Try this test: Go to one of the area’s shopping or eating establishments and ask patrons who should be the next president at Youngstown State.
Chances are you’ll be greeted with a blank stare.
Ask those same people who should be the next football coach at YSU and you’ll probably get a 15-minute discussion.
This isn’t to diminish the role of the leader of the university, but to illustrate the importance, fair or not, we place on the leader of the school’s most visible program, athletic or otherwise.
And because of that, Eric Wolford will face a lot of pressure to not only win, but to win in the postseason.
And as much pressure, if not more, will fall on the shoulders of athletic director Ron Strollo.
Strollo’s had a star-crossed record when it’s come to hiring head coaches. Women’s basketball has floundered (though, to be honest, Cindy Martin gets a pass for at least another year), and men’s basketball is showing some promise, but the majority of Olympic sports have floundered.
But none of those hires will be scrutinized as closely as this one.
To his credit Strollo understood that. He knows what qualities YSU fans hold dear — most notably, that the coach is one of them.
“That was a commitment of mine, to bring someone home,” Strollo said after Wolford’s introductory press conference. “I think when you bring someone home they care more about the job because they’re coaching in front of family and friends.”
Strollo likened it to players who transfer in after initially opting to go elsewhere.
“A lot of times Division I transfers that are coming home, playing in front of fans, playing in front of their parents and friends, those kids give you a little more effort. I think the same goes with coaching.
“It’s always my feeling that if we have qualified candidates — and we probably had four or five at least that had Youngstown ties — well, why not stick with someone [from the Valley].”
Strollo said he met with “six or seven” candidates face-to-face in the process, all to varying degrees of seriousness. Some meetings were strictly to gauge interest; others, like his meeting with Wolford in Richmond, Va., the first week of December, were a tad more introspective.
“We had dinner one night and that was our first meeting,” said Strollo. “We had a couple of [prior] phone conversations so I wanted to see his passion in his eyes.
“[Wolford’s] passion for the job was overwhelming and he had a plan,” Strollo added. “It wasn’t, ‘Hey, I want this job,’ it was, ‘I have a plan.’
“I spent a lot of time talking with high school coaches … that said he’s the best recruiter to ever come to [their] school.”
What impressed Strollo was Wolford’s plan; that is, it’s going to take a community to resurrect the program.
“Sometimes you get worried about a first-time head coach trying to do it all by himself,” said Strollo, who went against his own past with this hire.
“If you look at some of the hires that I’ve had, especially in the other sports, I’ve looked to people who had head coaching experience, because I think that’s important,” he said.
“Although it’s important for us to recruit locally and build our core, it’s extremely important for this coach to know where the other pockets are, whether that’s Texas, whether that’s Virginia, whether that’s Florida, whether that’s California. Because of [Wolford’s] experiences he’s able to go in those pockets and know people.”
Now the task is to get Wolford re-introduced to the Valley.
“I’ve spent so much time talking to Eric and I’ve spent so much time talking to other people who know Eric, now … I need others to hear … his passion for the job and his clear plan for getting this program in the postseason.”
The sooner, the better, for Wolford. We know that one playoff appearance in nine years isn’t acceptable. This coach — and the man who hired him — are on an even shorter leash.
XRob Todor is sports editor of The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.