By JOE SCALZO
Confident that the program is headed in the right direction, Youngstown State athletic director Ron Strollo said Friday that he plans to give Penguins football coach Eric Wolford a contract extension.
“We’ll going to sit down in the next month and work out some type of extension,” Strollo said. “Obviously he’s going into the final year on his original contract and we want to make sure recruits and [assistant] coaches understand our commitment to him.
“I feel really good about the direction of our program, how our kids feel about our program and how our kids are doing off the field, especially academically. We feel like we’ve built a foundation and I’m excited about the future.”
The Penguins went 8-4 last season, including 5-3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Both totals were the best of Wolford’s four-year tenure, although the season ended on a three-game losing streak that cost the Penguins a playoff berth.
Wolford, an Ursuline High graduate, signed a five-year contract in February of 2010 and is entering the final year of that deal. He has gone 24-21 in four seasons with the Penguins and improved his win total every season, although he is just 14-18 in the MVFC. He did not respond to an interview request.
Strollo admitted the program has fallen short of expectations under Wolford but believes the team has shown enough improvement to merit an extension. Strollo also felt that it would be difficult for Wolford to recruit players, retain assistants or (if necessary) replace assistants if he were on the final year of his contract. Tight ends coach Mark Mangino has already left to become the offensive coordinator at Iowa State and Wolford has typically replaced a handful of assistants each offseason.
Wolford’s current deal pays him $200,000 a year with an extra $50,000 each year in “marketing compensation” for his television and radio appearances and public appearances. Strollo declined to discuss extension specifics such as the length or the amount, saying “We’ll work out those details. Obviously, contracts can be reviewed every year. We just want to do something that provides some sort of port for the next couple years. Then, hopefully, we’ll see the success we all want and we can revisit the contract some other time.”
When asked if the extension will have a manageable buyout in case Wolford falters, Strollo said, “I think probably the best thing to say is our expectations haven’t changed. I don’t think if you talk to Eric or anyone in the program that they’ll tell you we’ve accomplished what we want to accomplish. I’m not going to hide behind that. But I feel like the program is making strides.”
As proof, Strollo pointed to wins at North Dakota State (in 2011) and Pittsburgh (2012) as well as this year’s 8-1 start. The Penguins were also among the finalists to host ESPN’s College GameDay before a Week 10 loss at UNI.
“So while we’re disappointed in some of the losses, we feel like we’re close,” said Strollo, a team captain on Jim Tressel’s 1991 national championship team who has served as YSU’s athletic director since 2000.
Despite his failure to reach the postseason, Wolford still has a strong reputation nationally due to his work as an offensive line coach for Illinois and South Carolina. He drew interest from several FBS schools looking for head coaches this offseason, including Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio), Eastern Michigan and Florida Atlantic.
Strollo gave Jon Heacock a four-year extension following the 2005 season, even though Heacock missed the playoffs in his first five seasons. Heacock then had the best season of his YSU tenure in 2006, making the national semifinals with an 11-3 record, including a 6-1 mark to win the Gateway Conference.
Strollo also extended the contract of YSU men’s basketball coach Jerry Slocum in 2011 following back-to-back last-place finishes in the Horizon League. Slocum responded by going 16-15 in 2011-12 and 18-16 last year, the first back-to-back winning seasons for the program since 1985.