Big-name game payday softens likelihood of loss
By JOE SCALZO
Standing on the Stambaugh Stadium sidelines in mid-August, YSU athletic director Ron Strollo looked up in the stands and pointed at the red chairback seats.
“Those are dollars from Ohio State,” he said.
Next he pointed at the headsets worn by the Penguin football coaches.
“State of the art,” he said. “As good as you’ll find anywhere.
“Those came from Ohio State.”
Behind him, construction continued on the Watson and Tressel Training Site, the $10 million indoor training facility set to open this year. Part of that money came from Ohio State, too.
The Penguins also have a top-of-the-line video-editing system, the same used by the Browns and Steelers. That came from playing Penn State four years ago.
The renovated football office lobby downstairs? Pitt money from 2005.
Oh, and the $3.5 million in scholarships YSU will provide its athletes this school year? Well, without this Saturday’s Penn State game, that bill would be a little bit tougher to tackle.
Of all the reasons YSU would make the three-hour trip to Happy Valley — recruiting help, media attention, the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play against college football’s winningest coach — one stands far above all others: money.
“Take $450,000 and divide it by a three-hour game,” said Strollo. “That’s not a bad hourly rate.”
Since the Penguins’ first “guarantee game” against Pitt in 2005, they’ve made between $250,000 and $650,000 each year to travel to either Heinz Field, Beaver Stadium or Ohio Stadium. The NCAA cleared the path for the games in 2005 when it ruled I-A (now Football Bowl Subdivision) teams could play a 12th game, and that beating a I-AA (Football Championship Subdivision) team could count toward the six wins needed for bowl eligibility. Before the ruling, FBS teams could count an FCS victory only once every four years.
“When they added that 12th game, there was a mad scramble for opponents,” said Penn State athletic director Tim Curley. “The guarantees went from $450,000-$500,000 to $850,000 to $1 million.
“It was simple supply and demand.”
A recent report by the NCAA revealed that out of 120 FBS schools, only 14 made money in 2009. Since most athletic departments rely heavily on football and men’s basketball to pay the bills, the 12th game was a godsend, particularly at schools such as Ohio State and Penn State, which can make as much as $4.5 million on a home game. When your annual athletic budget is $115 million — as OSU’s was in 2007-08 — every dollar helps. It also explains why the Buckeyes were willing to pay Colorado $1.4 million to come to Columbus next year.
“The way the economics work, we all need to have seven home games,” said Curley. “You can’t do that when you’re playing home and away against every opponent.”
The money also boosts YSU, of course, particularly the $650,000 YSU earned each year against OSU. But it’s not a program-changer.
The Penguins’ annual athletic budget is around $11 million, and YSU makes about $250,000 per home game at Stambaugh Stadium. Strollo pays teams a “guarantee” to come to the Ice Castle, but that fee is often equal to the amount he’d spend on out-of-town travel.
“The money is significant,” Strollo said, “but it’s not like it’s half our budget or some crazy number.”
Though money is the primary motivation for both sides, it’s not the only one.
Youngstown is a fertile recruiting area — the Valley had 30 seniors sign with FBS or FCS schools on February’s Signing Day, and that list doesn’t include players who signed later. And games against YSU serve as free advertisements for schools like Penn State and OSU.
The recruiting aid works both ways. It’s not easy to sell a kid on the virtues of playing Butler or Central Connecticut State (YSU’s first two home games this fall), but Penn State? In front of 100,000 fans? Against Joe Paterno?
“It’s an opportunity for these young men, when they’re 60 and 70 years old, they can talk about when they played against Penn State, played against the legendary Joe Paterno,” said Penguins coach Eric Wolford. “Next year we play Michigan State, so it’s an opportunity to line up and play a Big Ten team and see how you measure up.”
That was especially meaningful in 2007-08, when YSU played Ohio State.
“For a stretch there, we were able to recruit kids from Ohio that, unless they were recruited at Ohio State, no one else was going to have an opportunity to play in that stadium twice,” said Strollo. “It’s the same thing playing at Penn State and playing at Heinz Field. It gives those Western Pennsylvania kids a chance to play on a field they’ve only dreamt about playing on.”
The fans aren’t always thrilled to pay regular ticket prices for what is usually a glorified exhibition — YSU has been outscored 197-12 in guarantee games — but the Penguins at least carry more credibility than most FCS schools. Credit their four national titles under Jim Tressel, who’s now slightly better known as the Buckeyes’ coach.
