NEARLY A DECADE AFTER JOINING THE HORIZON LEAGUE, YSU STILL STRUGGLES TO COMPETE
By Joe Scalzo
On a frigid Thursday night in mid-December, as the Youngstown State women’s basketball team — losers of 64 of their last 69 games — warmed up on the Beeghly Center court for that night’s game against Akron, Penguins Athletic Director Ron Strollo took a seat in a red chairback Penguin Club seat, about 50 feet from the floor.
His topic of conversation that night was YSU’s standing in the Horizon League, the compromise league the Penguins joined almost 10 years ago in response to a rejection from the Mid-American Conference in the mid-1990s.
Strollo was promoted to athletic director just as the Penguins were transitioning from the Mid-Continent Conference to the Horizon in the summer of 2001. At his introductory press conference, he said this:
“We’re entering a new era at Youngstown State. We are entering a stage where we need to see where we can compete in this new Horizon League. We’re excited about our past history in football and believe our next goal is to get there in basketball.”
They haven’t. Over their first nine seasons in the Horizon, the Penguins’ men’s and women’s basketball teams each went 37-113 in conference play. There were fewer than 250 people in the stands for the Akron game, although the university announced the official attendance at 1,080, a number that refers to “tickets distributed” and relies heavily on season-ticket sales and Penguin Club memberships.
Strollo expects to make about $110,000 in basketball-ticket revenue this season — total, for both teams — with $90,000 of that coming before the season starts. By contrast, the Penguin men made about $70,000 just for that traveling to North Carolina State that night and losing 67-50.
As a reporter looked around at the sparse crowd for the Zips game, he asked Strollo if it costs more to heat and light the arena than YSU makes in ticket sales.
Strollo managed a slight smile and said, “It seems like that sometimes.”
Oh, the YSU women lost by 14 points.
Sixty-five of 70.
YSU’s women’s basketball team was once the pride of the university, making NCAA tournament appearances in 1996, 1998 and 2000 as the champions of the Mid-Con, where the Penguins played from 1992-2001.
Competitively, it was a good league for YSU. Geographically, it wasn’t. At one point in the 1990s, the Mid-Con (now the Summit League) stretched from Buffalo to Cedar City, Utah, a distance of more than 2,000 miles. Making things worse, the league was about as stable as a one-legged ladder. Of the 10 teams now in the Summit League, only one was there when the Penguins joined in 1992. Since the league formed in 1982, 17 teams have left. Two more are set to leave in the next two years.
“It’s like the Island of Lost Toys,” Strollo said.
So, after getting turned down by the MAC, YSU joined the Horizon, a Midwest-based conference that was a step up competitively and a better fit geographically. Like an older brother’s suit, university officials hoped the Penguins would grow into it over time.
Over the last decade, only four of YSU’s 13 teams have won league titles: women’s golf (2002 and 2008), women’s outdoor track (2004-06, 2008-09), women’s indoor track (2004-05, 2008) and men’s indoor track (2003). Not a single team has a winning league record in head-to-head play, although the women’s tennis team is close at 33-33.
In 2010, the Penguins hit bottom. YSU failed to win a single league title in any of its 14 sports, with the six major team sports — men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, softball, women’s soccer and volleyball — all finishing either last or next-to-last. (The football team, which competes in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, also finished last.) Three teams — volleyball, men’s tennis and women’s basketball — failed to win a league game.
FOOTBALL & MONEY
So that’s the what. It’s time for the why, starting with the two biggest: football and money. Because YSU has the former, there isn’t much left of the latter.
Of the 10 teams in the Horizon League, YSU is the only one with scholarship football. Two others have nonscholarship football, Butler and Valparaiso.
The Penguins spend a little more than $3 million each year on football, which takes up about 25 percent of their overall budget. Butler spends about $500,000 and Valparaiso about $800,000.
Bottom line, at nine Horizon League schools, basketball is king. In Youngstown, football is king. Football costs the most money, makes the most money, brings the most fans, garners the most attention and is the biggest reason there’s a $10 million indoor facility being constructed a long pass from Stambaugh Stadium.
As long as YSU has scholarship football, basketball will always be the little brother. And, as long as Strollo has his way, YSU will always have scholarship football.
“Obviously I think that the football program means an awful lot to this community,” said Strollo, a captain on Jim Tressel’s first national championship team in 1991. “It’s part of the culture of Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. And as a former player whose father was a volunteer coach and is now in [YSU] Hall of Fame and a father-in-law who played football here, I wouldn’t recommend that.”
