WORRIED ABOUT KENT STATE FOOTBALL? SEAN LEWIS HAS YOU COVERED.
At 31 years old, Sean Lewis is ready to lead the Kent State football team back to relevance.
Words by Henry Palattella | Photos by Jana Life
Sean Lewis is busy.
At 31 years old, he’s the youngest coach in NCAA Division I Football Bowl Sub-division history, three years younger than Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley. At 6 feet 7 inches tall, Lewis is a mountain of a man. With his bald head and full beard, he looks more like a lumberjack than a football coach, but his passion for Kent State football is evident as soon as he speaks, his booming voice echoing through the long hallway that makes up a majority of the football office.
For all intents and purposes, he’s home.
His office sits at the end of that long hallway, with each door between him and the receptionist housing a member of his new staff, most of whom are spending the early parts of their February morning looking at film with players, laser pointers focused on televisions in their office.
He’s dressed casually, electing to don sweatpants and a Kent State football sweatshirt, the outfit of a man who has spent a good majority of the past four weeks on the road, working on his inaugural recruiting class; a class that went from 12th in the Mid-American Conference to sixth in a matter of a month.
The 31-year-old has made some serious headway in his first 48 days as head coach of the Flashes, but by the look of his office, you’d think he got the job yesterday.
The biggest eye-catcher in Lewis’ office are graphics on the wall of current and former NFLers Roosevelt Nix, Brian Winters, Usama Young, Josh Cribbs and Julian Edelman during their respective times at Kent State. Winters, who is currently an offensive tackle for the New York Jets, visited Lewis’ office earlier in the day, the ink still wet on his signature on the wall. A wagon wheel stands propped up against the windows in the far corner, a tangible marker of the heated rivalry that Lewis has been dropped into for a second time in his young coaching career.
To say that Lewis has a challenge in front of him would be an understatement. He’s succeeding former Kent State head coach Paul Haynes, who amassed a 14-45 record in his five years as coach, a tenure summed up by injuries and heartbreaking losses. Haynes was brought in to replace former coach Darrell Hazell, who turned an 11-3 season in 2012 to a head coaching job at Purdue.
None of this influenced Lewis’ decision to come to Kent State. In a way, it’s a job that he’s been preparing for all his life.
When Sean Lewis first entered the college football coaching world, it was on the other side of the Wagon Wheel. Lewis joined Akron’s coaching staff as a graduate assistant during the summer of 2011, hoping to help lead the Zips to the top of the Mid-American Conference.
It didn’t work.
The Zips limped to a 1-11 finish on the year, with one of the losses coming in the form of a 38-3 drubbing at the hands of Kent State.
Following that season, Lewis went down a winding road that saw him head west to Bowling Green, up north to Syracuse, New York, and finally, to Kent, Ohio.
Lewis started his path toward head coaching in his hometown of Oak Lawn, Illinois, where he starred as a quarterback at Richards High School, totaling 42 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions his junior season and earned a berth in the state quarterfinals.
Lewis and the Bulldogs followed this up with an early exit in the second round of the playoffs. Despite Lewis’ strong showing behind center in high school, he went to the University of Wisconsin playing a position he hadn’t played since Pop Warner — tight end.
It was there he was coached by Badgers legend Barry Alvarez and routinely traveled to play against some of the premier programs in college football history.
“I learned from [former Wisconsin running back] Brian Calhoun to just kind of put blinders on,” Lewis says of playing in front of large crowds. “You don’t know if there’s another person watching you, or just the trainers and your teammates watching you, or if you’re in Camp Randall Stadium and there’s 100,000 people watching you. You train that way and then play that way.”
On the stat sheet, Lewis’ time with the Badgers was anti-climactic. He had one catch, a seven-yard reception on third and eight during Wisconsin’s 41-34 loss to Minnesota on Nov. 17, 2007. For reference, Lewis played against current Tennessee Titans wide receiver Eric Decker [30 years old] in that game, with Decker recording 125 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
After spending four years with Wisconsin, Lewis came back to Richards High School as an offensive coordinator before heading to Division II Nebraska-Omaha. It was there that he caught the attention of former Wisconsin assistant coach Kevin Cosgrove, who brought him to the Zips.
“Sean and I kept in touch after he left Wisconsin,” Cosgrove says. “You could see he was a talented guy. He really understands football.”
