Kent State hires Kenni Burns to be new head football coach

Kent State has hired Minnesota associate head coach Kenni Burns to become the new head coach of the Golden Flashes, it was announced Wednesday.

The deal is for five years, sources told ESPN.

"I am looking forward to getting to know the team and connecting with them on a personal level, and I am also excited to engage our alumni and fans as we begin to move this program forward," Burns said in a statement. "We have a lot of work and recruiting to do, and I can't wait to get started."

Burns has been a linchpin member of P.J. Fleck's staff since taking the running backs job at Western Michigan in 2016. That team went 13-1, reached the Cotton Bowl and dominated the MAC like no team in recent history.

Burns became Minnesota's assistant head coach in 2019 after coming over with Fleck from Western Michigan as the running backs coach. His seven seasons with Fleck offer a blueprint for how to build and compete in the MAC footprint, something that Fleck did as well as anyone in the MAC in the past generation.

Burns' ability to lay out a vision and implement it appealed most to Kent State athletic director Randale Richmond, sources told ESPN. Richmond ran his first major search at the school since arriving in April 2021.

"Kenni has been a key contributor to championship teams at every stop and was the most prepared candidate in the country to be a first-time head coach," Richmond said. "I have no doubt that Kenni and his staff will build upon the solid foundation of Kent State football as we continue to graduate student-athletes, boldly prepared for life after sport and win championships."

Kent State has long been one of the MAC's most challenging jobs, and Richmond was tasked with finding a replacement for Sean Lewis, who left to become Deion Sanders' coordinator at Colorado.

Lewis went 24-31 in five years, a tenure that was generally deemed successful as he won the school's first bowl game in history and endured a difficult schedule that featured three high-profile buy games a year.

Burns will be facing a difficult early task patching the roster together upon arrival, as a number of the program's top players entered the NCAA transfer portal. Burns' experience winning at places such as North Dakota State, Wyoming and Southern Illinois gave Richmond faith that Burns could build and execute a vision for Kent State.

Burns brings with him a strong track record of recruiting, developing and culture-building, as he has been part of Fleck's noted "Row The Boat" program for seven seasons. It's a program built on connection and development that's helped Minnesota to be consistently competitive in the Big Ten West and a solid top-25 program at an address where winning had only come sporadically.

Burns, who is also the Gophers running backs coach, has helped produce a stable of strong tailbacks for the Gophers, as he recruited and developed Mo Ibrahim into the school's all-time leading rusher who has scored the most touchdowns in program history. Tailback Rodney Smith also left school as one of the most productive backs in Minnesota history under Burns' watch.

Burns is from Illinois and played collegiately at Indiana. Burns' first season will debut at UCF and feature games at both Fresno State and Arkansas.