Kent State prides itself on getting from Point A to Point Z faster than everyone else, and at no time was the Flash FAST mantra more evident than Wednesday. The Golden Flashes suspended their spring football practices on Wednesday, and by the end of the week all 129 of their peers had joined them.
After a couple of days keeping busy in the office, by the end of the week the Flashes staff decided to break camp and join remotely. For offensive coordinator Andrew Sowder, that presented a rare opportunity to take a cross-country road trip to visit his girlfriend in Austin.
FootballScoop caught up with him on Saturday morning as he was in Hour 1 of a 20-hour, 2-day drive, somewhere between Kent and Columbus.
FootballScoop: Let's start with the obvious. What have the last couple days been like for you?
Sowder: The past 3-4 days have been pretty crazy. We were the first FBS school to make the move to shut down our spring practice. We got five in, which we're really thankful for, to get a third of our spring practices in before we had to shut it down. We just took everything into consideration. Sean Lewis, our head coach, made a really good decision and now everybody's doing it.
We stuck around the office for a couple days and got some work done. We kind of had an idea that the campus was going to shut down. We've still got a lot of work to do as far as taking care of our guys' academics. We divvied up projects for the staff to work on, and also doing a ton of recruiting. We just decided as a staff that it was probably best to go ahead and get out of the office, go be with our loved ones and family, so that's what everyone's doing right now. The other thing was: everything we were doing in the office the past two days, we found out we can do remotely. I'm bringing a lot of tape with me.
FootballScoop: What's taking you to Austin?
Sowder: I'm from Texas, I'm originally from the Lubbock area. My girlfriend lives in Austin so I'm going to do drive down and spend some time with her, what will probably end up being quite a bit of time. Like I said, we just figured being with our family is probably the best thing. I weighed a lot of options of whether to fly or rent a car or drive my personal car. All things considered, I decided take my own car down here, just figured that's probably the safest move. I enjoy driving, it's therapeutic to me. I don't mind taking a cross-country road trip and make some phone calls, just get to pause and reflect a little bit because we don't get to do that very much as college football coaches.
FootballScoop: Can you walk me through the process where your staff went from 'Hey, this is pretty serious' to 'Okay, we need to shut down'?
Sowder: I forgot what day it was, but we got to the stadium, getting ready for practice and some of the coaches checked their phone before we went out and saw that Ohio State canceled classes for three weeks. I think they were the first school to do that. We were like 'Wow, this is pretty serious.' In Ohio, whenever Ohio State does something, a lot of schools tend to follow. Whenever they announced that, we shortly, that afternoon, announced (we were suspending practice). We were going to plan on having our practice that Thursday. We had meetings, everything was cool, but with the campus shutting down there were a lot of issues infrastructure-wise that you don't really think about: Where are our student filmers and student trainers going to go now that campus is shut down? Do we have the infrastructure from a food standpoint with the dining halls? For about a day we put up plans to keep going to practice and make do with what we had. Sean Lewis, our head coach, and Jake Olson, our director of football operations, did a great job communicating with the parents of our players. When it all came down to it, we decided that it was just in our best interest to suspend spring practice, and then that night is when all the Utah Jazz stuff happened and the whole sports world shut down the next day.
FootballScoop: How are you keeping up with your players?
Sowder: The main thing is just keeping in contact with these guys and constantly calling them every day, every other day, depending on where they stand academically. Our academic staff has done a great job letting us know exactly where our kids stand right now, and we've just got to continue harping on them to make sure that they're turning in their assignments and they're logging in online, to watch the lectures they're supposed to.
FootballScoop: I imagine the most difficult thing, football-wise, will be to keep your players' bodies in shape.
Sowder: As far as their workouts, our strength and conditioning coach Jeff Sobol has given those guys workouts to do. We understand that it may be hard to find a place to workout, especially moving forward. We've got to do a great job maintaining the hard work these guys have put in since they got back in January. We had a great offseason, made a ton of gains in the weight room and we don't want to lose all that time and work.
Whenever we are able to get back on campus, whether it's June or July, we're going to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. This summer and fall camp are going to be absolutely critical, getting our guys back in shape and then getting ready to play major college football with five of 15 spring practices, if that's all we end up getting. We understand that July and August are going to be huge. We've talked about as a staff, we may not get our July vacation this year so we're going to have to maximize our time. This period we're in right now is kind of like a bit of our vacation in a way. We're going to take this time to recharge batteries get ready for a long haul.
FootballScoop: You said your staff has divvied up projects for y'all to work on. What's your project?
