Friday, August 27, 2010

Turning sleepless nights into happy days

August 26, 2010

By Joe Scalzo

YSU football coach Eric Wolford has spent the last eight months treating every day like he’s preparing for a big job interview.

It isn’t a great approach if you want to catch up on your sleep but it’s pretty helpful in building a program.

“If you’ve got a big job interview tomorrow and it’s your dream job, I don’t know that too many people are going to sleep very well,” he said. “I’ve got my dream job every day, so my mind just constantly goes.

“That’s why you have to keep note pads by your bed. When you wake up, you write something down and hope you can go back to sleep.”

His offensive coordinator, Shane Montgomery, understands. After three years as the offensive coordinator at Miami (Ohio) — where he coached Ben Roethlisberger — he was promoted to head coach in 2004.

“You think you’re prepared,: said Montgomery, who went 17-31 from 2004-08. “But it’s not until you’re thrown into that seat that you realize, ‘I can’t let up. It’s my program now and I’ve got to kind of put my stamp on the program and do things way I want to do it.”

Wolford, an Ursuline High graduate, was a four-year starter at guard for Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who in 1989 took over a team that had just been named “Futility U” by Sports Illustrated. Wolford was a member of Snyder’s first recruiting class, helping the Wildcats perform one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football history. Wolford’s senior year, the Wildcats won their first bowl game, beating Wyoming in the 1993 Copper Bowl.

That stint, combined with a year as a graduate assistant, taught Wolford how to build a successful foundation.

“A lot of the things we do here, structurally and the foundation that we’re trying to lay here, is what Coach Snyder did at Kansas State,” said Wolford. “What he did there, it’s been documented, it’s the greatest turnaround in college football.

“There’s some similarities to what we have to do here.”

Wolford hasn’t been shy about his belief that the program has underachieved in recent years. He often references Jim Tressel’s success and believes YSU can reach those heights again.

It’s the biggest reason he took the job after spending much of his career climbing the Division I ranks.

“Some of my friends and people I know, their first head coaching jobs were at places that have never won,” Wolford said. “I think about Coach Snyder when he took over Kansas State. They had never won a bowl game and had the longest losing record in college football.

“That’s the exciting part about being here. We can win.”

Wolford is known as a relentless recruiter, something that was on display early when he assembled his coaching staff.

Although most of his assistants have a Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) background, one of his best hires was receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Phil Longo, who spent the last two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Southern Illinois.

“Wolf is as direct and honest a guy as I’ve coached with,” said Longo, who helped the Salukis go 15-1 in the conference the past two years. “When they say he’s extremely passionate about the game, they’re not lying. He has the answers to a lot of things and when he doesn’t, he’s very humble about it and he’ll go find the answer.

“So for me, that’s his strength right now.”

Longo said the players and coaches always know what Wolford expects, which makes it easier for them to do their jobs.

“There’s never any confusion or gray area about what needs to get done,” he said.

Wolford also asks his assistants for input, starting each day with a staff meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page.

“I think he’s done a really good job of asking people’s opinions,” said Montgomery. “When you’re a head coach, you’re only as good as your assistants.

“You realize that we’re all in this together.”

And to be successful, Montgomery said, you have to find the style that fits you best.

“He’s learned there are ways to do things differently,” he said. “Things that Bill Snyder did that made him successful are different than what Steve Spurrier [at South Carolina] did. And Ron Zook [at Illinois] and Mike Stoops [at Arizona].”

The best approach, Montgomery said, it to take the best of what you’ve learned and make the job your own.

“I think you try to do what’s best for you and what’s best for your personality, because all head coaches are different,” he said. “Ultimately you have to get your team to do things right on and off the field.”

Oh, and one more thing, Montgomery said:

“You’ve got to win.”

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