In recent Horizon League history, there are teams that people expect to compete for and win championships every year. Several years ago, it was Butler dominating the league before their departure. Then, Valparaiso took the role as the perennial power and team to beat. Then there are most of the rest of the league’s teams whose success fluctuates with periods of being in the upper or lower echelons of the league. Sustained success is a sign of a very good college basketball program. But what about those few teams who can seemingly never crack the top 3 of a given conference, and are usually in the bottom half of the league standings, if not in last place? Success then has a different definition for teams like this. The Youngstown State Penguins are the Horizon League’s example of a program whose year is largely considered “good” if they finish in the middle of the league’s pack.
YSU just finished its 15th season as a member of the Horizon League. Their record in regular season league play is 70-182. In that time, the only time they finished regular season league play with a winning record was the 2011-12 season when they were 10-8. In just two of those 15 seasons did they have an overall winning record. That same 2011-12 season they finished 16-15. The next season they finished 18-16, which included their only postseason appearance as a Division 1 team. They played in the CIT and won their first game and lost in the second round.
The Penguins have had some excellent players in the last 15 seasons, from Quin Humphrey and John Barber to Kendrick Perry and Damian Eargle, and now Cameron Morse. So why have the Penguins not had at least a couple of breakout seasons? The only reasonable explanation is low expectations.
The first reason expectations are low is because YSU, athletically speaking, is a football school. YSU football has a proud tradition that includes four Division 1-AA National Championships. The coach for those titles was Jim Tressel, who is currently YSU’s President. He was head coach for 15 seasons from 1986 to 2000. In the subsequent 15 seasons, which happens to be exactly when YSU joined the Horizon League in basketball, YSU football still has had ten winning seasons.
Another reason for low expectations is the lack of a winning basketball tradition. Out of nine coaches in program history who have coached at least 50 games, only two have winning records: Dom Rosselli (589-388) and Mike Rice (75-67). It is a wonder how current Head Coach Jerry Slocum has lasted long enough to become the second-longest tenured coach in program history. After 11 seasons at the helm, Slocum’s record at YSU is 129-211. Three Horizon League head coaches were fired in recent weeks, all of whom had much better records at their respective schools. Slocum will be back for his 12th season in the fall. To give Slocum credit, he was very successful in his first three coaching jobs, and has amassed over 700 career wins. But given YSU’s lack of success on the court, most schools worried about winning would have fired him five or six years ago.
In the aforementioned 15 years YSU has been in the Horizon League, 8 different schools have represented the league in the NCAA Tournament. Before the Penguins can realistically dream of March Madness, they need to focus on just getting on the podium as one of the top three teams in the regular season standings. The closest they got to that was a three-way tie for 4th in 2006-07, although they were a distant three games behind the third place finisher. They finished in last place in the Horizon League in a mind-boggling 6 of the 15 seasons.
The Penguins will eventually migrate to warmer regions on the hardwood and start winning more. But the turnaround needs to start with the school, students, fans, and alumni simply expecting more of the basketball program. This mindset will be felt by the players and coaches and lead to a greater sense of urgency on the court. The fact that a lot of good players have transferred out of YSU throughout the years is the sign of a program without much continuity and identity. Whenever Slocum stops coaching, YSU should look for a successful head coach from a smaller Division 1 conference to be the next head coach. The school will need to open its pocketbook to attract an ascending head coach who can completely change the culture of the program, so that a new history can be written. There is no reason a school cannot have successful football and basketball programs. Don’t be surprised if YSU basketball moves out of the Horizon League’s basement and shatters that ceiling of mediocrity sooner than you think.