2023 escaped media attention, but the obituary stirs the imagination.
He was too young to serve in World War II, which ended when he was a Canton Lehman High School sophomore. He became a football captain at Ohio Wesleyan and enrolled in flight school as the Korean War was brewing.
Dispatched to Korea, he flew a Martin PBM Mariner (flying boat). He was awarded two Air Medals, a National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
After the war, he worked on Rees’ Kent State staff, leading to a head coaching job at Washington University in St. Louis, where he compiled a record that landed him in the school’s hall of fame.
Puddington’s large surviving family is acknowledged in the death notice that says:
“It is with heavy hearts and profound sadness that we announce the passing of a remarkable man, who touched the lives of all those fortunate enough to know him.
“Dave was so much more than any award received or accolade given. He never met a stranger and he always lifted up and rooted for the underdog.
“He leaves behind a legacy of love, wisdom and cherished memories that will forever resonate in the hearts of his family and friends.”
The obit sums up his three years as Kent State head coach in two lines.
“He served at the time of the campus shootings. His claims to fame while at KSU include recruiting both Jack Lambert and Nick Saban.”
Puddington’s second season ended with a 17-14 upset of Miami, on Nov. 15, 1969.
Vietnam War protests make their way from Washington, D.C. to Ohio college campuses
That same weekend, what was chronicled as the largest war protest in United States history played out in Washington, D.C. In the most striking scene, thousands of marchers walked single-file by candlelight past the White House and to the Capitol building, carrying placards bearing names of slain American soldiers.
The Vietnam War began in the mid-1950s and led to a maddening state when and after it “ended” in the 1970s. Immense loss of life included nearly 60,000 United States military personnel.
Sixteen days after the 1969 Kent-Miami game, the country’s first military draft lottery since 1946 aired on national television.
Blue capsules representing 366 birth dates were loaded in a big glass jar and drawn by hand, one by one, to establish a draft priority order men for in the 18-26 age range.
Congressman Alexander Pirnie plucked the first capsule, bearing the date Sept. 14. Every male citizen born on Sept. 14 between 1944 and 1950 was No. 1 in the draft order, and most likely to be called to serve.
Then the remaining capsules were drawn and ranked, 2 through 366.
Who actually received papers to report and face possible duty in Vietnam is a complicated story. For example, draft-age men enrolled in college were entitiled to a deferment with certain stipulations.
Long story short: A huge American force was in Vietnam in 1969; numerous people of college age were keenly aware of the lottery.
Winter melted into the spring of 1970. One of many war protests around the country broke out at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm, was on campus recruiting employees.
On April 17, as part of the protest, a student-organized “flush-in” drained Oxford’s water tower, curtailing the town’s water supply and angering town residents.
What if there was a fire?
How who would it be put out?
Governor James Rhodes sent 700 National Guard troops to Oxford, but none came on campus.
Two weeks later at Kent State University, a building burned, and lines got crossed.
NEXT: A Kent State quarterback from Canton recalls the scene of “the shootings” and the strange times that followed.