Let’s start with a moment from National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation:”
Clark Griswold has just finished his house’s Christmas lights. His family is on the lawn to watch the lighting. They’re doing the drum roll and ... pfft. Nothing.
CLARK’S MOTHER-IN-LAW: Talk about [throwing] your money away. I hope you kids see what a silly waste of resources this was.
AUDREY: He worked really hard, grandma.
CLARK’S FATHER-IN-LAW: So do washing machines.
This was supposed to be the season that Youngstown State’s football team returned to greatness. Eric Wolford gutted the roster in his first year, losing close games due to a lack of depth and talent. He took a step forward last year. He talked big before this season — you might have seen the billboards around town that list the home schedule that includes a playoff game — but he backed it up with a 4-0 start that included the Penguins’ first win over a BCS team (Pitt) and their first win over Northern Iowa in 11 years.
The lights were on. Then ... pfft.
A blowout loss, followed by a collapse, followed by another collapse.
After reading my email (the first of which arrived within 15 minutes of Saturday’s loss), the comments section on Vindy.com and some Internet message boards, YSU fans appear to have three opinions:
Fire Wolford and his staff.
Fire Wolford, his staff and athletic director Ron Strollo.
As a Browns fan, I’m sympathetic to cries for regime change. And you can’t blame a fan base accustomed to national championship teams for getting frustrated by a cocky coach with a lifetime record of 13-16.
But let’s leave the torches and pitchforks at home. Yes, the three-game losing streak has turned out the Christmas lights, but Wolford isn’t going to get fired (for one thing, he’s owed a half-million bucks over the last two years of his contract), he’s not going to make staff changes midway through the season (which is far from over) and, oh yeah, there are still four games. Let’s see what happens.
Wolford’s confidence can be infectious in the good times and grating in the bad times. It’s part of what makes him a more polarizing figure than Jon Heacock, who had all of Jim Tressel’s cliches and none of his charisma, but who was well-liked by his players and the university.
Wolford does spend too much time praising his staff — he spent five minutes of this week’s press conference talking about how the coaches only made one bad play call in last week’s loss and that the problem is execution — but he’s not been afraid to replace underachieving assistants. He’s also upgraded the team’s talent (even if they appear to be better athletes than football players) and made the players more accountable, both on the field and off of it.
The lingering question is: Is Wolford the long-term answer? YSU’s offense — which many expected to be the best in the FCS — has been blanked in the second half of the last three games. The defense played well last week but ranks near the bottom of most conference rankings. And the special teams? Well, the less said about them, the better.
YSU has the budget, the tradition and the facilities to compete with just about any team at the FCS level, but with the emergence of the Missouri Valley Football Conference (which has become the SEC of this level, seemingly within the last two years), those things aren’t enough.
There was an “If you build it, the championships will come” attitude with the WATTS — not to mention the new locker room, classrooms, offices, turf and Under Armour uniforms — but facilities don’t win football games. Teams do.
No one doubts that Wolford and his staff work hard, but so do washing machines. He needs to start winning, preferably this weekend.
There are four games left. The Penguins can still flip the switch. The lights can still come on.
But if they don’t, the title of this season will be Thanksgiving Vacation. And YSU will be left with fans talking about what a silly waste of resources it was.
Joe Scalzo covers Youngstown State athletics for The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.