DETROIT – Paul Haynes hasn’t been inside Ohio Stadium since 2011. The last time he was at the famed cathedral of college football, he walked off dejected after another loss in a season that quickly spiraled downhill. Two weeks later, Urban Meyer was hired by Ohio State and Haynes accepted the defensive coordinator position at Arkansas.
On Sept. 13 Haynes will return to the Horseshoe as a second-year head coach, in charge of a Kent State team that was recently given a less than one percent chance of beating the Buckeyes. Haynes scoffed at Cleveland.com’s percentage index, but said he understands the long odds. That doesn’t mean the 105,000 fans in attendance will see the Golden Flashes roll over.
“It’s just like Hoosiers, the field is the same,” Haynes said at Mid-American Conference media day at Ford Field. “They put their pants on just like we do. It’s an old cliché, but it is what it is. It’s all about preparing, all about working. In those games, the first four possessions are so important.
“[Ohio State] isn’t going to prepare any different. Those are the games you’re worried about. You’re going to get up for Michigan and Penn State.”
In the stadium that afternoon will be family and friends, some of which would otherwise not have a chance to see a game in Ohio Stadium.
A head coach will never categorize one game as more important than another. And for MAC schools, guarantee games can be proven as less so because they don’t impact the conference title race. But the Ohio State game carries added significance for Haynes because of his Buckeye past and his hometown roots in Columbus.
“It means a lot,” he said. “Being born and raised in Columbus, being a part of Ohio State for seven years, having the privilege of working under Coach Tressel, it’s huge.”
Haynes is a graduate of DeSales, having played on the 1985 state championship team. He returned to his high school alma mater as an assistant in 1993 after a standout college career at Kent State. It set him down a path to coaching that’s included stops in college and the NFL.
Mentors have cropped up at each of Haynes’s coaching destinations, though no one made a bigger impact than former Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock. For 16 seasons, Heacock had a hand in the Buckeyes’ defensive plans, and it coincided with great units and an unprecedented time period of success for one of college football’s winningest programs.
In the two post-Heacock seasons, Ohio State’s Achilles Heel became what the Buckeyes relied on for decades.
“Being born and raised in Columbus, being a part of Ohio State for seven years, having the privilege of working under Coach Tressel, it’s huge.”
“He’s unbelievable,” Haynes said. “If you look at the dynamic of our staff with myself, Taver [Johnson] and Luke [Fickell], we were all kind of young bulls. We always came up with ideas, we want to do this, this and this. And [Heacock] would say, ‘Hey, let’s focus on the fundamentals and technique.’
“He did such a great job with the message. This is what we’re going to be about. How that affects me now – the silver bullets had an identity. It meant something. It was life-like. Until it becomes life-like, it’s just words. That’s something he made sure to instill into our guys.”
If you traveled up 71 to 77 and observed a Kent State practice, you might stumble upon Heacock detailing findings to his former co-worker. You’d also instantly recognize an Ohio State-ness to the culture Haynes is attempting infuse into the Golden Flashes.
There are pieces of Heacok, Jim Tressel, Darrell Hazell and the young bulls Haynes referenced. It’s a team that’s built on defense with the understanding that offense shouldn’t be ignored.
“A lot of what we do is what we did [at Ohio State] as far as the structure,” Haynes said. “To win championships, you have to paly good defense. But you have to put points on the board. You have to have guys make plays in space. That’s where I think the biggest changes have been made. But it goes back to being fundamentally sound.
“I have a guy on my staff, [linebackers coach] Ben Needham, he was a G.A. on the staff at Ohio State. We always joke each other about Heaockisms. [Heacock and Tressel] had a huge impact on my career and me as a person. I talk to them as much as I possibly can.”
Hazell is another source of information. After last season – Purdue finished 1-11, Kent State 4-8 – Haynes traveled to West Lafayette to seek advice and bounce ideas off one another. Hazell set the bar high at Kent State after nearly taking the historically downtrodden program to the Orange Bowl in 2012. There was a step back in Haynes’s first season, but he remains confident in Kent State’s path.
Between the end of the season and spring practice, Haynes eschewed all X’s and O’s, turning his attention instead to strength training and team leadership. As the Golden Flashes ramp up preparations for Haynes’s second season, the head coach is pleased with all areas of his team, especially strength and leadership.
“One thing I learned as a new head coach was don’t assume anything,” Haynes said.
That lesson could be re-told to his team during the week of the Ohio State game. Don’t assume that the Buckeyes will overpower you, he might say. Don’t go in defeated or intimidated. Kent State won at Rutgers two years ago, a program that’s now in the Big Ten. The Golden Flashes play in big venues every season. Alabama, LSU and Penn State are just three in recent years – that’s more than 300,000 fans.
The Buckeyes haven’t lost to an in-state foe for nearly 100 years. This year’s group doesn’t want to be a footnote in history. Whenever the Kent States, Akrons and Bowling Greens get an opportunity at Ohio State, the game takes on a bigger meaning due to the in-state factor. Some might say MAC schools have inferiority complexes or little brother syndrome.
In reality, they just want to be treated with the same tone of seriousness Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin receive when they step foot in Ohio Stadium.
“Any time you’re an in-state school, a so-called mid-major playing a big boy, I think it is a big deal if you have an opportunity to go in there and win that game,” Haynes said. “One thing I learned a long time ago is be careful of your goals, because that is not our goal. Even if you do win, you can go from the penthouse to the outhouse real quick if you lose the next three. It’s a great opportunity for our guys. Yeah, it is a big deal. I’m not going to shortchange going into Ohio State to play.”
Even if there’s only a 0.5 percent chance of winning.