YSU USING UPGRADES TO LURE RECRUITS WITH ‘WOW’ FACTOR
By Joe Scalzo
It’s a Wednesday afternoon inside Youngstown State’s basketball weight room and, in between dead lifts and alternating shoulder presses, senior guard Mike Podolsky is arguing with junior forward Shawn Amiker about who is the strongest player on the team.
“Oh, I am,” Amiker said.
“No you’re not,” Podolsky said. “Who can bench 185 pounds the most? Let’s do it right now.”
What about 225 pounds? Like they do at the NFL combine?
“Nah, we don’t do that football stuff,” Podolsky said.
Just then, Larry Johnson Jr., the son of the famous former Hornet/Knick, overhears the conversation, walks over, extends his hand and says, “You want to know who’s the strongest? Nice to meet you.”
It’s the type of conversation you’d hear in just about any gym on any campus in America.
But this isn’t just any gym. It’s a brand-spanking-new, $125,000, 1,500-square foot gym decked out with 40,000 pounds worth of free weights, 500-plus pounds of sand bags, 400 pounds of medicine balls, 300 pounds of chains, six custom-built multi-function racks, four 50-inch TV monitors (which flash between that day’s workout sheet and a “Defend Youngstown” logo) and various other machines/bands/ropes/sledgehammers.
And that’s not all. Just outside the weight room, in the center of the Beeghly Center gym, hangs the new $200,000 videoboard, which has a 5.3-foot-by-9.5-foot TL Vision Video, LED display. That’s a nice upgrade over the old scoreboard, which had Lite-Brite-level graphics and Atari-level software.
But wait, there’s more. Just behind a pillar near the east-side bleachers, at the site of the old 700-foot weight room, sits the new state-of-the-art $60,000 video room, which features 24 oversized black-leather chairs with fold-out trays in the arm rests. The chairs face a 10-foot by 7.5-foot projection screen, where the players can watch Synergy Sports Tech game film off the HD projector.
So, yeah, not bad for a football school.
“It makes us proud of who we are,” YSU men’s basketball coach Jerry Slocum. “It makes the players proud.”
But here’s the thing about that. Even though the upgrades are being used to help YSU’s men’s and women’s basketball teams — and likely will be used by other sports, including the volleyball team — it’s not for them.
It’s for their replacements.
PERCEPTION IS REALITY
Sometime around Ron Strollo’s third year as athletic director, he realized he had a recruiting problem. And it wasn’t just with players. Coaches, too.
Youngstown’s less-than-stellar national image — which stems from everything from its Mafia past to its high crime rate to, heck, Jim Traficant’s toupee — was
making it hard for the Penguins to attract quality coaches, which was making it hard to attract players, which was making it hard to be much of anything but a fly against the Horizon League’s windshield.
Whenever YSU hosted a potential coach — particularly in a women’s sport — Strollo and his staff would do their best to present a safe, well-lit campus filled with friendly people. But after the candidates got back to their hotel room at the Boardman Holiday Inn, they’d drive back to campus and walk around, to see how safe it was.
“We kept hearing coaches talk about how they weren’t sure they could recruit here,” Strollo said. “They talked about how Youngstown had a bad image and what a challenge that was when they were trying to get players. And other coaches were using that against us in recruiting.”
Youngstown’s image wasn’t a huge problem in football, since many recruits come from tough neighborhoods and 225-pound linebackers don’t typically scare easily, but it was with swimmers and volleyball players (and their parents), particularly when a crime occurred near campus.
“It felt like building a sand castle on the beach, then watching the tide wash it away a few hours later,” Strollo said. “You’d have to start all over again.”
So Strollo decided to focus on facilities, believing it wasn’t enough for athletes to like the coaches and the players at YSU. There needed to be a “wow factor.”
“We were trying to change our brand,” Strollo said. “It was important to us that when he have visitors or recruits on campus that the place wows them, whether it’s the offices or the locker rooms or the weight room or the meeting room.
“We wanted them to leave impressed not only with the facilities, but with the campus and everything else.”
MAKING THE MOST OF MONEY
Because the bulk of YSU’s athletic donors are primarily football fans, the earliest upgrades went into the football program. YSU overhauled the coaches’ offices, the locker room, the classrooms and the field. Then it built the WATTS, which began with a $1 million donation from former coach Jim Tressel and his wife, Ellen Watson.
But, over the last decade, Strollo also upgraded the offices and locker rooms of YSU’s other 15 sports while adding a new soccer field, outdoor track and softball field.
The basketball program got a new floor and new basketball hoops (which came from the 2009 Final Four in Detroit) as well as several cosmetic upgrades.
But Strollo knew it wasn’t enough.
Because YSU is one of just two Horizon League schools to offer football — Valparaiso is the other, although it doesn’t offer scholarships (and it stinks) — its men’s basketball budget is less than all but one of the HL’s women’s basketball teams.