Jerry Slocum, YSU’s men’s basketball coach, knew the challenges of the job when he took over in 2005. He knew he’d have a smaller budget than the other Horizon League schools, knew YSU didn’t have much tradition in men’s basketball (the Penguins have had three winning seasons in 25 years), knew the Horizon League’s best sport was men’s basketball and knew he’d be competing against those teams in a weak recruiting area in a MAC-dominated state.
(Fun fact: Since Terence Dials went to Ohio State in 2001, Mahoning and Trumbull counties have produced almost 20 NFL players. Over that same span, they’ve produced one other Division I basketball player who played all four years, Ursuline’s D’Aundray Brown. And he went to Horizon rival Cleveland State.)
“We’ve been able to live in the MAC world, picking a couple of kids out of Ohio, but do a really good job of recruiting the Midwest,” said Slocum, who tends to find players in Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida. “You’ve got to find your niche, and that took us a couple years.
“We might be in the top three in recruiting a kid in Ohio, but once a MAC school comes in, it’s hard to finish the deal. If you’re not going to Ohio State, it’s a MAC state.”
YSU spent $1.04 million on men’s basketball last season, easily the lowest in the Horizon. Butler was first at $2.8 million, followed by Detroit ($2.3 million) and Milwaukee ($2 million). Seven schools spent at least $1.5 million. Heck, Akron spends more on women’s basketball than YSU spends on men’s basketball.
Slocum knew there wasn’t any extra money in YSU’s budget to help him close the gap, so he and his staff focused on fundraising, acquiring the money to renovate the team’s locker room and players lounge.
Beeghly Center isn’t state-of-the-art, but it’s a suitable arena for a mid-major team. The team has a good editing system, travels comfortably and doesn’t have to deal with hand-me-down equipment. And Butler’s run to the national championship game last March gave Slocum a selling point for what is, empirically, the 13th best Division I program in a state with 13 Division I programs.
“When I took the job, I understood exactly what the challenges were ahead of us,” said Slocum, who has gone 634-431 in his career, but just 54-106 at YSU. “I believe in YSU, I believe we can get the job done here. I think it’s taken us longer than I had hoped it would take, but I think we’re in a position now facility-wise, conference-wise, to be able to recruit the kind of kids that are going to help us get to where we need to be.”
The goal? Get in the top third of the league.
“That’s what my goal was when I took the job here, and I think we’re headed on the right track,” he said.
FROM TOP TO BOTTOM
Women’s basketball is another story. Although the program started to level off in Ed DiGregorio’s final years, the women’s team still had a solid foundation — and reputation — when he retired in 2003. After an extensive search, Strollo hired Tisha Hill, a longtime Division I assistant.
She was the wrong choice. YSU went 43-97 during her tenure, including 24-57 in the Horizon. Even worse, she failed to recruit a single local scholarship player during one of the most talent-rich periods in Valley history. It was the biggest surprise for Strollo, who has struggled to find the right coach for several sports and has awarded some unmerited — and ill-timed — contract extensions to those coaches.
“There’s clearly been some programs that we haven’t been excited about in regard to their performance, and one of those would be women’s basketball,” Strollo said.
After the highly-touted-assistant route failed, Strollo turned to a highly-touted Division II head coach, Cindy Martin, who had also been a top assistant at West Virginia. She wasn’t the right choice, either. After going 3-57 in two years, Martin resigned, and Strollo hired Bob Boldon, a Stark County native who had been both a Division I assistant and a Division II and NAIA head coach.
When first investigating the job, he looked at the Penguins’ record and figured the facilities must be bad. They weren’t.
“I was pleasantly surprised by facilities,” he said.
One problem, again, is money. YSU spent $761,000 on women’s basketball last year, lowest in the league. Seven schools spent at least $1 million.
The other problem is that they are competing for talent with just about every other Division I program in a 1,000 mile radius. During the fall recruiting period, Boldon attended an event in Columbus that drew 189 schools.
“They weren’t all Division I, but, I mean, that’s insane,” he said. “Ohio is a hotbed for women’s basketball, but unfortunately, everybody knows it.”
The Horizon League holds some cache in Wisconsin and Illinois, but it means little in Ohio, particularly in women’s basketball. Outside of the University of Wisconsin, Horizon-member Green Bay pretty much has its pick of top players in that state. But in Ohio, if a girl isn’t going to Ohio State, she’s probably going to pick a MAC school.
“There’s not a lot of Horizon League basketball history in Cleveland State, Wright State and Youngstown State,” said Boldon. “And walking into this situation right now is a tall order for a high school kid.”
On Nov. 24, Boldon and the Penguins defeated Bucknell to snap a 34-game losing streak, the longest in YSU history. Three nights later, they defeated MAC-member Ohio. It wasn’t a breakthrough — the Penguins are still 2-9 — but it was at least positive.
