YOUNGSTOWN — The irony of it all is that, ultimately, Jon Heacock the head coach couldn’t achieve the expectations of success that he helped to create as Jon Heacock the assistant coach.
As defensive coordinator for the program that had one of the greatest runs of success in Division I-AA history, Heacock parlayed his role in Youngstown State’s three national championships between 1991 and 1996 into Jim Tressel’s hand-picked successor.
The Penguins under Bill Narduzzi won just two games more than they lost in their first five years as a I-AA program before Tressel was summoned from the Ohio State staff.
Six years later Youngstown State was on the I-AA mountaintop, Tressel holding aloft the first of his four national championship trophies.
He was all over the television, too, promoting the university and charities throughout the Valley.
Heacock was coaching the defensive backs that first championship season, but was promoted to defensive coordinator before the next spring practice.
Two more titles followed before Heacock went to Indiana as defensive coordinator for Cam Cameron.
That didn’t work out so well — as many Hoosiers’ coaches before and since have also discovered — and three years later Tressel brought Heacock back in Youngstown as his defensive lieutenant.
That was January of 2000, and no one then had any inkling that 12 months later we’d be camped outside the Tressel home, or that we’d be answering phone calls from every media outlet in the state with questions like, “Who’s Jim Tressel?”
In the sixth year of his tenure as head coach, Heacock reached his pinnacle of success, leading the Penguins to an outright Gateway Conference championship and two wins in the NCAA playoffs.
The Penguins lost in the semifinals that year to defending national champion Appalachian State and a freshman quarterback named Armanti Edwards.
(No shame in that — just ask Michigan.)
But, Tressel’s seventh, eighth and ninth years at YSU resulted in three more trips to the national championship game, and two titles.
In contrast, Heacock was unable to build on the momentum of that 11-3 finish in 2006.
While Tressel’s next three teams were a combined 38-5-2, Heacock’s Penguins of 2007-09 were just 17-17 and were out of the playoff chase before the calendar turned to November.
Stambaugh Stadium isn’t nicknamed “The Ice Castle” because some marketing genius caught lightning in a bottle.
It’s frigid when the gales of November howl off 422 (some people may still be thawing out from the day-after-Thanksgiving playoff game against Alcorn State and Steve McNair in ’94) and it became too easy to sit in front of the television, cheering on the Buckeyes while YSU was playing for nothing more than pride.
Heacock never had Tressel’s panache with the TV camera, but few coaches do.
He couldn’t turn a phrase like his predecessor, either. Tressel came up with the “State of Youngstown,” and turned into his recruiting mantra.
Heacock’s message, win or lose, was always the same: Stay steady, don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Have faith in the system.
Fans accepted that from 2005-07, when the Penguins were winning seven of every 10 games.
But even in his final season, a winning season, Heacock was under fire. His inability to rally the troops, whether the troops were the fanbase or his own players, was ultimately the final straw.
By contrast, Tressel never came under such intense scrutiny in 1995, when the Penguins went 3-8 one year after the 14-0-1, national championship season.
Heacock’s defenders will say it’s unfair to compare him to Tressel, and maybe rightfully so. But that is the measure of a coach, and Tressel may have set the bar so high it was impossible for anyone to reach.
Heacock understood that when he took the job. After all, he was there to help make it happen.
XRob Todor is sports editor of The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.