Heacock has compiled a 59-44 record with three losing seasons.
By Pete Mollica
YOUNGSTOWN — Is Saturday’s football game against North Dakota State the final one for Youngstown State coach Jon Heacock?
Only one person knows for sure. And he’s not talking.
Ron Strollo, university athletic director, has said many times when the season ends he will evaluate Heacock’s performance and make his decision.
There’s a belief it already has been made.
Heacock, who first came to YSU in 1991 as an assistant coach, took over as head coach in 2001 after Jim Tressel left to become head coach for Ohio State University’s football program.
In nine seasons, Heacock has compiled a 59-44 record with three losing seasons. He needs a victory Saturday to avoid his fourth sub-.500 campaign.
His record is respectable, but the fact that in nine seasons he has taken the Penguins to just one postseason berth has been one of the biggest reasons YSU fans have been calling for his removal.
Unfortunately for Heacock, he was the guy to follow Tressel.
In 15 seasons, Tressel posted a 135-57-2 record with four national championships and six appearances in the title game. His teams were 103-30-1 during the 1990s, winning the four national titles.
The Penguins qualified for the playoffs in 11 of Tressel’s 15 seasons.
It was Lou Holtz, former football coach, who made the statement that he never wanted to be the coach who replaced the immortal Woody Hayes at Ohio State. He said he’d love to be the guy that replaced the guy who replaced Hayes.
And that’s been Heacock’s problem. That and the fact that the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, has changed dramatically over the last nine seasons.
Tressel helped set the pace and everybody else has raised their programs to that level and then some, most notably Southern Illinois, which won just seven Gateway Conference games from 1996-2002, but has a 42-8 conference record since then and has won or shared five league championships.
Despite his many successes, Tressel never won a Gateway Conference championship when he was at YSU. He was in the national championship game twice in the four years he was in the conference, however.
Heacock has won it twice, including the outright title in 2006, which is the only season he’s led the Penguins to the postseason.
The 2006 season was Heacock’s best, finishing with an 11-3 record and reaching the semifinals of the FCS playoffs before losing to eventual national champion Appalachian State, 49-24.
Heacock has had two other teams that have met the qualifications for the postseason by winning eight games. The Penguins were 8-3 in both 2001 and 2005, but both times the team was bypassed for the playoffs because of Heacock’s unsuccessful run against the two top teams in the conference.
In 2001, the Penguins tied for second with Northern Iowa and Western Kentucky, but lost to both teams in the regular season. In 2005, the Penguins shared the league crown with Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois, but again lost to both teams.
Both years, the other two teams advanced while the Penguins stayed home.
Heacock’s record against Northern Iowa, probably the strongest team in the conference in his era, is 0-9. His record against Southern Illinois over the last seven years is 1-6.
“He can’t go out and play the games for us,” senior offensive lineman Brian Mellott has said of Heacock. “[The coaches] prepare us for what needs to be done, and it’s up to us to go out and do it.”
Heacock is considered a players’ coach who watches over his kids throughout the year on the field and in the classroom.
Heacock, however, has been a target of criticism for his recruiting, specifically his inability to attract the top players from the Mahoning Valley.
Tressel famously referred to the area as the “State of Youngstown” and made recruiting local players a high priority.
Consider this, however. Population in the Valley has dropped about 20 percent since Tressel’s first season. There has been a smaller pool of players to draw from, and the majority of players who have been Division I caliber were more inclined to go to major college programs, such as OSU, Michigan and West Virginia, than Youngstown State.
This season the YSU roster had more than 30 players from the Mahoning Valley and western Pennsylvania. The majority of them were walk-ons.
By comparison, YSU’s two biggest recruiting rivals in northeast Ohio — Kent State and Akron — had six and five players, respectively, from the Valley.
This season Heacock put added pressure on himself when he took over the job as defensive coordinator as well as head coach. He said he did it because he loves to coach, not just overseeing like a head coach, but getting right in there with the players and teaching them the game.
Unfortunately, head coaches are rated by wins and losses and how many fans are in the seats.
In Heacock’s case, one playoff appearance in nine years and a dwindling attendance mark just isn’t going to cut the mustard with the fans and more importantly with Strollo, who will make the final decision.
If he hasn’t already.
