Can area players change culture at YSU?

One of the more nauseating quotes fans and media hear from coaches is the old “we need to change the culture” line.

Yeah, and I need to change the inordinate amount of time I spend scouring meaningless social media posts on my phone, but that’s not happening either.

However, the annoying line doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to it. If there’s one team I’ve seen over the past year that truly needs a “culture change” it’s the Youngstown State football team.

It’s kind of odd to say that because when YSU coach Bo Pelini took over back in 2014, he used the “culture” reference more times than he cursed at referees. After reaching the FCS Championship in 2016 — the first time since 1999, when Jim Tressel was coach — it appeared the Youngstown native had indeed created a new … wait for it … culture.

Things spiraled out of control quickly, however. The 2017 season was a mess, with injuries and head-scratching losses leaving a veteran YSU team out of the playoffs. Then came last year, which was basically a dumpster fire.

There was the embarrassing, season-opening loss to Butler — arguably the worst loss in school history as it came against a lower-level FCS team with zero scholarship players. The Penguins were up and down (mostly down) for the rest of the season.

There were games in which YSU looked completely disinterested, and the lack of enthusiasm reached its peak in a 43-17 loss to Indiana State in Week 8, a game the Penguins had to win to stay in the playoff hunt. There was more energy from the cheerleaders than the football team on that day, and it led to Pelini calling his team “a collection of garbage.”

He wasn’t wrong.

That’s what made this year’s “Spring Game” so intriguing. The reason for the quotations around Spring Game is because Pelini has basically eradicated the Spring Game because, well, because he doesn’t like the attention, I guess. It’s puzzling, and someone probably needs to step in and let him know that not having one isn’t helping the effort to increase a dwindling fanbase. That’s a story for another day though.

The last scrimmage of spring practices was fun, exciting, energetic and full of passionate football players. That may seem like a “big whoop” kind of comment, but for this team, it’s a big deal. Heck, even the players noticed it.

“We’ve had a little bit of a culture change,” said sophomore Joe Craycraft, one of the leading candidates to become the starting quarterback. “I think last year our culture was a little off, but we had a little bit of a culture change. We’ve got guys believing, and everybody is coming together as a team.”

I can hear a “hallelujah” from those YSU fans who still care, and they are out there.

There are a lot of people who still hold a strong sense of pride when it comes to YSU football. It has been a tough go of it ever since Tressel left. The inconsistency, near misses of the playoffs and dumbfounding losses over the years drove many people away, but I receive more emails regarding the Penguins football team than anything else. So, for the fans’ sake, let’s hope this is a change for the best.

If it is, and I do believe there’s a renewed sense of urgency from Pelini and the players, it could be a lot of fun for the area. There are more local players on the team than at any time I can remember since I started covering YSU back in 2005, and it’s not even close. Some of the Mahoning Valley guys could be stars too.

Yes, former Girard quarterback Mark Waid is an exciting prospect, but fans need to chill with the “he should start from day one” talk. Waid is vastly talented, he has a high football IQ and good leadership skills, but playing in the Missouri Valley Football Conference is a world of difference from being in the Blue Tier of the All-American Conference. If he goes out and decisively wins the job, then he deserves to start, but if not, give the kid time to develop.

There are countless other area stars who could make an impact, too. And maybe that’s part of this change (I refuse to use the word that starts with a C, ends with an E and sounds like vulture). Maybe the success of YSU means more to kids who are from this area.

Let’s face it, if you’re from the Youngstown/Warren area and stayed here after high school, this place means something special to you. You overlook its rundown look and struggling economy and realize the aesthetics of the Mahoning Valley are in the people, the work ethic and the values many of us hold true.

Regardless of where this newfound spirit stems from, it has to stick. Sure, Pelini must inspire them better than he has recently, but the players must have the desire to not only want to be great but want it so badly that they’re willing to put in the work to make it happen. That’s not always as easy as it sounds in college, where distractions and school work can overwhelm you.

Let’s hope this influx of lively players spends more time changing the (insert eye roll emoji) culture than looking at social media on their phones.

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