Storm clouds gather at YSU

The controversy that has plagued Youngstown State University’s football team could not have come at a worse time for President James P. Tressel. Contract negotiations with unions representing the faculty and classified employees will be getting underway in the not too distant future, while the administration must come to terms with a general feeling of discontent among employees.

But the issue that threatens to haunt Tressel more than any other is the refusal by YSU football coach Bo Pelini and Athletic Director Ron Strollo to confirm that five players were suspended after failing tests for banned substances.

The story broke just as the football team was getting ready for Saturday’s FCS national semifinal game against Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash.

YSU won the game 40-38.

Pelini’s contention that he has never publicly discussed disciplinary action taken against anyone in the program simply served to drive reporters to dig deeper.

And it reminded this writer of a statement Tressel made 26 years ago when he was YSU’s football coach.

He was talking about the need for college athletic departments around the country to curtail spending and offered the following observation that now seems prescient:

“We have got to get athletic programs in order. They can give you a black eye faster than anything, but they can also do the opposite.”

This writer referred to Tressel’s comments made in 1990 in a column published February 2015 and ended with this line:

“Hear that, Coach Bo Pelini?”

YSU’s football program now has a black eye and has been thrust in the public spotlight – in not a good way.

Potential contract issue

Even Pelini’s explanation for why he won’t discuss the suspensions has the potential of becoming an issue in the faculty union contract talks.

“I protect our kids,” the coach said.

Last year, the YSU-Ohio Education Association chapter launched an “Academics over Athletics” campaign.

While the us-against-them stance by the faculty is common on college campuses where athletic departments are not self-supporting, the campaign at YSU was noteworthy because Tressel’s popularity on and off campus is tied to his winning record as football coach.

He coached from 1986 to 2000 and won four national championships in Division I-AA.

The faculty union’s contention that athletics has been given priority over academics is backed up by a financial analysis.

The bottom line of the analysis: YSU’s athletic department soaks up hundreds of thousands of dollars from the general fund to support football and other financially challenged athletic programs.

For example, from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2015, the open-access urban university increased intercollegiate athletics spending by 46 percent – $9.6 million to $14 million. By contrast, spending on academics in the seven years increased by a mere 2 percent – $76.5 million to $78.1 million.

And, the analysis revealed that spending on administration and finance went from $19.6 million to $22 million.

Because of decreased funding from the state and, until this year, a decline in enrollment, the university’s fiscal woes have preoccupied President Tressel and members of the board of trustees.

They have implemented cost-saving measures to deal with the financial realities that are confronting YSU and other public institutions of higher learning in Ohio.

The belt-tightening has fueled the debate on campus over spending priorities.

Last month, results of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Great Colleges to Work For” Campus Climate Survey of YSU were released.

The survey is part of the preparation for a 2018 visit to YSU by the Higher Learning Commission, an accrediting body.

Among the concerns voiced by the YSU community were the changes made in senior leadership, the role of trustees, shared governance and input, pay equity, respect and increased communication and transparency. The survey suggests ways of dealing with those and other concerns.

The administration responded by impaneling a steering committee made up of three faculty members, three staffers, three members of senior leadership and a student.

The goal: to address the concerns contained in the survey.

Dr. Chet Cooper, chairman of the academic senate, provided a glimpse of the attitude on campus as contract negotiations loom.

“We have to move forward,” Cooper said. “This is a perfect storm. We’ve got issues, and they’re crowding us.”

And Cooper had this warning for the Tressel administration about the steering committee:

“I’ve already told them this better not be a whitewash. If it is, they’ll be more than hell breaking out.”

The controversy over the suspensions of the five football players may well be the fuel that ignites the flames of hell.

Twenty-six years ago, then coach Tressel, speaking to then-Vindicator Sports Editor Jim Nassella, talked about the ominous warnings he heard about college athletics when he attended the NCAA convention in Dallas and the coaching convention in San Francisco.

“We have to become more proactive, instead of reactive,” the YSU coach said, referring to coaches and athletic directors.

Not only were athletic departments under pressure to cut costs, but university presidents had given the athletic departments until June 1990 to demonstrate their commitment.

“They sent their message loud and clear,” Tressel said. “Either you make a decision or we will. The postscript to what they are saying, ‘You won’t like our decision.’”

That was then – but the debate over athletics vs. academics continues to rage.

One of the key findings of the campus-climate survey will undoubtedly loom large in the labor talks: The folks on campus want their wages to be increased and distributed equally. Also, they want employees to be compensated for additional workload and responsibilities.

YSU President Tressel has acknowledged that the institution is facing a series of complicated issues and that members of the campus community are passionate about their concerns.

He has also held out an olive branch to the employees by noting that they deserve a pay raise given the concessions they made in the previous contracts.

However, finding the money to appease the restless workers will be a challenge.

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