Kent State shootings left impact on future coaches Pinkel, SabanBy BILL REITER
The Kansas City Star
T he memories will come back to them today.
The news flashes. The sirens. The chaos and confusion. The dead.
“It’s something that’ll be with you forever,” said Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel. “There’s not a May 4 that hasn’t gone by where I don’t think about it. I vividly go through everything in my mind. It’ll forever have an effect on me.”
It’s been 38 years since National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed Americans at Kent State University. Most of the country has moved on — they’ve put this one in the history books, chalked it up to part of a Vietnam Era that ended when Marines lifted Americans off the roof of the embassy in Saigon. This is our country’s past.
Just not for those who lived it. Today, for two of the most successful football coaches in America, May 4 is the anniversary of when they changed.
Every year, the memories come back to Pinkel, who was a senior in high school 15 minutes away and went on to Kent State a few months later. They return for Nick Saban, now Alabama’s football coach, then a defensive back for the Golden Flashes.
“I always think about it,” Saban said. “Allison Krause” — one of four students who died that day — “who I had English class with, I didn’t know her well but she was in class with me.”
Saban trailed off.
“When things strike home like that,” he said after a pause, “it gives you a different perspective on those things.”
For the young men on that football team in the years that followed, today is a reminder of many things. How quickly life can go wrong. How important their choices are. How precious their lives are. And how a day that began so ordinary ended up shaping their futures.
Trouble was brewing all week.
On April 30, President Richard Nixon announced the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. On Friday, May 1, protestors at Kent State buried a copy of the Constitution during a noon rally — an act meant to symbolize what they viewed as Nixon’s actual destruction of the U.S. Constitution.
Saban followed the news, most of it taking place far away in places like Saigon and Washington, D.C., as his freshman year in college wound down. Pinkel was even further removed from events, enjoying high school and thinking of summer vacation.
“That night in downtown Kent, there was lots of trouble,” said Tom Hensley, a professor emeritus of political science at Kent State who was a young professor there at the time. “It was viewed as a riot. There were confrontations between local officers and students and non-students.”
None of this was particularly new. Protests, anger, rage — the politics of the 1960s and ’70s played out on campuses across the country.
But that trouble led to the calling out of the National Guard.
“That day, as this happened, the ROTC building was being burned,” Hensley said. “About 1,000 members of the National Guard occupied campus.”
There were more conflicts on Sunday, May 3. Student and non-student protestors had called for another rally, this one on Monday, May 4. The university and the National Guard demanded the rally not occur. The protestors refused to back down.
Young people were angry. The Guard was angry. The campus was torn. Saban, a defensive back for the football team, was instructed to stay away from the gathering. Pinkel was mostly oblivious.
The stage was set.
Pinkel walked out of the Dairy Queen, climbed into his 1967 powder blue Volkswagen and headed back toward Kenmore High School in Akron. His girlfriend sat next to him. They ate lunch as he drove.
Then, the radio: There’d been a shooting in Kent. Students had died. Others had been injured.
“You’re absolutely shocked,” Pinkel said. “It was just ugly.”
This was where Pinkel planned to attend school in the fall, where he’d play tight end for the football team. He was just a small-town kid who followed the news from a distance, if at all. He wasn’t used to events like this one barreling into his life.
Pinkel and his girlfriend pulled into the high school and headed into journalism class.
“We went in there and the teacher said, ‘National Guard 4, Students 0,’ ” Pinkel said.
“The teacher in town, I’ll never forget him because he said, ‘The aftermath of this will last 20 years.’ I’m 17 years old and I’m looking at him like, are you kidding me, 20 years? He was right.”
Not far away, Nick Saban had just finished eating lunch at a dorm on campus.
“There was this noon meeting, which we weren’t allowed to go to,” he said. “I had to make a big choice.”
Well, he’d made it. First lunch with a teammate, then a walk up the hill to see what was going on. He might have been there himself had he not decided to eat first.
“We walked toward the meeting and found out people had gotten shot and we scurried our way up there,” Saban said.
The place looked like a military zone. Helicopters fluttered in the air. People screamed. Ambulances streaked by. Saban was dumbfounded.
This is what had happened, what the world would learn later, the event that would stay with Pinkel and Saban from then on: The students, maybe 3,000 of them — about 500 of whom were active protestors — had gathered and the guardsmen ordered them to disperse. They refused.
“So the Guard — 100 of them — fired tear gas into the crowd and marched on them,” Hensley said.
The guardsmen went across the commons area, and up a huge hill, following the students as they retreated. They reached the top of the hill and followed the students back down. Then, on a football field the team had used the year before for practice, the guardsmen found themselves trapped.
