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A new style starts today with Phillips

There have been a lot of different approaches to restoring order within the Youngstown State football team since Jim Tressel stepped down as coach 20 years ago.

Three coaches with varying styles tried their hand at building a consistent winner, and while there were some good years, two playoff appearances are hardly what Penguin fans had in mind after Tressel’s run of dominance.

Today brings a new attitude, a new plan, and new YSU coach Doug Phillips’ style differs from the rest.

It started with Jon Heacock, Tressel’s predecessor, and he probably came the closest to continuing the standard. He finished with a 60-44 record over nine years, reached the national semifinal in 2006 and would have earned a few more postseason bids if not for a couple playoff snubs. Heacock wasn’t the most exciting coach from a fan or media perspective, and consistency was an issue at times, but he was a great defensive coach who instilled the right values into his players. He was a genuinely nice person who motivated players by showing a caring personality mixed with organization and intellect.

Something was missing though. We’ll call it “fire,” and Heacock stepped down after the 2009 season. That led to the hiring of Eric Wolford. The Ursuline graduate scratched the surface of making multiple postseasons, but YSU just couldn’t get over the hump on numerous occasions. Wolford, who went 31-26 in five seasons, boasted bravado, confidence and was a phenomenal recruiter, but while his teams were talented, they just couldn’t find a way to win big games. Eventually, that caught up to him, and he was dismissed in 2014.

Then came the shocker: Bo Pelini. Not many thought the former Nebraska head coach would ever return to his roots to lead the Penguins. He did, but the hype never matched the product on the field. Pelini, an Xs and Os guru well known for his defensive prowess, did take YSU to the national championship game in 2016 (a 28-14 loss to James Madison), but the Penguins were vastly inconsistent during his five years. His old-school scare tactics may have worked for some, but more often than not, they ended up leading to baffling mental errors by a team that was so afraid to make a mistake, they played scared. He finished with a 33-28 record before leaving to become the defensive coordinator at LSU.

Enter Phillips. A much lesser-known hire but another Mahoning Valley native, Phillips’ focus has been on building chemistry and discipline within the Penguins. Those are two things YSU has been lacking for some time. Pelini motivated more with fear than cohesion, and it backfired. A recent comment from Youngstown State linebacker Griffin Hoak seemed to hint that players are preferring the new approach.

“There’s a little more swagger when we walk out on the field as a team,” said Hoak, a sophomore linebacker. “Everyone has a little more chemistry, which helps. So that builds the confidence of the defense and the back seven. Everyone just trusts each other… That’s a good thing — run around and have some fun without worrying about doing anything wrong.”

That doesn’t seem like a direct knock on Pelini but more of a credit to Phillips.

Hoak was later asked about the differences in the philosophies of Phillips and Pelini. He talked about the teaching background of Phillips, saying he’s more of a “guide” and a “teacher” who is focused on building a brotherhood. He also mentioned how Phillips gives more control to his coordinators. Maybe Pelini was a bit of a micromanager, and the fear he instilled may have trickled down to his coaches.

But this new era isn’t about Phillips being different than Pelini. It’s about whether Phillips’ style will be successful. Fans would be wise not to judge him based on today’s game against the top-ranked team in the country, North Dakota State (3:30 p.m. on WBCB TV and 570-AM WKBN). In fact, this first year probably won’t be a direct reflection of what Phillips can do.

In some respects, such as the fight the team shows and how they evolve throughout the season, sure 2021 will, indeed, be an indication of how he’s leading the Penguins. However, much else won’t be known after one year. Phillips needs time to instill his philosophies, his players and his systems. He has to build trust, and that rarely happens quickly.

One thing I’ve noticed in conversation with Phillips is sincerity. He seems genuine in what he says, which is important because players see through a coach when they simply tell a team what he thinks they want to hear. That doesn’t seem to be Phillips’ style, and that’s a good thing for YSU.

As Phillips implements his values into this team, we’ll find out exactly what style he does bring to Youngstown. Just give it some time.

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