And with state funding dwindling, that challenge wasn’t going away. So, to raise money, Slocum agreed to play extra money games against teams like Pitt and Georgia, and to schedule more home games against non-Division I teams like Hiram and Westminster, which cost less than Division I opponents.
“We’ve been really creative,” Slocum said. “We’ll hold out on [scheduling] dates to get the most possible money per outing, because we don’t want to play four or five of those things. Right now, if you’re not giving us $80,000 or $90,000, we’re not taking that game. And that money has gone right back in the program.”
That money paid for the new film room, but YSU needed help on the other projects. Ed and Diane Reese donated money for the weight room’s construction, which was designed for free by one of Strollo’s distant cousins: Gregg Strollo of Strollo Architects. The weight room equipment was covered by dipping into the Bob and Marilyn O’Leary Endowment Fund.
“It’s always a battle on campus of, ‘Where is this money coming from?’” Strollo said. “We don’t necessarily have all the resources other schools have, so we have to be creative.”
And Strollo isn’t done. This summer, he hopes to overhaul the Beeghly Center lobby, replacing the cracked floor (which is a lawsuit waiting to happen) and installing permanent ticket booths.
“Right now, when you walk in, it looks like the entrance of an academic building,” he said. “We want this place to look like a basketball arena.”
PLAYERS NOTICING CHANGES
Last fall, just before the season started, Youngstown State senior Kendrick Perry looked up at the CIT tournament banner hanging in Beeghly Center and realized how far the Penguins had come.
After going 2-16 in the Horizon League in 2010 (the year before Perry arrived) and 2011 (his freshman year), the Penguins had put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in nearly two decades and played in their first postseason tournament as a Division I team. Perry, a recruiting steal from Ocoee, Fla., earned first-team all-conference honors both years.
“I remember looking at that banner and thinking, even though it wasn’t what we wanted, we have to feel good about what we accomplished,” he said. “It’s a total change from when I got here. I remember being a freshman and having to walk outside to Stambaugh Stadium to work out in the football locker room.
“When you see the new weight room and the film room, I think it shows the commitment to excellence here. Stuff like that can’t be done overnight.”
Junior forward Heidi Schlegel, who signed with the Penguins when they were one year removed from an 0-30 season, was the second-leading scorer on last year’s team, which went 23-10, finished second in the Horizon League.
She remembers watching film in a freezing locker room with her teammates sitting on the floor looking up at a TV. Now she’s amazed at the changes in just a few years.
“The videoboard is sweet and the film room and the weight room definitely catch your eye,” she said. “We look like a Division I school.”
PROGRESS IS ONGOING
YSU’s men’s basketball team went 37-158 over its first 10 years in the Horizon League. Over the last 21/2 years, Slocum has gone 20-20.
YSU’s women’s basketball team went 30-106 over its first 10 years in the Horizon League. Over the last 21/2 years, the Penguins have gone 19-19.
And if the new facilities do what they’re expected to do, that progress will continue.
“It’s all about recruiting,” Slocum said. “Everything we do in terms of these kinds of things is all about that. You have to do it. When we first got here, we needed to do things with our infrastructure to make us attractive so we could get the kind of kids that would be able to compete. Now, with the weight room, the offices, the locker room ... beautiful.
“This has been a dream of mine for five or six years. It’s taken a while, but it’s gotten done and it’s as nice as you’re going to find.”
Those upgrades have also allowed YSU to recruit better coaches. In 2010, when Strollo was looking for a women’s basketball coach to take over an 0-30 team, his sales pitch revolved around the program’s past (three NCAA tournament appearances) and its future (facility upgrades).
But after Bob Boldon left YSU for Ohio following a 23-10 season — YSU’s best since its last NCAA tournament berth — Strollo didn’t have to sell the job. It sold itself.
“I knew about the weight room, but I didn’t even know about the video room,” admitted new YSU women’s coach John Barnes, who replaced Boldon. “As far as recruiting goes, it’s going to help out very soon. We’ve probably had 50-75 recruits on campus since the season started and they have a lot of good things to say.”
Critics of YSU’s athletic department — and its budget — say the money could be better spent elsewhere, but multiple studies have shown that athletic success boosts the quantity, and quality, of applicants. It’s known as the “Flutie Effect,” in honor of former Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, whose success helped BC increase its applications by 30 percent. And the two sports were it matters most are football and basketball, where media exposure can mean millions in free advertising.
That’s why, with Youngstown’s population shrinking — and with northeastern Ohio schools such as Akron, Kent State and Horizon League rival Cleveland State pouring more money into athletics every year — Strollo believes athletics aren’t just an important part of YSU’s survival.
He thinks they’re an essential part.
“Without athletics,” Strollo said, “you risk becoming a larger Eastern Gateway Community College.”