“I think it’s reasonable that we can compete in the Horizon League,” Boldon said. “But we need to get better no matter what league we’re in.”
Not all sports are equal
YSU offers 14 sports, although the joke is that only two of those matter in Youngstown: football and spring football. YSU provides the NCAA maximum number of scholarships in two men’s sports (basketball and football) and six women’s sports (basketball, golf, soccer, softball, tennis, volleyball). They use fewer than the NCAA maximum — but more the NCAA minimum — in the six others: baseball (nine, compared to 11.7 allowed), men’s golf and tennis (3.25, 4.5), men’s track (6.75, 12.6), women’s swimming (12, 14) and women’s track (16.19, 18).
For many of those sports, Strollo’s primary goal isn’t winning titles.
“You want kids to have a great experience, you want them to graduate, and you want to represent the institution in a first-class manner and help be the front porch to the institution,” he said.
In many cases, YSU’s facilities are worse than what you’d find at Strollo’s high school alma mater, Fitch. The Penguins’ soccer team plays at Stambaugh Stadium, which isn’t regulation width and has a crown in the middle of the field, prompting the ball to roll downhill in several directions. The soccer team often practices at 6 a.m. because the football team has the field in the afternoon.
The tennis court has cracks. The softball team plays in Canfield. The baseball team plays in Niles. The golf team plays ... well, wherever they can. The track team — YSU’s most successful sport — lost its outdoor track when the school started building the WATTS on the same site earlier this year, so the athletes bus to Kent State’s indoor facility several times a week to train.
Strollo said he does the best he can with each sport, but he admits the department tries to win league titles in certain sports (football and track, for instance) and just be competitive in others (say, soccer and volleyball).
YSU’s athletic expenses last school year were $11.8 million. It’s the third-highest total in the league, although if you take away football expenses, it would rank second-to-last. Strollo’s budget isn’t going to improve anytime soon, considering the university just went through a $3 million budget cut and is anticipating an additional $8 million cut. Add in the city’s reputation for crime, its dwindling population and its location as the easternmost school in the league, and it’s easy to see why the Horizon is such a challenge. But Strollo maintains that it’s the best option for now.
“When we were in the Mid-Continent Conference, some of our resources and facilities matched up better there and our teams were more competitive,” Strollo said. “But I think we’ve raised the level of competition for our student-athletes and you can see some of that in our nonconference scores.
“As far as the resources, missed class times, the ability to play in front of alumni, the Horizon League is without a doubt a great fit for us.”
In the middle of all this doom and gloom, there are some positives. The baseball and softball teams have each made NCAA tournament appearances in the last decade. The swimming and diving team has a good facility and is competitive. And while most programs have yet to win a league title, several have come close, with the baseball, softball, men’s golf and men’s outdoor track all finishing runner-up at least once.
The baseball team went just 9-18 in the league last year, finishing sixth out of seven teams, but the Penguins had two players drafted, another signed as a minor-league free agent with the Orioles and another signed a pro contract with the independent Frontier League.
Baseball coach Rich Pasquale is optimistic about the team’s future.
He believes the WATTS will make YSU significantly more attractive to recruits. He thinks playing at Eastwood Field is a positive, even if it’s a 20-minute drive from campus. He said the league’s decision to get rid of Saturday doubleheaders will be a huge plus for a team that travels farther than anyone else in the Horizon. He said having only eight scholarships — the NCAA minimum for baseball teams — isn’t a huge problem because he can recruit locally. And, besides, YSU’s tuition is so low, it equals out to other schools.
He even likes the fact that just seven Horizon League teams offer baseball.
“The way I see it, I’ve only got to beat out six,” he said, laughing. “The Big East has way more than that.”
Like most YSU coaches, he has a smaller budget than other Horizon League schools, so he tries to be creative, squeezing every drop out of every dollar.
“We do our best and our guys go without some extra stuff,” he said. “But they’re fine. We’ve got everything we need. Gear. Food. We stay at nice hotels. And that’s from me doing homework, figuring that stuff out. That’s the job of a coach.
Pasquale knows YSU will always be a football school, but rather than complain about it, he embraces it, just as he embraces the rest of the school’s sports.
“Football brings us so much positive publicity,” said Pasquale, who said he attends all home football games. “If we didn’t have that, people wouldn’t know about YSU.
“But I root just as hard for our football team as our volleyball team. I’m their biggest fan, and I hope they are ours. I’ve always said we’re all in this together. If more coaches feel that way, we’re going to continue to have a successful athletic department.”