Kent's Curse

Dean Pees is doing everything right. So why does the NCAA want to wreck his football program?

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In his first month as coach, Pees suspended 20 - players. "That kinda got everybody's attention." - Walter  Novak
In his first month as coach, Pees suspended 20 players. "That kinda got everybody's attention."
The most respectable and cursed football coach in all of Ohio isn't working in Columbus. He isn't stalking the sidelines for Mount Union. He isn't developing high school phenoms in Massillon.

On a humid weekday afternoon, he is here: standing on a torn-up practice field, dressed from head to knee in gold and navy blue, barking orders as waves of players sprint upfield.

In Kent.

"Stride it out, head up, keep your arms up," booms Kent State head coach Dean Pees, his voice piercing the air like it were slung from a crossbow.

Over the last four and a half seasons, Pees has orchestrated what may be the most impressive rehab job since Bob Vila left This Old House. Once known as a reliable source for the campus police blotter and the perennial basement dweller of the Mid-American Conference, Kent football has scratched its way toward respectability.

After losing 30 games during Pees's first three years, the Golden Flashes won six last year -- good for their first winning season since the Reagan administration. But the most impressive numbers are posted off the field. Since Pees arrived, the team's graduation rate has doubled, while its average GPA is higher than that of the male student body. Last year, the team had 15 players on the MAC football academic honor roll. "We're very pleased with where the program is at," says Athletic Director Laing Kennedy.

All of which should make Pees a poster boy for the NCAA. For an organization that romanticizes the "student-athlete" -- with the "student" part taking a decided backseat to the "athlete" -- he should be one of the genuine good guys of major college football. But that's not the case. If the NCAA has its way, Kent State might be expelled from Division I-A football.

Pees waited a long time to get his shot as a head coach. A Bowling Green grad, he climbed the coaching ladder by living a gypsy's life for 20 years at Miami of Ohio, Toledo, Navy, Notre Dame, and Michigan State. Along the way, he worked for three of Kent's best known alums: Gary Pinkel, Lou Holtz, and Nick Saban.

In 1997, when the Kent job opened, all three encouraged him to apply. "They told me that if you could hang in there long enough, you could really build something," says Pees. He started by tearing things down, making it clear that playing for him meant following his rules. In his first month, he suspended 20 players for skipping class, arriving late, breaking rules. "That kinda got everybody's attention," he says.

He recruited kids who were good athletes and competent students, and made it clear what was expected of them: You went to class, or you didn't play. You showed up on time, or you didn't play. No exceptions.

"His style is very strict," says Rashan Hall, a former linebacker who was part of Pees's first recruiting class. "He doesn't take any excuses -- why you were late, why you can't lift today, why you miss class . . . I think it was something that Kent State needed pretty badly."

Echoes Jurron Kelly, a former wide receiver: "He definitely stresses grades . . . He really wants you to graduate."

Discipline bloomed into results, at least in the classroom. The team's average GPA climbed to 2.7. Two years ago, 20 players made the MAC's football honor roll -- more than any other school and twice as many as the conference's academic alpha dog, Miami. Last year, Kent had 15 players on the list, including two with perfect 4.0s. Meanwhile, the graduation rate soared from less than 35 percent to more than 60 percent -- 20 points higher than the student body as a whole.

President Carol Cartwright and Kennedy were so pleased that they extended Pees's contract. At that point, his record was 3-30.

The program's performance on the field began to turn around soon after. In 2001, after dropping four of its first five games, Kent won five of its last six, good for a 6-5 record -- and the school's first winning season in 14 years. More important, the team was actually fun to watch. Quarterback Joshua Cribbs became the first freshman in NCAA history to run and pass for more than 1,000 yards each.

Things haven't gone as planned this year. A team that expected another winning campaign is currently 3-5. Two weeks ago, the Flashes were blown out 50-0 by Ohio -- at their own homecoming.

Pees says he's disappointed but not discouraged. "It's easy to forget, but we're a lot better than we were," he says. "At least now people have expectations. They should."

But expectations may be the least of his problems. Last spring, the NCAA amended its attendance qualifications for Division I-A, college football's top division. By 2004, schools must average 15,000 in the stands or risk being demoted to I-AA.

Thanks to the lost decade of Kent football, the school had the lowest attendance in all of Division I last year, averaging less than 8,000 a game. Unless those numbers improve over the next two seasons, Kent could find itself in the NCAA's crosshairs.

"If an institution only has a few thousand people at a home game, is that truly a I-A football institution?" Gary Sankey, chairman of the NCAA subcommittee that developed the rule, told reporters last year. "If you ask people, you would get a pretty unanimous answer that, no, it's not. I-A is the best of the best."

It is, to say the least, a curious stand for the NCAA. It's like a high school principal deciding that only the popular kids can go to the prom. "It flies in the face of the philosphy of the NCAA," says Kennedy. (The NCAA did not respond to repeated phone calls.)

"It was a little disheartening," adds Pees, "and it obviously doesn't help us in recruiting . . . but it's not something I can control."

Indeed, Pees expresses little anxiety about NCAA whims. Wins will fill the stands, making it all moot. But success, in his book, is a different animal. It involves a MAC championship, the conference's best team GPA, and the highest graduation rate.

"If I recruit better student athletes," Pees says, "I can at least take care of two of those things."

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