“It’s good for them to play us,” Strollo said. “We have a pretty good history, and I think most of their fans at least recognize us.”
And then there’s this: the possibility of a program-changing win.
In 2007, Michigan paid defending FCS national champion Appalachian State $400,000 to come to the Big House — and lost, 34-32. The Wolverines entered the game as the preseason Big Ten favorites. They left as the laughingstock of college football.
“Anybody can beat anybody on any given day,” said OSU athletic director Gene Smith. “At the end of the day, there’s no doubt that when Penn State or Ohio State goes against a Youngstown State, both of us should win.
“But it’s going to be more competitive than the fans realize, because the fans are not in the trenches.”
YSU hasn’t come close to pulling an upset — in fact, it has yet to score a touchdown in the five FBS games — but that doesn’t mean the Penguins don’t dream. After all, Penn State, which will be starting a first-year quarterback, could get caught looking ahead to its Week 2 game against defending national champion Alabama. (But probably won’t.)
“A win like that, obviously, is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime deal when you’re in this profession,” Strollo said. “The impact it can have on your program is probably immeasurable.”
Win or lose, the Penguins benefit from increased exposure. Fans can hear about YSU’s tradition, the players get on TV and the fans get a chance to travel to a big-time stadium.
“If we can strengthen football in the Big Ten region,” Smith said, “that helps all of us.”
Of course, there are downsides, too. For one thing, you’re starting your season with an almost-guaranteed loss. For another, you’re risking injury.
“When we first scheduled these games, we talked to our trainers and the thought was, as long as our kids were playing hard, usually they stayed pretty healthy,” said Strollo, who played at YSU from 1988 to 1991 and was a team captain on the 1991 national championship team. “And historically, that’s been the case for us.”
YSU did suffer a big injury in 2007, losing senior co-captain Jeremiah Wright to a season-ending knee injury against Penn State. On the other hand, quarterback Tom Zetts suffered a broken collarbone against Division II Edinboro in 2003.
“We’ve had some injuries, but no more than we’ve had in some of those Division II games that we’ve played,” Strollo said.
As for starting 0-1, it’s no different than any other Missouri Valley Football Conference team.
“We’re fortunate that our fans have supported us and we haven’t had to go out and play two of those games,” Strollo said. “Our kids really enjoy the game. That was something I wasn’t sure about going in. I thought they’d want to compete in those games and, clearly, it’s something they look forward to.”
That’s especially true for Penguins sophomore tackle Andrew Radakovich, who redshirted at Penn State in 2008. He then transferred to YSU in 2009, where he started nine of 11 games and made the MVFC’s All-Newcomer Team.
The Sept. 4 game didn’t factor into his decision to come to YSU — “I had no clue I was playing them until midway through last season,” he said — but as soon as he found out, he called his former roommate, defensive end Jack Crawford, and his best friend, guard DeOn’tae Pannell, and started the smack-talk.
“I told them the Penguins are coming up and are going to end their season quickly,” said Radakovich. “They say there’s no way that’s happening. “I’m pretty sure they’re looking more toward the Crimson Tide than the Crimson Penguins.”
YSU will play at Michigan State next year, then head back to Pitt in 2012.
Strollo said he will continue to schedule in the four-state area, possibly adding Michigan and West Virginia in future years.
His main focus is on staying in YSU’s recruiting area, which allows YSU’s fans to travel to the games.
Wolford has already had the Penn State experience, having lost to the Nittany Lions in 2008 in a prime time “Whiteout” game when he was an assistant at Illinois. A year earlier, his Illini beat the Nittany Lions in Champaign, Ill.
“I told my wife, ‘My record against Coach Paterno right now is 1-1,’” Wolford said. “It’s a challenge. No one expects us to win, but that’s a good thing, too.
Win or lose, Radakovich said it’s a game they’ll never forget. “I think it gives some guys a chance to play in front of a 100,000-people crowd,” he said. “To show that even though we might not be at a bigger school, we might have as much talent as the players on that team. To show we might have been looked over.
“Some teams probably look at it like, ‘We have to play this hard team; we have to get through it.’ But I think our guys are really looking forward to trying to bring an upset. I’m pretty confident we can.”