KENT, Ohio — “See you at the Orange Bowl” texts started arriving Sunday night. If I received one, the phones of Kent State players and coaches had to be blowing up with the intoxicating promise.
As amazing as Kent State's 11-1 season has been, with the Golden Flashes set to make their first bowl appearance in 40 years and carrying a school record 10-game winning streak, the idea of playing in a BCS game didn't come up until last weekend's rash of upsets. KSU Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen didn't consider the possibility until Sunday morning, when he saw the scores and matched them up with the BCS standings.
When the new standings were released hours later, Kent State vaulted from No. 23 to No. 17, setting a new dream in motion. If the underdog Golden Flashes defeat Northern Illinois (11-1) in Friday night's Mid-American Conference Championship at Ford Field in Detroit, they could play in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1 in Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
For that to happen, they would have to be ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS standings and higher than a champion of a conference with an automatic berth in one of the five BCS bowls. Those go to the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences.
The opening comes from the Big East, which does not have a team in the top 25. Rutgers (9-2), a KSU victim on Oct. 25, and Louisville (9-2) play for the title Thursday night. As it hopes to move up, Kent State will be watching the outcome of Friday's Pac-12 championship between No. 16 UCLA and No. 8 Stanford and Saturday night's showdown of No. 18 Texas at No. 6 Kansas State.
With the scenarios not all that far-fetched, word spread like wildfire.
Coach Darrell Hazell received an email Monday from a KSU graduate he believes lives in Florida who had his dentist put a “K” on the crown of his tooth.
Kyle Payton, a sophomore tight end from Hilliard Davidson, received a text from Eric from elementary school, whom he hadn't talked to since the fifth grade.
“I didn't remember who it was at first. He said, ‘It's Eric, from fifth-grade class,' ” Payton said. “I said, ‘Oh.' I had to look him up on Facebook.”
Eric, who attended Central Crossing High School in Grove City and is now at Ohio State, went to the trouble of getting Payton's number from a “friend of a friend,” so he could wish Payton well and tell him he was following the Flashes.
“It's a small world,” Payton said.
Payton called the possibility of playing in a BCS game “incredible.” Not surprisingly, Hazell refused to talk about the Orange Bowl at his weekly news conference at the M.A.C. Center on Monday, preferring to focus on Northern Illinois. Right guard Pat McShane, a junior from Walsh Jesuit, was almost as hesitant.
“We know about it, but our goal from Day One has been to win a MAC championship,” McShane said. “That's how we're approaching it right now. We do that, then it's in its own hands.”
Orange Bowl talk has heightened the profile of Hazell, 48, making it more likely he will leave at the end of the season (if not before). Major college jobs are already open at Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Arkansas, Purdue, Colorado, Boston College and N.C. State. Despite just two seasons in charge at KSU after seven as an assistant at Ohio State, Hazell has 26 years of college experience.
Having staved off suitors for baseball coach Scott Stricklin after he took the Golden Flashes to their first College World Series in June, Nielsen realizes Hazell's departure is inevitable.
“We know when we have people who are great coaches and great leaders, people are going to recognize that,” Nielsen said by phone Monday. “It's not something we wring our hands over. We understand it's part of our business.
”We're hopeful coach Hazell is our coach for a long time, but in any business there's going to be opportunities presented. We have to see if and what happens in the near future.“
Some wonder whether Orange Bowl discussions and talk of Hazell's departure will be distractions against NIU. But not Nielsen.
”I'll take my chances with this staff and these players. They've showed an unbelievable resilience since last year when we were 1-6,“ Nielsen said. ”Now we're one of five schools to win 15 out of 17. The only problem is one of those other teams we're playing on Friday.“ (Kent State and Northern Illinois join the elite company of Alabama, Oregon and Notre Dame with that distinction.)
Hazell isn't dwelling on bowl destinations or his next job. He goes through his regimented weekly routine preparing for the Huskies. He reads his texts from friends, including former OSU boss Jim Tressel. Sometimes Hazell does stop to marvel at what's going on.
”Every once in a while I'll reflect and say, ‘Man, this is Rocky. This is Cinderella in real life,'b??“ Hazell said. ”It's been a pretty amazing season and I'm sure we'll all look back and say, ‘Wow,' at the end.“
If the end comes in a 75,000-seat stadium in South Florida, ”Wow“ won't be the half of it. The alum with the ”K“ on his tooth might have added a diamond by then.