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What's next for Kent State football as successful coach departs?

Kent State head coach Sean Lewis, right, looks up at the scoreboard in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Norman, Okla.
Sue Ogrocki
/
AP
Sean Lewis stepped down as head football coach at Kent State University, ending a five-year run with the Flashes.

Kent State University is looking for a new head football coach. Sean Lewis announced he’s leaving after five seasons in Kent to become a coordinator at the University of Colorado.

Late Tuesday, reports surfaced that Kent State is finalizing a five-year deal with Minnesota associate head coach Kenni Burns. Burns has experience coaching in the Mid-American Conference as the running backs coach at Western Michigan in 2016 under head coach P.J. Fleck, who he followed to Minnesota.

Still, commentator Terry Pluto says filling Sean Lewis' shoes won't be easy. He said Lewis was the first Kent State football coach to have back-to-back winning seasons in the Mid-American Conference since Glen Mason in 1986-87. Lewis started his first season at 2-10, then went 22-21 the next four, including two bowl game appearances.

Kent State coach Sean Lewis is doused with a smoothie mixture after the team's 51-41 win over Utah State in the Frisco Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, in Frisco, Texas.
Branddon Wade
/
AP
Kent State coach Sean Lewis is doused with a smoothie mixture after the team's 51-41 win over Utah State in the Frisco Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, in Frisco, Texas.

“It's a testimony to what Sean Lewis did at Kent State, which used to be known as, 'You don't want to go there because you can't get it done and you're probably going to get fired.' And on top of that, 'You probably won't get a very good job out of there,'” Pluto said.

Lewis was also the youngest Division I coach when he was hired in 2017 at age 31.

“He came from Syracuse. He didn't even apply for the job. He got a call out of nowhere from Kent State athletic director Joel Nielsen, who wanted a different type of offense, kind of a play fast, try to score lots of points," Pluto said. "And Lewis is somebody who was running that at Syracuse. So, he hired Sean Lewis.”

Then along came Deion Sanders, known as “Prime Time” during his Pro Football Hall of Fame playing career. Sanders has taken the new head coaching position at Colorado after three seasons coaching at Jackson State (Jackson, Mississippi), a historically Black college that plays in the NCAA's second tier of Division I. Sanders led that team to two consecutive Celebration Bowl appearances and the first undefeated season in school history.

“[Sanders] wants to play that fast style offense because it's good for recruiting. And he was told there's this guy at Kent State. So, they reached out and hired Sean Lewis,” Pluto said.

Pluto said the Colorado job will be a big pay increase for Lewis, who was being paid around $530,000 annually at Kent State.

“The coordinators now in those big schools, they start at a million and go up. The head coach at Toledo, Jason Candle is making $1.1 million. Toledo by far pays more than any other MAC school for their football coaches," Pluto said. "Miami of Florida came in last year and offered him $1.7 million to be their offensive coordinator.”

Pluto said Sean Lewis’ departure is an example of the changing landscape of college sports.

“The line between those Power 5 schools and Kent and Akron — you know, what they call the mid-majors — that gap keeps getting bigger and bigger financially," Pluto said. "And now, there’s the name, image, likeness stuff where these kids can get paid through various commercial entities. And, what else is going on? The transfer portal. And I know Kent has a ton of players in the transfer portal and coaches will be coming in to try and grab them and take them away. So, you have the pressure, if you're [Kent State Director of Athletics] Randale Richmond, of having to do it well and be having to do it fast.”

Corrected: December 14, 2022 at 4:39 PM EST
An earlier version of this story misspelled the names of Glen Mason and Randale Richmond.
Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.