1979: Graduated from West Branch High School, Beloit. Selected to Ohio North-South all-star game. Coach was Dick Hartzell.
1979-83: Attended and graduated from Muskingum College in New Concord. Coaches were Al Christopher and Jeff Heacock (Jon’s older brother).
1983: Graduate assistant (defensive line) at University of Toledo. Head coach at the time was Dan Simrell.
1984: Served on the coaching staff at Steubenville High School. Team won the Div. II state championship.
1985-87: Served as defensive coordinator, defensive line coach and secondary coach at West Liberty (W. Va.). Head coach then was Larry Shank.
1988-89: Graduate assistant at University of Michigan, working with defensive backs and special teams. Michigan won two Big Ten titles and appeared in the Rose Bowl twice, winning in 1989. Head coach was Bo Schembechler. Record in that span was 19-4-1.
1990: Served as assistant coach at the U.S. Military Academy. Head coach was Jim Young. Record: 6-5-0.
1991: Hired by Jim Tressel to serve as defensive backs coach at Youngstown State. Penguins finished 12-3 and won the NCAA Division I-AA national championship, defeating Marshall 25-17.
1992-1996: Promoted to defense coordinator at YSU. The Penguins were a combined 49-16-2, winning national championships in 1993 and 1994, and lost to Marshall in the 1992 title game. The 1993 team allowed just 15.5 points per game and the 1994 squad allowed only 10.1 points per game. The 1994 team finished the year 14-0-1, allowing 10 or fewer points nine times, and defeated Boise State in the championship game.
1997-1999: Joined Indiana Univesity as defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Head coach at that time was Cam Cameron. Indiana went 10-23 during that time.
2000: Returned to YSU as defensive coordinator. Penguins went 9-3 and lost to Richmond in first round of the Division I-AA playoffs.
2001: Named YSU’s fifth head coach, replacing Jim Tressel. Penguins finished 8-3 but were not selected for the I-AA playoffs despite going 5-2 in the Gateway Conference to tie Western Kentucky for second place.
2002: Penguins went 7-4 overall and 4-3 in the Gateway Conference.
2003: YSU finished 5-7, the first losing season since 1995, and the first of two consecutive sub-.500 seasons.
2004: Penguins finished 4-7 and completed two-year mark of 4-10 in conference play.
2005: YSU rebounded for an 8-3 record and tied Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois for the league championship. Penguins, though, were again snubbed for the I-AA playoffs — their two league losses were to UNI and SIU. Heacock was rewarded after the season with a contract extension through 2010.
2006: Penguins left nothing to chance as far as the playoffs, winning the outright Gateway Conference championship with a 6-1 record. YSU won home playoff games against James Madison and Illinois State before losing to eventual national champion Appalachian State 49-24.
2007: YSU started 4-1 — the only loss at Ohio State, but lost three of its next four games to fall out of playoff contention. The Penguins rebounded to close the season with wins over Indiana State and Western Illinois to finish 7-4.
2008: The third losing season in eight years for Heacock, punctuated by 43-0 and 40-7 losses to Ohio State and South Dakota State, respectively, to open the year. YSU rebounded for two straight wins then lost their next six games. The Penguins finished 4-8 in a campaign marked by injuries and player defections.
2009: The return of 16 starters buoyed optimisim at the start of the season. The Penguins opened with a 38-3 loss at Pittsburgh, then won their next three by a combined 104-42. YSU lost to Missouri State 17-7, at home, rebounded to beat Western Illinois 31-21, then lost their next three games to the Missouri Valley Conference’s powers — Southern Illinois, South Dakota State and Northern Iowa — by a combined 72-18. In his nine seasons, Heacock is 7-26 against teams that finished tied with YSU or higher in the conference standings, and 3-15 combined against Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois, the teams ranked 1-2 in conference wins since 2001. (YSU is No. 3).
YSU vs. North Dakota State
Kickoff: Saturday, 2 p.m. at the Fargodome, Fargo, N.D.
Records: Youngstown State 5-5, 3-4 Missouri Valley Conference; North Dakota State 3-7, 2-5.
Series history: Youngstown State leads 2-1. (Last meeting: 2008, Youngstown State 32, North Dakota State 24.)
Radio: WKBN-AM (570).