Sowder: We talked about some things that we need to get better at and some teams that have done some good things. We gave each coach a different thing to study. What I'm doing is, I'm looking at every snap that Taysom Hill played for the Saints and just breaking that down. He's playing everywhere from quarterback to tight end to wide receiver. Just looking at that and what special things they do to get him the ball, use him as a decoy or what not. We've got some pretty athletic quarterbacks and other skill players that we're trying to see if there's any merit to seeing what the Saints did and go from there. We don't get to watch a lot lot of NFL during the season so it's kind of nice to go back and study some NFL teams.
FootballScoop: Let's switch gears for a little bit. You upped Kent State's offense by more than 100 yards and 11 points per game in your first year at the school. How do you implement a culture change to produce that kind of immediate turnaround?
Sowder: It all starts with our head coach, Sean Lewis. I think he had a really good vision for what he wanted to do here. We've got a lot of guys on our staff with MAC experience, a lot of guys that have recruited the Midwest so it was a good fit culturally, and Coach Lewis just instilled a winning mindset from day one. Taking care of the details and working hard, being tough. One of our mantras is Flash FAST. The F, A, S, T stands for Fun, Accountable, Smart and Tough, and we talk about that on a daily basis. Basically what it boils down to is we're going to enjoy what we're doing but we're going to work really hard and be really efficient. Our guys are going to enjoy working and they're going to enjoy winning. So far, that process has been on track. We've got a long way to go but we won a bowl game last year, really enjoyed last season, and now we've got to take those next steps: Win the East Division, get to Detroit and compete for a MAC championship, and consistently go to bowls and win them.
FootballScoop: What position do you coach?
Sowder: I've got the inside receivers.
FootballScoop: How do you manage coordinating the offense while not coaching the quarterbacks?
Sowder: Coach Lewis is heavily involved in our offense and we've got a great relationship and good chemistry as far as, I know everything he's telling the quarterbacks and he knows everything that I'm telling the receivers. We make sure our call sheet is updated every practice, that we are on the exact same page as far as what is being installed, what's being called. We have a lot of conversation about that kind of stuff. You've got to be on the same page with your quarterback coach, which happens to be our head coach.
FootballScoop: You said Coach Lewis installed a winning mindset from Day One. What's that process like at a place that hasn't had much success historically?
Sowder: I think every season and every coaching tenure starts in the weight room. Our head strength coach Jeff Sobol is a guy that's been with us for a long time. Between me, Coach Lewis, Coach Sobol and our defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman, we've all been together for six, seven, eight years, so I think we all understand what the program is supposed to look like, and I think that the offense, defense and strength program are in alignment with each other. It starts with Coach Sobol, the way he trains those guys, the standard that he holds those guys to. After that, it's the way we practice. We really pride ourselves on the way we practice and how efficient we are. We don't practice for very long but we get a ton of plays in. We go really fast. We throw a lot of deep shots; our guys get in great condition because they're running the entire practice.
You learn how to fall in line in practice. I think we've got a really good practice culture. I love the way we structure it, I love the energy our coaching staff brings to it, and I think our players enjoy it. We do a lot of situational football, we do a lot of game-like situations and we get a lot of work in in a short amount of time. When you're stacking practices like that in fall camp, I think it just breeds success.
FootballScoop: What did you learn working for Dino Babers?
Sowder: The thing that a lot of people don't realize about Coach Babers is he can coach any position on the field. He is extremely detailed and precise about how he coaches each position. He is excellent about the fundamentals of football. He can take the linebackers, the quarterbacks, the kickers, through a 20-minute individual session and get those guys a lot better. He is just extremely skilled at a ton of different position.
FootballScoop: You mentioned being from Lubbock, but you sold yourself short. You're actually from Shallowater. What is it about West Texas that turns out so many good coaches?
Sowder: There's a really good coach of West Texas coaches. From Lincoln Riley, Eric Morris, some guys from Lubbock like Mike Smith and Kevin Curtis. Sonny Dykes is from Lubbock. I think a lot of it is, football is really important out there and there's really not a whole lot to do besides football. I didn't go to Texas Tech, but there ain't much else to do on a Saturday besides go to a Texas Tech football game. Grew up just going to those games and enjoying Big 12 football, and I think Mike Leach's influence out there has been huge. The success that Mike Leach has had, how influential he's been on the game and all the coaches that have come out of his tree, a lot of that starts in Lubbock. For it being kind of a small city out in the middle of nowhere, it was a cool place to grow up.