1972 Golden Flashes "Matsko"
(Authentic Reproduction)

The history of Kent State University football was never illustrious although they would intermittently cobble together a season that was respectable to outstanding. Taking the program out of hiatus after World War II, Trevor Rees proved to be the strong leader needed to earn the Golden Flashes membership in the Mid American Conference in 1951. Rees steered the rudder well winning sixty percent of his games, having a number of two-loss seasons, and efficiently recruiting the state of Ohio with emphasis on his fertile northern Ohio region. His teams remained consistently competitive throughout his eighteen years and until his retirement after the 1963 season. Nearby Massillon High School coaching legend Leo Strang took over for ’64 but would not gain much traction despite individual stars like Don “The Human Hammer” Fitzgerald, Jim Corrigall, Jon Brooks, Don Nottingham, and Willie Asbury.
KSU uniforms 1966
Don Fitzgerald
Willie Asbury ]
Having developed the first functional helmet decals utilized on a wide scale basis while at Massillon, former college art major Strang dressed up the white Kent State shell with a combination of lightning bolts and a university identifying “K”. In what proved to be his final season in ’67, he switched to a gold shell which his successor Dave Puddington retained in his first season, later adding a blue “K” to each side for 1969 and ’70.


What became known as “The Kent State Shootings” on May 4, 1970 involved Ohio National Guardsmen killing four and wounding nine others who were protesting the Vietnam War. What appeared to be a promising rebuilding 5 – 5 season in 1969 behind the rushing of returning team captain and future Baltimore Colt and Miami Dolphin Don Nottingham imploded to a disappointing 3 - 7 record in 1970. While the head coach believed that his team could “become a unifying force on campus,” a saddened Coach Puddington admitted that "the prevailing contagious negativism on campus and in the community" and the "fatalism around us and the current tendency to politicize every facet of life" had sapped the squad and its supporters of any opportunity for a successful season. Recruiting was exceptionally difficult as the nation viewed the Kent State campus as a storm center of militant protest activity. Puddington resigned which led to the fortuitous hire of Don James who had been a star at Massillon High School and then went on to set numerous passing records at the University of Miami. He served as a high school coach, college assistant, and the equivalent of defensive coordinator at Florida State, Michigan, and Colorado before embarking on his first head coaching position at Kent State. He suffered through a difficult first season but a resurgence in recruiting and team bonding which included Nick Saban, Gary Pinkel, and Jack Lambert as the better known among squad members, led to the 1972 MAC Championship which remains the only one in school history. A 21 – 18 losing effort to Tampa in the Tangerine Bowl did little to diminish what was for the Flashes, an unprecedented level of success. His blend of excellent players and literal walk-ons proved to be a perfect salve to Kent State’s psychological wounds.
The nicknamed “James Gang” featured true stars like middle linebacker Jack “Stork” Lambert, the future Pro Football Hall Of Fame linebacker of the Pittsburgh Steelers whose untamed ferocity led to 233 tackles in ’72. Saban was an outstanding defensive back as was Pinkel at tight end. However, as was reported in the January 3, 1973 edition of the Daily Kent Stater newspaper that followed the Tangerine Bowl game, James’ excellent assistant coaches and “the open-mindedness of the coaching staff has also helped the team. Even though a player was a walk-on the staff still kept on eye on him. This has paid off. Two of the Flashes starters came to Kent as walk-ons. Fullback John Matsko and strong Safety Mike Perlin were walk-ons who later played first-string ball for the flashes.” Matsko, a solid player at Cleveland’s Mentor High School was typical of Kent State and MAC players who entered college perhaps a bit too short, a bit too slow, or a bit underdeveloped physically to attract the attention of the Big Ten and eastern powerhouses that routinely combed the northern Ohio high school leagues for future stars. Matsko did not have a scholarship in hand when he began his toil for the Golden Flashes team yet through hard work and hustle, earned the starting fullback position and even as a back-up had big games as he did against Marshall his junior season. It was a skillful combination of players like the undersized Lambert, smart and tough Saban, and walk-on level overachievers like Matsko that were drilled hard and bought in to turn things around.


 Needing “new” for the ’71 season to extinguish the cloud of campus events that preceded his arrival on campus, James took the gold shell he inherited and redesigned it with a one-inch white center stripe, blue flanking stripes that were a darker Navy blue relative to the usual royal blue Kent State uniform colors of the past, and a football shaped Navy blue logo with a white “KSU” within it, placed on each side of the helmet. The new look and the new attitude resulted in a 3 – 8 record in James’ inaugural year that improved to a 6 – 4 – 1 regular season mark and a conference winning 4 – 1 result which led to the Tangerine Bowl berth following the ’72 season. Follow-up 9 – 2 and 7 – 4 seasons led James to the head coaching position at the University of Washington and a College Football Hall Of Fame career that included a National Championship in 1991. His tree of college head coaches is extensive and of course includes former Kent State players Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel. Unheralded walk-on fullback John Matsko has been a well-known and highly respected assistant coach working primarily with the offensive line. He has served in the NFL since 1992 and currently is the offensive line coach for the Carolina Panthers.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Fitzgerald, a Michigan legend in part for being a star on the 1959 and ’60 teams and one of the last players in the nation who wore a leather helmet without a face mask, ascended to the head coaching position when James departed. He maintained the helmet that James introduced in ’71 and after his first season as head man, continued with the basic appearance other than removing the KSU decals prior to 1976. After leaving for the coordinator’s position at Syracuse for the 1978 season, Ron Blackledge took over but did not give the Kent State helmet a complete redesign until 1979, thus the basic helmet design introduced by Don James and worn so proudly in ’72 by the Golden Flashes during that wonderful season, enjoyed an eight year period of use.