Puskas: ‘Carm’ won’t be forgotten

Football is all about numbers on the field.

Numbers will make or break the careers of players and coaches.

Yards and first downs. Field goals and touchdowns.

Individually, 1,000 yards rushing, 1,000 receiving and 3,000 passing have been the standards for years.

We evaluate coaches by tallying wins and losses. University presidents and NFL owners also gauge their teams’ relevance by the number of people who squeeze through the turnstiles every weekend in the fall.

But what about the quiet contributions of a man like Carmine Cassese?

Jim Tressel, whose life and career have been intertwined with Cassese’s since 1986, says you may not be able to use numbers to measure what he meant to Youngstown State football — and the city — but that his contributions are undeniable.

Cassese, YSU’s long-time equipment manager, died late Friday of complications after battling pancreatic cancer since February.

Cassese took over at YSU — replacing John “Chubby” Scott — at about the same time Tressel became the Penguins’ football coach in 1986.

“We kind of grew up together in the world,” Tressel said Saturday as he remembered Cassese’s work with his Division I-AA championship teams of the 1990s. “He had a young family and we had a young family. He worked 18 hours a day and we worked 18 hours a day.”

Some days, Carm — as just about everyone knew him — surely worked more than 18. In addition to his YSU job, Cassese was heavily involved in the day-to-day operations at the MVR, his family’s storied Youngstown eatery and gathering place just off campus on the edge of Smoky Hollow.

Family meant everything to Cassese, which made him the perfect guy for Tressel’s then-fledgling YSU program.

“When you’re trying to have a family atmosphere everyone has to be like-minded, and Carm was very much a family-oriented person,” Tressel said. “He was there for the students, the program, the school and the community.

“He was totally immersed in what we were trying to accomplish. It’s hard to even quantify what he meant to us. It was extraordinary the contributions he made to YSU and to our program.”

Cassese and Tressel remained close after Tressel left for Ohio State in 2001. Part of it was their friendship, but Carm also was an OSU graduate.

“He had a deep love for Ohio State,” Tressel said. “He was busy at YSU and MVR, but if he ever had a waking moment, he was keeping track of what we were doing and getting there when he could. He got there every once in a while. He was a busy guy.”

Cassese stayed at YSU through 2011, serving under former Penguins coach Jon Heacock and current coach Eric Wolford.

Heacock said Carm’s approach never changed.

“No matter what happened, no matter what kind of chaos was going on, Carm was the same guy,” said Heacock, now an assistant at Purdue. “That’s how he was at MVR, too. It could be a chaotic Friday night and things could be going crazy and he’d just say, ‘Give them a glass of wine and everything will be fine.’ He’d say, ‘If you care about them and take care of them, it’s all going to settle down.’

“That’s the kind of guy he was. But sometimes, he was a spaz, too. He’d be running around and doing 10,000 things.”

Whether it was Tressel, Heacock or Wolford on the sideline, YSU’s coach knew he could count on Carm.

“We always knew our players were going to get the best we had,” Heacock said. “They were going to get the best that Carm had as a person and the best equipment he could give them. In the summer, when we weren’t able to be around the kids, Carm always gave them his best.

“The thing that meant the most to me was that he was for and about the kids. I think that’s how he ran his business and his life, too. That’s kind of what he was about in every area of his life. I could tell you a zillion stories about what he meant to our players and coaches and to the program and the school. To outsiders, he might have been an equipment guy, but he was incredible to us.”

Cassese was an industrial arts teacher at Cardinal Mooney in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but his family and that of former Cardinals great Bo Pelini go back long before that.

“I’m the youngest of eight kids,” said Pelini, now the football coach at Nebraska. “Our families have been close for a lot of years, since I was a little kid. He’s been a true friend over the years. He’s given Cardinal Mooney great support. He’s a tremendous man with a great family.”

Pelini, who knows a little about role models, said anyone who met Cassese could learn how to be one.

“He’s the greatest role model as a dad and in his professional life,” Pelini said. “He will be missed. He will be missed by a lot of people.”

Cassese had retired from YSU in 2011, but was a fixture at MVR, even after he took ill.

The restaurant is still in the family. Carm’s son, Joe, is the general manager. But it will be different without Carm. No matter where their careers took them, Tressel, Heacock and Pelini knew they could always return to MVR for a meal and to catch up with a friend.

“I saw him the last time I was home, in January,” Pelini said. “We had lunch together at MVR. I was in recruiting. We sat and talked for about an hour.

“I sat there and saw him a few months ago and he looked like he always did. To think he’s gone now, it’s like a punch to the gut. Everyone who knew him and whose lives he touched, they’re going to miss him. He’s in a better place and in the end everyone is going to miss him, but nobody wants to see him suffer.”

Heacock, too, remembers his last visit with Cassese.

“We were on spring break at Purdue in March and my wife (Trescia) and I stopped in town to see him,” he said. “He had just had a surgery and had been home for a week or so. We spent a couple of hours with him and at that point, he seemed to be doing great. We spent some time telling stories and laughing about things.

“I was just looking at my phone this morning and some texts we’d sent back and forth. I texted him on the fourth of June and told him I’d be around this weekend. He told me this was the weekend of the Mooney bocce social and told me to stop down at MVR. He said, ‘I’ll be doing better by then.’ ... He said, ‘I’ll be better when you guys get into town.’ In some respects, he probably is now. When you’re a friend, that’s all you can ask for.”

Cassese had undergone treatment at Ohio State.

“I know the moment he was diagnosed, he began confronting it,” Tressel said. “He had a plan and he had tremendous support from his family and friends. He had a tremendous medical team at Ohio State.

“He was the same guy from a week before he knew there was any problem, to when he found out there was a problem, to when he knew it would be difficult to overcome.”

So much has changed over the years since Tressel and Cassese began building their careers at YSU, but even after Carm’s death, their friendship survives.

“Just from a personal standpoint, I just knew what a dear brother he was,” Tressel said. “There’s always strength in that.

“It’s a great reminder that when you’re blessed with good people in your life you need to make sure you take the time to enjoy their company.”

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