Building program takes patience
There he sits, this time alone, a rarity for this individual.
He sees a young reporter across the media room, wearing a midnight blue ball cap with the letters KSU in gold dominating, and the word alumni, much smaller, just below.
The man sitting there at a table was Jim Tressel, who in March of 1999 was the Youngstown State University Athletic Director and football coach.
He looked curiously at the young reporter, who told Tressel, “What? I went there.”
The two talked for about 10 to 15 minutes and the reporter came away with the idea he’s known Tressel for a lifetime.
That’s how most people feel when they meet the current Youngstown State president, who once told another media member he couldn’t go grocery shopping in the area because someone would stop to talk to him every minute or so.
Can you imagine that all-day outing? It’s why so many in this community and his former players gravitate toward him during his coaching and now academic tenure.
Tressel, a former quarterback in the 1970s, played for his father, Lee, at Baldwin-Wallace and earned his bachelor’s degree in education. Jim, who started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Akron, added a master’s in education in the late ’70s.
Throughout his stops as an assistant football coach at Miami (Ohio), Syracuse and Ohio State, he kept teaching courses to keep interacting with students. He continued that at YSU as he took over the Penguins program in the 1986 season.
During that season, his team went 2-9 — ending with a victory over Akron — which helped give his team a visible sign of progress. It wasn’t a cure-all, but moved this YSU team in the right direction as it made the Division I-AA playoffs the following year. A 4-7 team followed in year three, but the Penguins soon rebounded to incrementally get to the promised land — the I-AA title game in 1991 where YSU won the first of four national championships in the 1990s.
“Unfortunately, you cannot accelerate building,” Tressel said. “You have to build that foundation. Hopefully you’re creating those good relationships and that understanding of what it takes to be successful. Hopefully you get that built. It’s hard on everyone. It’s hard on the coach. It’s hard on the players. It’s hard on the fans. It’s never easy. Hopefully you build from there.”
The last thing Tressel, 65, wanted was to tread upon YSU’s past accomplishments when he first arrived.
He kept talking about how his team would get better and increase its excellence.
His staff even put together highlight films of the Penguins past accomplishments.
“It’s not like we never did anything before, that type of thing,” Tressel said. “We wanted to build on it. We didn’t want to say we’re going to come in and change and be different, what you used to do was wrong.
“We didn’t want any of that type of atmosphere. We wanted an atmosphere that we were building on what had been done in the past. There might be different twists and that type of thing. We praised what happened in the past.”
Former Kent State, Rutgers and Cleveland State basketball coach Gary Waters came to Kent prior to the 1996-97 season after being an assistant on the Eastern Michigan staff which upset Duke in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
He came to a Kent State program which was a bottom-feeder in the Mid-American Conference.
Empty stands, apathy and no sense of team loyalty permeated in the Golden Flashes program.
Waters went out in the Kent community, selling those people on the type of players he had. They gave away turkeys to the less fortunate at Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t just Waters out talking in the community, his players were actively involved as the Kent community — those on and off campus started to notice.
It wasn’t an easy transition.
“When I took the job, in our first game, we probably didn’t have more than 100 people at the game,” Waters said. “So I had to get them to start realizing these guys were OK to come and see and watch.”
It took Kent State until year two of this revitalization project at KSU to see the breakthrough.
The Golden Flashes lost twice against Akron, the dominant team at the time with Canton-area natives Jimmal Ball and Jami Bosley, in the 1997-98 season.
In the MAC Tournament, KSU upset the arch-rival Zips. It was that moment which carried this Golden Flashes team into 10 straight, 20-win seasons beginning with the following campaign. The Golden Flashes had only three seasons below 20 wins since that 1998-99 turnaround when KSU went to the NCAA tournament and lost to Temple in the first round.
“We competed, but we didn’t know if we could win or not,” Waters said of the Akron game. “We had to beat someone of some substance that we were there.
“After that, we took off after that.”
When Waters, 66, started coaching at Kent State, he wasn’t concerned about obstacles. He was just excited, which showed in his demeanor.
He left KSU for Rutgers after the Golden Flashes won their first NCAA tournament game in 2001.
He took over a Scarlet Knights program the next season and wanted a strong recruiting base within 50-miles of campus, high media visibility and high-profile conference, all of which Rutgers is getting now as a member of the Big Ten.
Things finally transpired that Waters went back to Ohio and landed at Cleveland State in 2006.
He did things differently this time around at CSU. He infused the Vikings system with three transfers in Chris Moore (UC-Santa Barbara), George Tandy (Eastern Illinois) and Cedric Jackson (St. John’s).
They sat out that first year due to NCAA transfer rules as the Vikings won 10 games in Waters’ first season.
The next two campaigns, CSU went to the NIT and the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Vikings had 20-plus wins five of the next eight seasons following that 2006-07 season.
Moore, Tandy and Jackson learned Waters’ system while sitting out that first season, which is why all three were impact players.
The now retired coach, who lives in Florida, said he recruited high school and junior college players who averaged 20 points or more. His theory was when that player came to college, that total would probably be cut in half.
In Waters’ last two seasons, he had an exodus of fifth-year seniors who went on to programs like Michigan State and Wichita State. That led to two straight nine-win seasons.
The top talent was gone and CSU had to rely on players who were previous backups in the system.
He said if he top players didn’t transfer, more 20-win season would’ve followed.
“That’s why was it so vital to recruit marquee players,” Waters said.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
YSU men’s basketball coach Jerrod Calhoun is in the midst of a rebuilding project with the Penguins. The first-year coach is trying to change a losing culture which has prevailed for about three decades.
He started with a good freshman class, which has players like Naz Bohannon and Garrett Covington succeeding in their first seasons.
Point guard Devin Morgan, who was the MEAC Freshman of the Year at Delaware State, is sitting out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. Morgan is learning Calhoun’s system, one that brought Fairmont State to the NCAA Division II title game last season.
YSU has three recruits signed for next season in guards Darius Quisenberry (Huber Heights Wayne) and Atiba Taylor (Hackensack, N.J.), along with wing Jelani Simmons (Columbus Beechcroft). All three are leading their teams to successful high school seasons.
Right now, YSU has a 3-11 record after winning its Horizon League opener on Monday over Cleveland State, 80-77. It has been a rough first year for these Calhoun-led Penguins.
“You have to keep perspective,” Calhoun said. “Daily you learn something new about your team and about the culture you’re trying to establish.”