They retreated back up the hill. Some guardsmen stopped, turned and fired.
Thirteen seconds of firing. Sixty-seven bullets. Four dead students. Nine injured.
The school closed. Saban returned home. Pinkel’s mother advised him, “Let’s wait and see how things go.”
“Obligation wise,” Pinkel said, “I had to go.”
The following fall, Pinkel and Saban arrived on campus.
“What happened was, everything in the years after May 4, really to ’75, was about May 4,” said Jerry Lewis, a witness to the shooting and professor emeritus of sports sociology at the school.
“This happened to the sports team. I heard a football coach say in ’72 or ’73, I wish we could forget that May 4 business. Kent State became a symbol of the war and the controversy. You just couldn’t escape the May 4 culture.
“It just was pervasive. Everything was around May 4.”
A cloud hung over the school.
Bad news in Vietnam? Reference Kent State. Trouble stirring on campuses across America? Reference Kent State.
The school became a lightning rod for some of the most emotional moments in one of America’s most difficult times. It was into this world that Pinkel and Saban stepped.
“Sports figures (who were around this) probably became more socially concerned, particularly about their players,” Lewis said. “That would be a huge effect on sports figures. We’re not prepared — Americans don’t handle death very well because we’re seldom exposed to it until later years. When you go through an experience like this, one of the things you constantly do is you process it and you say, ‘It shouldn’t have happened.’ And then you realize it did happen and you look for alternatives.”
It is, then, the root of the joke about successful coaches being control freaks: To experience something like the Kent State massacre, and to see the consequences, is to strive to control things down the road.
“What happens is, they distrust the world but feel like they can do something about it,” Lewis said. “There’s this duality.”
All year that year, May 4 infected everything about college life. When the anniversary of the shooting came around, Pinkel saw firsthand how lasting that day would be for him.
“When it approached May of 1971, that was a whole different deal that I’d never experienced before,” Pinkel said. “They had student committees on campus and it was really, ‘We have to stay united, we cannot have violence on that day.’ They had T-shirts all over that said, ‘Kent State Stay United.’”
Pinkel wore his proudly.
“I remember a few days later being in a dorm room, and a National Guardsman running in front of the dorm — this is the night before the anniversary — and there’s lots of bomb scares on campus.”
You grow up fast in this kind of environment. You learn about how quickly things can get out of hand. For Saban and Pinkel, it was an experience that prepared them for the pressures and choices that come with coaching.
“I learned that togetherness and people putting their positive energy into something, the right way, can have a profound impact,” Saban said. “We probably became closer despite something horrible that happened.”
The need to recognize that things can get out of control, that decisions matter, that life is unpredictable, that negativity and anger can take over — those things would sink in later for both coaches.
“You know, you don’t realize the magnitude of things until after it happens,” Saban said.
But first, before graduation, there was one more lesson to learn.
There’s a power that sports has over people — it can inspire in ways you’d think that what is, in the end, just a game, can’t. Sports can bring people together. There’s a power to it that, at its best, transcends big contracts, glory and ego.
That truth is often learned by players and coaches later in life, if at all. Pinkel and Saban learned it early.
Kent State had never had a good football team, not really. They’d never won a championship. They’d never been the heart and soul of the school.
That year, the team, under coach Don James, did what Kent State had never done before or since: They won their conference title, going 6-4-1 to finish at the top of the Mid-American Conference, and moved on to the Tangerine Bowl, which they lost.
That’s right, they finished 6-5-1. Not amazing. Not one for the record books. Not even a bowl victory to cap the season. And yet it meant everything to the school.
“The only championship, in the history of the school, before and after,” Pinkel said.
Saban said: “It was monumental, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, being a young man.”
And that’s when it started to dawn on two young men who would go on to be leaders. Football has the power to inspire so strongly, it can counter even one of the worst episodes in American history.
“We were the shining light of that university in a positive way,” Pinkel said. “All the negativity that was surrounding that university. You can’t even imagine trying to overcome something like that.”
Yet the football team, by winning just enough games, did just that.
“I remember talking to some kids on a bus who had nothing to do with athletes and who never ever came to games, who came up to us, right after the championship,” Pinkel said. “They thanked me for what we did. They said it was nice to see people smiling and happy and to see positive things about Kent again.
“The effect that had on a really struggling campus and city, I think it was profound.”
Saban felt it too.
“That was the togetherness that everybody showed — rebuilding the school, having a football program that could bring positive things to a tough situation, something positive that they’d never experienced there before,” he said. “That was a big step in changing that place.”
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