Isaac gone, but not forgotten. Or is he?
by Joe Scalzo - "A blog about YSU Penguin athletics, not the insides of penguins." (Contact) | 155 entries
The interview was almost over but the man on the other end of the line wasn't ready to hang up. He'd spent the last 25 minutes recounting the best years of his life and he could feel his competitive juices flowing again.
"Go ahead," Ray "The Colonel" Isaac said. "Give me a game in the three years I was the starting quarterback and I'll tell you the score.
"I guarantee I can tell you."
OK, let's stick with the 1991 season. Morgan State.
"We lost 38-24. Give me another one."
How about Slippery Rock?
"Slippery Rock? They didn't score, what, three points?"
No. They scored 21. You won 40-21 but you were leading 33-0 at one point.
"Oh, I was asleep by then," he said, laughing.
"Wow. Nevada was ... 30-27?"
"That's right. I'm close."
A few months ago, I decided I was going to write a big story about the 20th anniversary of YSU's 1991 national championship team.
(If you missed it, you can find it here: http://www.vindy.com/news/2011/oct/01/honoring-youngstown-states-1991-championship-team/)
This was trickier than it sounds. Ex-Penguin coach Jim Tressel had recently resigned from Ohio State following a Sports Illustrated story that dredged up a lot of old stories about Isaac accepting money from Mickey Monus.
Since you can't exactly write a story about the 1991 team without talking to the three-year starting quarterback or the head coach, I had to reassure both that my article was about what happened on the field and that I wouldn't expect them to talk about the scandals.
Then a funny thing happened.
Isaac did anyway.
"I love Youngstown State," Isaac said. "There were no other years in my life I loved more than my last two years there.
"If I could go back to those two years, one thing I'd do for sure is, I'd have never took money. I totally miss seeing my friends. I haven't been inducted into the [YSU] Hall of Fame. The last thing I heard Jim Tressel say was I was no longer part of the athletic department and it tears at me."
It's been more than 10 years since YSU agreed to reduce scholarships to sever ties with Isaac. He hasn't been invited to Saturday's home game against South Dakota State in which the school will honor members of the 1991 team.
In fact, he said he's only attended two games since 1991 — the 1994 playoff game against Alcorn State and Steve McNair and last year's Missouri Valley home opener against Southern Illinois.
"My wife forced me to go to that game last year," he said.
Isaac is still a controversial figure, obviously. Attempting to bribe a juror and nearly costing your school its first national championship will do that. But he also came out and defended Tressel to various media outlets during last summer's controversy and he has nothing but good things to say about his time here, recounting everything from the team steak roasts, to the bus rides to a secretary who used to make him an apple pie before every game.
After a half-hour, I had to end the interview because he was ready to keep talking.
"Those were some great years," he said. "I protected Youngstown State more than ya'll will ever know, even more than the community knows."
Isaac lives in North Carolina now and is writing two books, including a memoir called "Bad Reads." He looks back at his career — a 32-8 record, three playoff appearances, the school's first national title — and wonders how he can be erased from the school's past.
And, more than anything, he wonders when YSU will be allowed to remember him again.
"I look at it like this," he said. "Nick Cochran and Mark Brungard had to back me up and that's an honor to me. Those are two great quarterbacks that led YSU to national championship games and they're celebrated in Youngstown now.
"But they had to come after 'The Colonel.'"