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New coach must be right pick for YSU

The initial response was curiosity. Most people wondered: Who’s Doug Phillips?

Youngstown State’s choice for the next football head coach was somewhat surprising. A relatively unknown football coach from the Mahoning Valley, Phillips wasn’t thought to be the first choice.

The names of Akron Hoban High School coach Tim Tyrrell and James Madison offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery were the ones being reported in the days following the resignation of Bo Pelini, and yet they seemed to be smokescreens (or their asking prices were too much).

Phillips snuck under the proverbial radar until his name was leaked the day before an announcement was made, and that’s when people started to find out more about the New Middletown native. His story is a little different than most college head coaches.

He has spent as much time as a high school administrator as he has as a college football coach (eight seasons, including two as a graduate assistant at YSU with Jim Tressel in 1991 and 1992). He was a high school head coach with decent success in the early 2000s and then rejoined Tressel at Ohio State before becoming an administrator.

His experience with Tressel, now YSU’s President, seems to be the most interesting. Tressel’s amazing run at YSU and then with the Buckeyes is like a fairytale to people from this area. Fans have been dying to see a semblance of his success with the Penguins, when he led them to four national championships and 10 postseason appearances in 14 years. What’s more important now is how much say Tressel has in the hiring process, which is hard to discern.

Director of athletics Ron Strollo and the committee put together to find a new coach obviously don’t divulge the inner workings of their search. However, it seems logical to assume Tressel played a big role in this one. He and Phillips worked together twice, with Tressel bringing him on staff at Ohio State in 2006 after nearly 15 years since their time at YSU, so he obviously thinks highly of Phillips.

Strollo must too. A former standout tight end at YSU, Strollo played for both Tressel and Phillips, who was a tight ends coach during his time as a grad assistant. Those were the same years Strollo was an upperclassman and captain for the Penguins. Strollo has been the athletic department’s chief administrator since 2001, and while some of his hires haven’t gone well, he is certainly wise enough to make a decision with his brain instead of his heart. In other words, hiring Phillips wasn’t done because he, Tressel, and Phillips are old buddies. YSU can’t afford that type of mistake. Tressel and Strollo need to get this one right.

The lore from the 1990s has all but faded for the Penguins, who have been to the playoffs just twice in the last 20 seasons. They’re essentially an afterthought at this point when it comes to FCS contenders. If there’s ever going to be an uprising, the time needs to be now. Sure, that’s a lot of pressure on Phillips, but that was the standard set by the man who likely played a large role in hiring him.

The good news for Phillips is he has some tools. The facilities at YSU are top of the line. The campus has made drastic improvements and so has the downtown area. It’ll be interesting to see how much of a budget he receives for assistant coaches because those hires will be crucial to his success.

On the field, there is some talent, but there are holes as well. The offensive line struggled much of last year and loses four starters. The secondary was torched in 2019 and is going to be young again. Defensive end Justus Reed, arguably YSU’s best player, entered the transfer portal days after Pelini stepped down. Still, the last two recruiting classes were quite good.

The talent starts at QB, where a battle for the top spot should be entertaining. The local hero, Mark Waid of Girard High School, who reneged on a commitment to Fordham to come to YSU, appears to have some serious competition. Pickerington Central senior Demeatric Crenshaw spurned a few major Division I colleges to join the Penguins, but we’ll have to see if the overwhelming praise for the 6-foot-2, 215-pound QB translates to the college level. Don’t forget about Joe Craycraft, the veteran of the group who nearly won the job out of camp last year.

But back to Phillips, who will have the luxury of molding a young team into the one he envisions. There aren’t a lot of egos or superstar players to deal with as he settles in to his role. There may be inexperience, but there is a palpable hunger within this group to make YSU relevant again. Much of the roster is made up of local players who are used to winning and won’t settle for mediocrity. Now it’s on Phillips to bring it together.

Yes, it’s true, many others couldn’t put the pieces in place to overcome a rigorous conference schedule. These pieces are different, and so is this coach. We’ll soon see what kind of difference they can make together.

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