A good year, but not a great one

On most days, Jim Tressel’s shadow stretches 50 miles, from the University of Akron (where he now works as something called the Vice President of Strategic Engagement) to Youngstown State University (where his name adorns the front of the indoor training facility and his legacy adorns everything else).

But last Saturday, the real thing was there, in the flesh, wearing a red YSU pullover at the Penguins’ home football game and using “we” in radio interviews to describe his former team.

I was hired at The Vindicator in July of 2001 so I missed that era. But as an outsider, one thing has become clear to me: In 1986, YSU managed to hire one of the five best college football coaches on the planet and keep him for 15 years.

Here’s what else is clear: That will never happen again.

Eric Wolford is not Jim Tressel, which is both obvious and unfair. You might as well compare him to Paul Brown.

Still, Wolford has embraced Tressel’s legacy and the standard he set, something that sounds nice in press conferences but has a way of skewing everything he does. It’s a major reason why this year’s 7-4 record is viewed as a colossal disappointment instead of what it is: a pretty good year that everyone expected to be great.

Six months ago, at the the end of an hour-long press conference just before Youngstown State’s spring football game, Wolford was asked this: “Do you expect to be in the playoffs next year?”

“No question,” Wolford said. “No question.”

Four months later, Wolford repeated those sentiments at the end of training camp.

“We feel like we finally have the depth and the talent that there’s no excuses for not winning here,” he said.

Around that same time, YSU athletic director Ron Strollo made clear what he expected to see from this year’s football season: “The university has made a significant investment in the football program and this community has made a significant investment in the football program. Obviously, we’re hunting a conference championship and the expectation this season would be the playoffs.”

During a 4-0 start, the Penguins met those expectations. But a four-game losing streak in October ruined their playoff chances and set back the program’s progress just as much as the 2011 loss to Missouri State.

The question is, why?

Well, for one thing, the Penguins weren’t that good.

For another, they didn’t play very well.

Toward the end of the season, Wolford shifted his talking points from the playoffs to the program’s foundation. He talked about how this was the first year he was really able to redshirt his recruits (something the conference’s best teams have been doing for years), how he’s cut down on the discipline problems, raised the team’s grade point average and set the stage for YSU to contend for years to come.

He should have been talking about this all along.

Jon Heacock learned how hard it is to follow Tressel. Wolford is learning the same thing. Wolford could benefit from Heacock’s defensive genius (Heacock is the defensive coordinator for Kent State’s best team in 40 years) and his humility. Heacock could have benefited from Wolford’s tireless recruiting, media savvy and offensive approach. (Not to mention some of his resources.)

With two years left on a five-year contract, Wolford still has time to prove he’s the long-term answer for YSU’s program. But a 16-17 record isn’t good enough.

Neither is 7-4.

Wolford needs to change some coaches, replace some starters and add some playmakers. But, more than anything, he needs to reassure recruits, players, fans, boosters and his bosses that he’s capable of taking the next step.

Until he does, YSU fans will look longingly at the man whose offices are 50 miles to the west and whose legacy seems so much further away.

Year in review

Team MVP/offensive player of the year: Jamaine Cook, Sr., RB.

Despite promises of a reduced workload, Cook posted a career-high in carries (279) and a career-load in yards per carry (4.6).

He wasn’t as explosive as he was as a sophomore, but he was never better, carrying the team on his shoulders over the final three games when it was clear the offensive coaches had lost trust in almost everyone else.

Cook finishes his career as the team’s second-leading rusher and No. 1 in all-purpose yards. But his impact goes beyond statistics, where he was the team’s unquestioned leader and hardest worker during the Wolford era. He was a player who had to be seen on a day-to-day, game-to-game basis to fully be appreciated.

Defensive player of the year: Aronde Stanton, Sr., DT.

He led the team in tackles for loss (7.5) and was second in sacks (four) and served as the emotional leader of the defense’s best unit.

Favorite player to watch: Cook. YSU’s strength coach, Mike Cochran, called him the strongest pound-for-pound player he’s ever worked with. I believe it.

Runner-up: Andre Stubbs, WR, RFr.

Favorite player to interview: Andrew Radakovich, Sr., LT. Whether he was bragging about his beard (“[Center Mark Pratt] said I copied his style. I said, ‘No, I’m just doing it better,’” Radakovich said), his athleticism (he said he has the “pure speed” to play receiver but not the hands) or his team, he was — by far — the funniest and most memorable player behind the podium.

Runner-up: Stanton.

Game of the year: While it didn’t have the drama of the win over Northern Iowa (which snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Panthers), YSU’s 31-17 win over Pitt was as complete and as satisfying as any since the 2006 playoff season.

Afterward, Joe Malmisur (“The Man who hired Jim Tressel”) said this: “That was the best victory I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Alas, YSU didn’t play that well again until the finale. The Pitt win was supposed to be the start of a season to remember. Instead, it was the highlight of a season to forget.

Finally, the five quotes I loved the most:

From Wolford, on punter Nick Liste’s eyebrows: “Look at them things. Have you ever seen anything like that? It’s a little like Mike Cochran’s back. They’re like evergreen trees.”

From Radakovich, on the teammate with the worst hair: “I’m going to go with [OL] Fred Herdman. He just looks terrible at all times during the day.”

From Pratt, after being told line coach Carmen Bricillo wants to shave Pratt’s back and give it to guard Chris Elkins to use for facial hair: “You might as well. I have enough to give him a full beard and then some.”

From defensive line coach Tom Sims, on enjoying his college days at Pitt: “I went there as a 250-pound linebacker and left as a 300-pound nose tackle.”

From Radakovich, on whether he or his roommate snore during road trips: “Me and [senior guard] Lamar [Mady] are very sound sleepers. We don’t make any noise at all. We do a little cuddling before and just go ahead and [sleep].”

Joe Scalzo covers Youngstown State football for The Vindicator. Write to him at scalzo@vindy.com.

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