Published August 31, 2011http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd">
The first time I ever met Jon Heacock was just before Valentine's Day in 2002. I'd been hired at The Vindicator the previous July and I decided to write something about coaches wives for Valentine's Day.
So, I interviewed Jon's wife, Trescia, who told me how their son, Jace, was born on Valentine's Day in 1997 and how Jon (who was the defensive coordinator at Indiana at the time) had to drive through a 3 a.m. blizzard just to get back to Youngstown in time. She also told me that their first date in 1985 consisted of going to Pizza Hut and Rocky IV.
"I don't know if you would consider Jon a really romantic person," Trescia said at the time, chuckling.
I ate it up. Heacock wasn't as enthusiastic. A little more than a week before the story ran, I covered YSU's signing day press conference and introduced myself to him afterward.
"Hello coach, my name is Joe Scalzo and I work at The Vindicator," I said. "I interviewed your wife a few days ago for a Valentine's Day story."
"Yeah, I know," he growled. "What did you do that for?"
I don't remember my exact response but I think it was something like, "Um, uh, um ..."
Because the Youngstown State beat was handled by the late, great Pete Mollica, I only interviewed Heacock a handful of times after that. I remember interviewing him in the summer of 2005 on the day he returned to practice after missing a few sessions with herniated discs in his back. My first question was how his back was feeling.
"I'm here to talk about the kids, not my back," he said.
I took over the YSU beat in January, 2010, a few weeks after Eric Wolford was hired to replace Heacock. Mollica had just retired and I was ready for a new challenge after focusing on high school football. I didn't know Heacock well -- still don't -- but over the past 18 months, I have yet to meet a single person who didn't absolutely love the man.
I've met people around town and in the media who didn't love Jim Tressel (not many, but a few), but most of the criticism I've heard about Heacock centers around his loyalty. Some people think he was too loyal to his players, particularly the upperclassmen (often overlooking bad behavior or poor performance), too loyal to his staff (they felt he should have replaced some underachieving coaches) and too loyal to the university.
Last year, athletic director Ron Strollo told me Heacock was running basically the same program in 2009, financially-speaking, that Tressel ran in 2000. When they decided to replace Heacock, Strollo knew he had to increase the budget significantly, spending more not just on the head coach but the staff, too.
"For a long time, we were driving a Cadillac," Strollo said. "We're driving a Cadillac again."
Heacock, ever the good soldier, never complained, Strollo said. Just put his head down, worked hard and never made excuses. I don't know if a bigger budget would have helped -- even as other FCS programs caught up, YSU still had a lot of advantages -- but it couldn't have hurt. Through it all, Heacock conducted himself with class and never did anything to embarrass the university.
A few months ago, when Pete Mollica passed away from cancer, I sent Heacock a text message asking if he'd give me a few comments. He responded within five minutes and filled up my notebook with nice quotes about Pete. That's the kind of guy he is.
I mention all this for two reasons:
1. Many of my stories over the past 18 months have mentioned how YSU underachieved in recent years. And that's true. For all of Heacock's success, he only made the playoffs once in nine years. (In fairness, he probably should have made it twice more.) That wasn't enough. Replacing a guy like Tressel wasn't easy but Heacock is smart enough to know this is a bottom-line business and that he needed a few more wins.
2. That said, I haven't written enough nice things about Heacock and I felt like I needed to rectify that. He wasn't a reporter's coach (the local media often joke that you could take any of Heacock's press conferences from his first year -- or Tressel's, for that matter -- and they wouldn't sound any different than his last year) but his players loved him and his coaches loved him and A TON of people around YSU still love him. And between Tressel's shadow and Wolford's oversized personality, he sometimes gets overlooked.
Heacock is now the defensive coordinator at Kent State. A lot of people feel he's a better assistant coach than a head coach and I'm probably in that camp. But you don't go 54-39 over nine years with a pair of Gateway Conference titles without being a good head coach.
Wolford, incidentally, IS a reporter's coach. He patterns himself a little bit after Steve Spurrier, who he worked with at South Carolina in 2009.
When I joked with Wolford last year that he's not going to be as nice to me after I write a couple bad things about him, he laughed and said, "I just came out of the SEC. You think I'm worried about the media here?"
I sometimes get emails from readers who think Wolford is too quick to criticize his players and not quick enough to accept blame -- and there's probably some truth to that -- but I think that's a small quibble. The guy is a straight-shooter who answers every question honestly and seems to understand our jobs and what we need from him. Not every coach does.
Besides, Wolford was a rookie head coach last year, so he probably got a longer leash than a veteran would. Usually, when he says something stupid, he knows it immediately. (The most notable example came last year when YSU was picked seventh in the preseason conference poll and he said this: "It's disrespect. In some parts of this world we live in, if you disrespect someone, you may lose your life." When Strollo went to talk to him about it later, the first words out of his mouth were, "I know. That was really stupid to say. It won't happen again.")
Assuming everything works technologically, I'll be blogging live from Michigan State Friday night. If you don't have the Big Ten Network -- heck, even if you do -- visit Vindy.com/Insider for updates.