Who will be watching the Penguins?
YOUNGSTOWN — The echoes are almost deafening with every bounce of the air-filled, leather ball. Shoes are squeaking with the sounds ringing in the ears of dozens of fans occupying the red chairback seats and bleachers in the upper part of the Beeghly Center, built in the early 1970s. Most are familiar faces, season-ticket holders.
The famous George Junior and St. Vincent-St. Mary game featuring a young LeBron James, when people had to sit on cold, concrete steps because there were no seats available. That was me and my wife, watching that Sunday afternoon contest. Five Youngstown State University men’s basketball games with crowds of more than 6,100 since 2001.
On Saturday, there was around 3,600 to see nationally-ranked West Virginia play the improving, defensive-minded Penguins who are looking to be one of the best in the Horizon League.
YSU sophomore guard Darius Quisenberry, who was the best player on the floor in Saturday’s 75-64 loss to No. 25 WVU, is one of the best in the Horizon League — a first-team player for sure. The only one stopping the 6-foot-1 point guard from Springfield, Ohio, is himself.
The Penguins are one of the best defensive teams in the 10-team league, holding teams to less than 70 points a game. They’re not settling for 3-pointers, but are driving to the basket and getting to the foul line. Things are getting better. Is anyone noticing?
A crowd closer to 5,000 would’ve been better for Saturday’s game. Was there enough advertising for YSU hosting a top-25 team? No. The Covelli Centre seats 5,900 for basketball games.
Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins looked at scouting videos of YSU prior to Saturday’s win. He’s coached there before as the University of Akron mentor. It was his Akron teams that had two of the three biggest YSU crowds in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Huggins realized what it took to promote your program. YSU coach Jarrod Calhoun, who is in this third year at YSU, has been busy fundraising since he was hired from Fairmont State.
Huggins remembered when former Zips football coach Gerry Faust was hired. The Akron athletic department was in a rush to sell football tickets.
“That quite frankly pissed me off. I went around and sold a whole bunch of basketball tickets,” Huggins said.
He met with Reiter Dairy.
“They had this cow that was 20-feet tall,” Huggins said. “I’m trying to sell them tickets. They said what were they getting out of it. I said, ‘Advertising, man. You get all kind of advertising out of it.’ They said, ‘We have this cow.’ I said bring the cow over to the arena. I didn’t realize it was 20-feet tall. They parked it right outside of the arena for a week and a half.”
He eventually got a call from then Akron president Bill Muse.
“Who authorized putting a cow out in front of the arena?” the Akron president asked Huggins. “What would make you think you could put a cow out in front.
“I said, ‘I sold tickets. It’ll be the largest crowd we’ll have because they bought a large amount of tickets.”
Muse wanted to know how long the large replica cow would be in front of the James A. Rhodes Arena.
“He said don’t ever do it again,” Huggins said. “I said, Yes.’ ”
Huggins said Calhoun, who mentored with Huggins at Cincinnati and West Virginia, is not afraid of work, building a fan base — like he’s trying to do in Youngstown.
Watching when teams like West Virginia come to town helps.
“If people want to see high-quality opponents in Youngstown, we’ve got to come out and support our team,” Calhoun said. “I’m all for it (playing at the Covelli Centre once each year), but unfortunately that’s not my call. I like it down here.”
Quisenberry would like to see more people at the Beeghly Center when the Penguins return home for nine games in Youngstown, starting Jan. 9 with Oakland.
“I think the energy the fans give us, we rally around and go on runs,” he said.
Calhoun was asked if YSU will finish third or fourth this season after playing well against a nationally-ranked team.
“We’re not here to finish third or fourth,” he said. “We’re here to win the league. That’s why I took the job. We’re going to win the league. Why would you settle for second or third when first is available? We want to win the league. It’s going to be hard. That’s what we’re here to do.”
What would Quisenberry tell people in Youngstown about his team?
“Watch out Horizon League,” he said.
The question is who will be watching inside the confines of the Beeghly Center?