By ED PUSKAS
Jim Tressel came to Youngstown State University as a veteran assistant but first-time head coach in 1986. He was just 33 and better known then as the son of legendary Baldwin-Wallace College head coach Lee Tressel.
Jim Tressel’s first YSU team went 2-9, but it wasn’t long before the Penguins became a Division I-AA power on his watch.
Today, Tressel will be inducted into YSU’s Athletics Hall of Fame at Stambaugh Stadium during halftime of the Penguins game against North Dakota State. The game kicks off at 2 p.m.
YSU first made the playoffs under Tressel in 1987, finishing 8-4 when they lost in the first round after winning the Ohio Valley Conference. The Penguins returned to the playoffs in ’89, advancing to the second round, and finished 9-4.
In 1990, YSU went 11-0 during the regular season but lost a first-round playoff game.
The foundation, however, was set for a run of success the Penguins hadn’t experienced before. Before the 1990s were finished, YSU had become a four-time national champion and played for two other titles under Tressel’s leadership.
The hallmarks of Tressel ball were power running, strong defense and special teams and a knack for big plays in critical situations. Tressel’s quarterbacks — Ray Isaac, Mark Brungard, Demond Tidwell and Jeff Ryan among them — often were solid players who managed games.
“We don’t ask our quarterbacks to win games,” Tressel once said. “We ask them not to lose them.”
“Tressel Ball,” as it came to be known, was a smash hit in Youngstown.
By the time Tressel left for Columbus and Ohio State in early 2001, he had compiled a record of 135-57-2, including 103-27-2 during the 1990s.
These are five of the top moments during the Tressel Era of Penguins football (1986-2000):
Dec. 21, 1991: The Penguins scored 19 fourth-quarter points to erase a 17-6 deficit and beat Marshall 25-17 for their first I-AA national championship.
Isaac threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Herb Williams, and Ryan Wood and Tamron Smith had short touchdown runs for YSU.
The defining moment of the season, however, came Nov. 2 in Statesboro, Ga., when the Penguins held on for a 19-17 road win at Georgia Southern — running out the final 5:40 on the clock.
Dec. 18, 1993: YSU won three straight home playoff games against Central Florida, Georgia Southern and Idaho to set up a third-consecutive championship game against Marshall, the second-straight title game on the Thundering Herd’s home turf in Huntington, W.Va.
The Thundering Herd had beaten the Penguins 31-28 on a last-second field goal in the ’92 championship after YSU rallied from a 28-0 second-quarter deficit to tie it.
This time, the Penguins jumped out to a 17-0 first-quarter lead on a 50-yard touchdown run by Darnell Clark, a five-yard scoring run by Smith and a 19-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins.
YSU’s punishing defense — which limited Marshall to 49 rushing yards on 35 attempts — made the early scores stand as Tressel and the Penguins won their second title in three years.
Dec. 17, 1994: YSU went back-to-back with its third title, beating Boise State 28-14 in Huntington. Brungard ran for two touchdowns and passed for another and Shawn Patton ran for 140 yards, including a 55-yard score, as the Penguins capped the season with their 14th victory in a row.
YSU (14-0-1) began the season with a tie against Stephen F. Austin, then set a school record for wins in a season. These Penguins were Tressel’s most-dominant squad, averaging 28 points and allowing just 10 per game. Eight of their victories came by 20 or more points.
Dec. 20, 1997: The Penguins’ fourth title of the 1990s came on the strength of a dominating defense. YSU held McNeese State to three field goals and scored the game’s only touchdown when Tidwell threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Renauld Ray with 8:08 to play in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The score was set up when linebacker Jeff Fackrell intercepted a McNeese State pass at the YSU 35-yard line with 12:02 to play. The defense also came up big on the Cowboys’ final two drives, including a three-and-out after McNeese had gained nine yards on first down.
YSU then worked 5:07 off the clock and punted with 1:16 to play. Defensive tackle Harry Deligianis clinched the game for the Penguins with back-to-back sacks as Tressel’s Penguins clinched their fourth title of the decade.
Nov. 27, 1999: There were dozens of notable nonchampionship moments during Tressel’s time with YSU. The Penguins’ playoff visit to Montana sticks out because few gave this team a chance to get past the Grizzlies, one of the favorites in I-AA that season.
But on a snowy day in Missoula, YSU took a 10-0 first-quarter lead.
Montana rallied with two touchdowns in the third quarter and another in the fourth for a 27-23 lead. But Ryan ran 18 yards for a touchdown with 5:39 to play to make it 30-27 and the Grizzlies missed a field goal with 12 seconds to play as YSU escaped.w
Mark Griffith kicked three field goals, Elliott Giles caught six passes for 214 yards and a score and Adrian Brown ran for 103 yards.
As much as any game during the Tressel years, the win over Montana had all the elements of YSU football. Dozens of similar victories — and four national titles — are among the reasons Tressel will be inducted into the university’s Athletics Hall of Fame today.