Since Youngstown State joined the Horizon League more than a decade ago, the only big-picture questions you asked during basketball season were “When does football start?” and “When does spring football start?”
In Massillon, they put little footballs next to newborn babies in the hospital. They could do the same thing in Youngstown, only the babies are wearing tiny pinstripe suits and pinky rings. Asking if YSU is a basketball school is like asking if Youngstown is a beach town.
But on Monday — two days after conference rival North Dakota State polished off its second straight FCS football title — the Penguins had the Horizon League’s men’s and women’s basketball players of the week. They both had winning records. They both had the league’s attention. And they both had reporters asking them if YSU is becoming a basketball school.
“I can’t say that,” grinned YSU men’s coach Slocum, “but you can.”
Well, I can’t say that either. Not yet. Three years ago, the Penguins were the gum on the bottom of the Horizon League’s shoe.
It takes time to scrape that off. Money, too.
In 2011, YSU spent $3.4 million on football and $1.1 million on men’s basketball. Cleveland State spent more than that on women’s basketball ($1.2 million). So did Akron. So did Kent State.
YSU’s odds are better now that Butler is in the Atlantic 10 — the Bulldogs spent $3.9 million on men’s basketball in 2011 — but the Penguins will always struggle to compete in a league in which every other school puts hoops first.
Valpo is the only other Horizon League school with football and its annual budget is $880,000, which is roughly what Ohio State football spends on press box hot dogs.
Slocum knew this when he was hired. So did the women’s coach, Bob Boldon. If they complain about it — and how could you not? — they’ve never done so publicly. They both took over losing programs, went through some growing pains, upgraded their talent and seem poised to finish in the top half of the conference.
That’s no small feat. The Horizon League is the 12th-best conference in the country in men’s basketball out of 32 leagues. Women’s basketball has gone from 14th three years ago to as high as 10th this year. It’s one thing to win in the Mid-Con. Another to do it in the Horizon.
“The conference just keeps getting better,” Boldon said.
For YSU to keep getting better, it will eventually need to upgrade its basketball budget. And for YSU to call itself a basketball school — for even a few months — it will need to do more than finish in the top half of the conference.
“We would need to be able to go far in the playoffs and win championships and stuff like that,” said YSU senior Brandi Brown.
The Penguins used to win stuff like that. Fifteen years ago, the women won an NCAA tournament game. The men won 20 games. The football team won its fourth national title.
Was it a football school? Was it a basketball school?