Cosgrove had helped initially recruit Lewis out of high school as a quarterback, but left Wisconsin after Lewis’ freshman season. Cosgrove then ended up at Akron, where he brought Lewis on the staff for a year before Lewis headed to Bowling Green to work under head coach Dino Babers.
It was with the Falcons where Lewis first met Matt Johnson.
‘HE HASN’T CHANGED AT ALL’
On Oct. 24, 2015 Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson added another chapter to his historic 2015 season, throwing for 430 yards and totaling six touchdowns in a 48-0 beatdown of Kent State at Dix Stadium. Johnson and the Falcons finished the regular season with a 10-3 record and earned a invitation in the GoDaddy.com bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
Kent State finished the season 3-9.
Lewis was the Falcons’ quarterbacks coach that year and personally helped work with Johnson.
“Coaching him, it was a pleasure since he was a gym rat,” Lewis says. “He was always in the facilities all the time. He was always hungry. That’s what we’re looking for in kids that we’re recruiting.”
After brief stints with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Johnson left the Tiger-Cats after suffering a career-ending ankle injury in the preseason opener. Johnson wasn’t away from the game for long. He joined Lewis on the Syracuse coaching staff as an offensive quality control coach after spending the season prior as the quarterbacks coach at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Johnson is now a member of Kent State’s coaching staff and, at 25, is following in Lewis’ footsteps.
“When I got hurt, it was time to give up playing,” Johnson says. “It sucked, but as soon as the fall rolls around, I’m going to be running and throwing with those guys.”
Lewis and Johnson had talked about coaching before, and that dream became a reality when Lewis called Johnson when he joined at Syracuse asking if he would want a spot if one opened up on the Orange’s coaching staff. He accepted, and the rest has spun into history. But through it all, Lewis has stayed the same.
“It’s impressive to see that he hasn’t changed at all throughout the process,” Johnson says. “He’s still the same coach Lew. Obviously, now he has more responsibility, but he’s still the same.”
Both Lewis and Johnson are bald with scruffy beards, and if you didn’t know better, at first glance, you’d think they were brothers.
“I was bald first,” Johnson says laughing. “I had the beard first. I had the look first.”
‘FIRST RECRUITING VICTORY’
Lewis made his first big splash at the helm of the Flashes on January 14, 2018, when he signed former four-star Auburn quarterback Woody Barrett. Barrett transferred after a year at Auburn to Copiah-Lincoln Community College, where he threw for 1,294 yards and recorded 14 total touchdowns.
“I first learned about Woody two years ago when I was at Syracuse,” Lewis says. “He was a senior in high school and I recruited central Florida. He decided to sign with Auburn, and over the past two years, I’ve gotten to know his high school football coach pretty well. When we came to Kent, we knew that he was available so we contacted his high school coach.”
Lewis and his coaching staff got Barrett to visit Kent on the final recruiting weekend of the year, with Barrett commiting to Kent State the same day, a move Lewis calls his “first recruiting victory.”
He was in the same boat with his coaching staff, as he had to put them together quickly after he was hired as coach in a process that Lewis described as a “sprint.”
“When you’re in this profession you’re always talking to guys you know and you respect, playing that fantasy game saying, ‘Man, if you become a head coach, we’re going to get together and do this,’” Lewis says. “It’s always good to have those fantasies, but then it becomes real world, and you talk about those coaches moving and coming here. That’s when you truly know guys are all in.”
But for Lewis, it wasn’t just the players that needed to care about the team; it was the whole community.
“Having been in the MAC, I know the parity,” he says. “The biggest thing I was looking for in the interview was if Kent had the people that cared about football, and do we have a community in the town and university that can help our young men grow? The fact Kent had all those things, I was good.”
Being the youngest coach in the FBS gives Lewis a relatability edge that some other coaches might not have. He listens to the same music as some of the players he’s recruiting. He uses social media more effectively than other coaches. He thinks Jordan is better than LeBron. (We’ll work on that one.)
Having always been an ofensive coach throughout his career, it’s a natural concern that the defensive side of the ball could be a problem for Lewis. But, Lewis says, he and defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman have you covered.
“At the end of the day, everyone up and down these halls are ball coaches, myself included,” he says with a smile, his voice rising ever so slightly with every word. “Whether it’s a football, tennis ball, golf ball, if you’re a ball coach, you find a way to coach ball. We’ll be just fine.”