Wolford deserves to stay — for now

It wasn’t hard to figure out that Youngstown State University intended on keeping its head football coach after the 2013 season. The question was whether it should.

Athletic director Ron Strollo made it clear on Friday he believes current coach Eric Wolford is the man for YSU, saying Friday that Wolford will soon be given a contract extension. Fans probably should have seen this coming.

If Wolford was going to be fired, it would have happened right after the season. There’s no reason to hold on to a coach entering the final year of his contract for one more season, especially if you intend on firing him. It hurts the program more than it helps.

For one, it’s going to be hard to recruit. Most kids may not know about contract situations of a coach, but there’s a good chance their parents or high school coaches do. Not many people are going to send their child or player to a team with a lame-duck coach.

Secondly, wooing fellow coaches to join a staff is much easier when those candidates know a coach is going to be at that school for an extended period of time. With assistant coaches leaving on a regular basis for more-lucrative positions, finding the next-best fit is critical, but the window to secure those coaches doesn’t last long.

Finally, no coach wants to go into a season wondering if he’ll have a job after the it’s over. There is enough pressure on coaches to win. Playing for their future shouldn’t be added to the list of issues they must deal with on an annual basis.

Now, for the answer to the big question: Should YSU give Wolford an extension?

There are two ways to look at the situation. The first is the view of the optimist. The second is that of the pessimist.

1. Wolford has improved his win total in each of his first four seasons, going from 3-8, to 6-5, to 7-4 and then 8-4 in 2013, including a second-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference, arguably the hardest league in the FCS. The Penguins were one of the final three schools to be left out of the 24-team FCS playoff format in each of the past two seasons. They lost four consecutive games in October of 2012 and their final three in 2013 to seal their fate. Still, progress was made by Wolford and his staff. The Penguins are one of two teams to beat three-time national champion North Dakota State (27-24 in 2011) in the last three years, they earned their first win over a major FBS school with a victory over Pitt in 2012 and they’re producing NFL-caliber talent on a yearly basis. Average coaches can’t produce such credentials.

2. Wolford was brought here to contend for championships, not settle for mediocrity. YSU simply needed to win one of its final three games in 2013 to earn a spot in the playoffs and rekindle the lost tradition at the Ice Castle. The Penguins failed – big time. They couldn’t hold on to a 14-3 lead against Northern Iowa in Week 10 despite the Panthers being without their starting quarterback and running back and also enduring a five-game losing streak. YSU then fell to eventual-national champion North Dakota State (35-17) and was embarrassed by South Dakota State (42-13) in a home game in which the winner went to the playoffs and the loser was left out. Losing the big game is a trend that has formed in Wolford’s first four years, and it has cost YSU that coveted trip to the postseason (a place they’ve visited once – 2006 – since former coach Jim Tressel’s departure in 2000).

While there seem to be more cynics than believers these days, I’m with the optimists – for now.

The pessimists calling for his head seem to be under the false impression the Penguins can land an elite coach with a better resume than Wolford. Many thought former YSU assistant head coach Mark Mangino, who was named national coach of the year while leading the Kansas Jayhawks in 2007, might want the job, but he was obviously waiting for something bigger and better as he left to become the offensive coordinator at Iowa State earlier this week.

YSU is a storied program that still has the ability to lure good coaches, but there aren’t many people lining up to follow in the footsteps of Tressel, whose imprint is still fresh on the turf in Stambaugh Stadium. Furthermore, the continuity of a staff is an area often overlooked by outsiders but holds extreme importance in the eyes of potential recruits.

Wolford may not be the most likable person to fans because he often comes off as arrogant or pompous, but he’s as good as it gets for the Penguins, whether people like it or not.