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Is coach Wolford ready for his close-up?

Published: Sat, September 4, 2010 @ 12:01 a.m.

By JOE SCALZO | scalzo@vindy.com

At 1:55 p.m. Friday, as YSU coach Eric Wolford and his team walked 100 yards to the buses that would take them to Happy Valley, home of the Penn State Nittany Lions, the clouds opened up and God

turned on his garden hose.

“In Africa, they say when it rains, it’s a blessing,” said Wolford, who managed to avoid the worst of it. “We’re getting blessed before we play.”

Eight months after he

was hired to replace Jon Heacock, Wolford will make his head-coaching debut on the road today against the winningest — and longest tenured — coach in Football Bowl Subdivision history: Penn State’s Joe Paterno.

Wolford, the Ursuline High School graduate who was — unsuccessfully —

recruited by former Penguins coach Jim Tressel, will now try to do what his predecessor could not: live up to the standards set by YSU’s most famous coach.

“It’s a new era,” said Penguins receiver Dominique Barnes. “Everybody’s

motivated to get Coach

Wolford kicked off on the right start, to show everybody Youngstown State’s back.”

Wolford’s arrival has

energized the team’s fan base, many of whom long for a return to the glory days of the 1990s, when Tressel won four I-AA national titles

before leaving for Ohio State.

Don McCloud, a 1954 graduate of YSU, played tailback and defensive back for the Penguins’ first football coach, Dike Beede.

He believes Wolford will do great things for the program.

“I think he’s full of vim, vigor and vitality,” said McCloud, a former Cardinal Mooney freshman coach who attends YSU’s home games with his wife, Claranne. “I want to see enthusiasm out there. We didn’t see much of that [the last few years].”

Chris Sammartino, 1990 Boardman High graduate, said he loves Wolford’s energy.

“He’s intense and he’s passionate and he loves what he does and he loves the kids and the town,” Sammartino said. “We’re very excited.”

Senior cornerback Brandian Ross said the team is focused on football, not legacies.

“We’re trying not to let the hype of Penn State and the new coaches get to us personally,” he said. “We just have to focus on Penn State and play hard.”

Earlier this week, as the cameras closed in on him during a press conference, Wolford joked, “You guys get too close to me, you’re going to see all that gray hair I got; all them wrinkles coming in.”

Gray hair? What gray hair?

“It’ll be here soon,” he said. “Before and after pictures.”

Right now, the 39-year-old Wolford’s hair is still blonde and his record is still unbeaten.

He’s ready for his close-up.

“We all know there’s a lot of positive things going on right now with our university,” he said. “Obviously, [today’s game] is national exposure for Youngstown and our Valley and we embrace it.

“We expect to play well.”

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