Youngstown State coach longs for return to glory days
Four years removed from the Jim Tressel coaching era, Youngstown State University finds itself in a role-reversal heading into Saturday's Gateway Football Conference home game against No. 1 Southern Illinois.
The last time the Penguins (2-3) were ranked first in NCAA Division I-AA was during the 1998 season -- a year after they won their fourth and final national championship of that decade and the same season Southern Illinois struggled to a 3-8 finish.
Jon Heacock, a former Youngstown State assistant who took over the program when Tressel departed for Ohio State, knows the story well. He was around when they handed out hardware at Youngstown State in 1991, 1993 and 1994, but he missed out in 1997 after taking an assistant's job in the Big Ten Conference at Indiana a year earlier.
"I have the rings, and I'm trying to get my players to get one," said Heacock. "They have the constant reminder of back in the '90s, and I want them to feel that now."
But it hasn't been easy. There have been injuries -- for instance, sophomore running back Monquantae Gibson, the Gateway's second-leading rusher, missed much of Saturday's game with a hand injury -- but Heacock makes no excuses for the Penguins' demise.
"I was hired here to win and to keep this thing going," he said. "Right now, it's tough. Any reason is an excuse.
"The only thing that helps me is I've been here when we won, and I'm very familiar with what it takes. A lot of things in I-AA have changed. The league has changed. We are in the process of changing. It is a process. We won four championships (mainly as an I-AA independent), but we've never won the Gateway Conference. Right now, you have to win your league ... to get an automatic bid to the playoffs."
Heacock returned to Youngstown State in 2001 and became the first rookie coach to win eight games at the school. His career record, including Saturday's 44-19 loss to No. 6 Western Kentucky, is 22-17, but he has not had a team reach the playoffs.
Since that 8-3 season, the Penguins have posted records of 7-4 in 2002 and 5-7 in 2003. Still, Heacock had accumulated the most victories (20) by any Youngstown State coach during his first three years.
Youngstown State faces its second consecutive nationally ranked opponent in Southern Illinois (4-1) and third in six games this season. Southern Illinois' lone loss occurred on Sept. 11, when the Salukis failed to convert a two-point conversion following a touchdown in the waning seconds of a 23-22 loss at Division I-A Northern Illinois.
When Southern Illinois earned the No. 1 ranking Sept. 6, the Salukis joined Western Illinois (2003), Western Kentucky (2002), Northern Iowa (1992) and Youngstown State (1997 and 1998), as Gateway teams to have reached that pinnacle.
"Our kids are so focused on their own situation right now that they don't really need any motivation for this game," Heacock said. "They want to be like the Youngstown State teams of that era. They want to be like the kids of the '90s. They want their say, but we have to earn that just like we did back then."