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YSU coach has right mix to succeed

Skepticism is pretty normal for Youngstown State football fans, and for good reason.

It’s annoying to belabor the reasons, but they’re hard to ignore. Forget that the Penguins have reached the playoffs just twice since Jim Tressel left for Ohio State in 2000. While it’s the most glaring and frustrating cause for cynicism, the underlying factors are what matter most.

As a reporter who has followed YSU almost every year since 2001, I’ve watched the Penguins become an FCS afterthought. Some of it was bad luck (questionable calls, unbelievably spectacular plays, alarming snubs from the postseason), but teams usually create their own luck.

Three coaches — Jon Heacock, Eric Wolford and Bo Pelini — have tried, and failed (for the most part), to bring YSU back to relevancy, and now another emerges in Doug Phillips.

His predecessors had their strengths. Heacock was — and still is — a fantastic defensive coach. Wolford was one of the best recruiters in the nation and Pelini was/is an Xs and Os mastermind and defensive guru. Like any coach, they each had faults, too.

Phillips’ strengths and weaknesses will surface as well, as the 52-year-old tries his hand at resuscitating a once-dominant program.

In talking with Phillips and some members of his staff over the past few weeks, they’ve discussed some of the vital aspects they intend to instill. I, like some others, was a bit apprehensive about Phillips’ hiring. Not knowing much about him or hearing his name among the “up-and-coming” coaches often mentioned in regard to job openings, I pondered whether the Penguins “ended up” with Phillips after being turned down by others.

That doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s obvious Phillips was ready for such a position. He, especially, wasn’t vague when answering questions about how he intends to make some subtle changes that could have a not-so-subtle impact on the Penguins. Still, the first inclination after his hiring in February was uncertainty.

One fact that initially seemed odd was that Phillips was out of coaching for a long stretch. From 2009 to 2015, Phillips was a high school administrator. While it’s not completely out of character for a coach to move on to that role, it made me wonder if he really cared that much about coaching. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but he definitely cared about kids.

No one becomes a teacher, principal or superintendent and doesn’t care about the well-being of students. That’s definitely something that stuck out in conversations with Phillips, and his assistant coaches, is that he legitimately has a passion for helping student-athletes.

“It’s about the players,” said YSU co-recruiting coordinator Josh Sinagoga about the overall philosophy of the staff, “and people can say that, but I’ll tell you this, (Phillips) lives it.”

He has, literally.

When he wasn’t coaching, he was teaching children and leading school districts, and those traits will only help him as a coach. Just as he was working with high school students before, he’s guiding young adults who are just leaving that environment as they enter college. Regardless of his success, experience fostering the development of students is a quality any university should look for in a coach.

One of the first areas Phillips wanted to address at YSU was redirecting a seemingly negative mentality. The Penguins have been wildly inconsistent over the years, especially the last three, and their mindset has played a role. Often times, they would be winning games, handily, and when a few things didn’t go their way, they would completely unravel. That kind of dark cloud can linger over a team.

Phillips said as much during an interview last week. He could see it on the film. A YSU team that was shellacked by unranked South Dakota, 56-21, last year comes back two weeks later and dominated sixth-ranked Illinois State, 21-3. He immediately pointed to mental toughness as the key reason why.

Phillips didn’t talk down on former coaches. He spoke of his own experience with losing and how he and the coaching staff found ways to overcome it. He’s already incorporating activities he believes will help prepare the players when adversity strikes.

One of the final attributes Phillips appears to possess is leadership. No, he’s never been an offensive or defensive coordinator at the college level. He hasn’t been talked about as the next great coaching prospect by ESPN. But he seems to have a feel for how to lead a team and manage a coaching staff.

While some coaches often fall victim to focusing on the offense or defense or how this job could catapult them to the next one, Phillips seems to be more fixated on making sure his coaches — and players — are doing their jobs to the highest level. A young, energetic staff may not hold a lot of well-known names to the common fan, but they are determined and maintain a similar approach as Phillips: Do your job, and do it to the best of your ability.

It’s much too early to tell whether Phillips is the man to return YSU to prominence. The current quarantine isn’t helping, as he’s kept away from his team and from implementing schemes and the aforementioned mindset. Still, his attitude remains optimistic. His vision is unchanged.

“Probably the first message I sent out when we went into quarantine (was about) human nature,” Phillips said. “Three things happen: You can quit, you can cope, blame things on circumstances, or you can thrive. … We’re going to thrive.”

Sometimes, an attitude is everything.

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