By Joe Scalzo
The strangest thing about Youngstown State’s football opener wasn’t that it took place on a Thursday night or that it wasn’t against a BCS program.
The strangest thing was this: the Penguins’ opponent was from Ohio.
From 2004-12, YSU played 32 teams from 21 different states. But since their series with Kent State ended in 2003, just three of those teams have been from Ohio: Ohio State (in 2007-08), Central State (2008) and Dayton (2013).
And for that, you can either thank, or blame, the Mid-American Conference. Nearly two decades after keeping Youngstown State out of the MAC, the MAC is content to stay out of Youngstown.
“Our ADs [athletic directors] agreed several years ago to have parameters in non-conference scheduling to play more peer conferences and limit FCS opponents to only home games,” wrote Ken Mather, the MAC’s media relations director, via email.
That’s a deal-breaker for YSU athletic director Ron Strollo, whose school hasn’t hosted a MAC team since 1997, when the Penguins beat Kent State.
“They created that policy and I think it goes back to when I took over as athletic director,” said Strollo, who replaced Jim Tressel as AD in 2001. “It’s disappointing because it obviously eliminated some of the rivalries our fans really enjoyed.
“I don’t know the reasoning behind it but it’s been awhile since we tried. Obviously, we would love to see those games on our schedule.”
YSU — which tried to get in the MAC in the late 1990s, only to be rejected in favor of Marshall and Buffalo — has a winning record against Kent State (6-4) and Akron (19-14-2), which are both located within 50 miles of Youngstown. (By contrast, the closest team to Youngstown in the Missouri Valley Football Conference is Indiana State, which is more than 400 miles away).
Because YSU competes with Akron and Kent for recruits, Strollo doesn’t want to schedule only road games with those schools, believing it sends a message that the Penguins are a lesser program. Ohio has the second-most FBS schools in the nation (eight) but six of those are in the MAC: Akron, Bowling Green, Kent, Miami, Ohio and Toledo.
In Strollo’s mind, only two Ohio schools are clearly superior to YSU.
“It’s Ohio State and Cincinnati and the rest of them,” he said. “I think as you look at the Mid-American Conference, I don’t know if we would schedule them any different than any other non-BCS school.”
(Note: Thanks to the dissolution of the Big East, at least as a football conference, Cincinnati no longer has a BCS affiliation.)
In January, Devin Crosby was hired as Kent State’s deputy athletic director, where he supervises the football and basketball programs. Before that, he spent two years at FCS-member Towson, where he tried (and failed) to schedule home games against FBS schools.
“We tried two-for-one [two road games for one home game], three-for-one and even adding other sports to try to make the pie even sweeter,” Crosby said. “Unfortunately, at FBS schools, it’s not the policy to try to make FCS schools happy.
“I don’t know if I have an opinion on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I’d say quite often FBS conferences are going to do what they can to make sure they’re building a brand for their member institutions.”
While Akron did not respond to a request to comment for this article, Crosby said Kent would be interested in resuming its series with YSU.
“It makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Regionally, it’s a very attractive game.”
MAC schools typically host one FCS program each year — Kent played Liberty on Thursday, while Akron will play James Madison in Week 2 — and while Crosby declined to say how much they pay opposing FCS teams, Strollo said the figure is usually around $200,000.
Since YSU typically generates between $150,000 and $200,000 for a home game, “it’s a net wash,” Strollo said.
And, Strollo said, the FCS playoff committee isn’t all that impressed with wins over MAC schools, particularly the bad ones.
While beating Akron would obviously carry more weight than a win over Dayton or Morehead State (both non-scholarship FCS schools), the Zips were just the 169th-best team in college football in 2012 according to USA Today’s Sagarin Ratings. That put them behind all but two MVFC teams.
Still, YSU’s fans aren’t the only ones who would like to see some MAC teams on the schedule. YSU football coach Eric Wolford, who spent most of his career as an assistant at the FBS level, believes the best way to show his program is as good as the MAC schools is on the scoreboard.
And if he can lighten their wallets in the process, so much the better.
“That’s something that may happen,” Wolford said. “If the price is right, I’ll do it. That’s the name of the game.
“A road trip to a MAC school is much easier than a road trip to the Missouri Valley.”