Eric Wolford was named the sixth Youngstown State Football Coach in school history. Wolford replaces Jon Heacock who spent nine years at YSU before resigning in November. Wolford is already turning heads with an all-star coaching staff, a highly successful recruiting class, and an attitude that just oozes loyalty and pride. To sit and talk with Coach Wolford was refreshing. He has goals and aspirations for the football program, but also for the community, stressing more than once how important he feels it is to get the community involved.
Before accepting the Youngstown State position, Wolford was the offensive line coach and running-game coordinator at the University of South Carolina. Before working for the Gamecocks, he worked under Ron Zook at Illinois for two seasons. His powerful resume also includes stops at Arizona, Houston, South Florida, Emporia State, Kansas State, and North Texas. Wolford grew up in Youngstown and attended Ursuline High School before setting off to chase his dream of coaching on the big stage.
Paneech: What are your feelings about these “money beatings”? Where YSU ventures to a huge college football powerhouse stadium to play, in essence, for a check. Are they good games to be involved in?
Wolford: I don’t have any issues with it. I understand the way things financially work, but also, I want to put a positive spin on it. You get to play an elite Big-10 team in Penn State in front of 110,000 people, so it’s not all just about the money, but also an experience in a very special environment. Kids from Pennsylvania on our team get a chance to play closer to home.
Paneech: Last year, you are coaching football in South Carolina, before that, you were several other places. Everytime someone got married or died you are booking a plane ride to get back home. How does it feel to be home and eliminate those kinds of problems?
Wolford: Being here is obviously a great feeling. I have a great support system in my family. However, I don’t think I will see any more of them now then I did when I was in South Carolina, except for occasional dinners or those types of things. I have been gone for 20 years, and this is a special place, very family-oriented, and that is what’s important to me.
Paneech: What makes Youngstown State Football so important to this area?
Wolford: There was a period in time when this community thrived on what took place here on a Saturday. It was a reason to get together with family and friends and practice fellowship for a good cause. My staff and I know the expectations are very high here. We need to make sure our football team knows that. We need to field a physical football team. This is a tough town, and the players and staff will be held accountable to do things right, and those are the traits we are trying to instill in the kids.
Paneech: I am sure you have seen a film or two from last season. You have some proven talent coming back. Is this a year you put the “rebuilding” label on, or do you go out and immediately try to win?
Wolford: I think that question would be better answered after Spring ball. I have concerns about depth issues and we really don’t have a proven quarterback. Without a proven quarterback, throughout history, your chances of winning are not as good. It is a situation I wonder about daily. We have four guys going into camp that do not have much experience. You have got to have a good quarterback to win. In the early stages they need to show us that they can manage a football game, make good decisions, and do not turn the football over. I am sure that Coach Montgomery and I will be able to find a person who can do what we want at that position.
Paneech: Two early moves you should be commended for are the hiring of Coach Ron Stoops and Coach Rollen Smith. They are both very well-respected local coaching legends who came from consistent-winning programs. Was this a move to assist the harnessing of local talent?
Wolford: I think it may have somewhat of an influence. I hired Rollen Smith and Ronnie Stoops because of their high-level coaching abilities and their character that they bring to the table. Initially, I didn’t know how many high school coaches I wanted to hire, but those were two of the top guys on my list from day one. I hired them because they are great people and great coaches, the recruiting impact was more of an afterthought.
Paneech: Last year, special teams played a hand in at least three losses. How much emphasis will you place on the importance of not getting punts and field goals blocked, making good snaps, and containing opponents returners?
Wolford: Well, Louie Matsakis was the second person on my list of people to hire. He is a proven successful special teams guy. We will play starters on special teams, I feel we have to. I cannot put enough emphasis on special teams. We have a schedule for the Spring to see who can do what the best. This large wave of newcomers will have to give us some depth on special teams and maybe even play a little bit.
Paneech: For a couple of weeks, SID Trevor Parks was sending me e-mails talking about guys you were adding to the staff. Somehow, you have assembled the Beatles of college football coaching here at Youngstown State. It’s an incredible staff, top to bottom, how do you sell a smaller-school to someone you are trying to get to join you here?
Wolford: That was probably one of the hardest things that I had to do was to hire a staff and recruit at the same time. I often found myself in between phone calls recruiting coaches and wives, to recruiting players. Some of my experiences with rookie coaches was that they sometimes didn’t take the time to hire the right staff people. You are only as good as your staff. I have been fortunate that Ron Strollo and the administration have given me the resources to hire a good staff. I also believe it is a statement to the people of Youngstown that this is a great place to be, and this is also a great place to work. They [assistant coaching hires] have enough insight as to what can be done here. We feel we are getting things lined up in the right places to make a run.
Paneech: Looking over your recruits, a recent acquisition of Adaris Bellamy, a running back who was considering becoming a Cincinnati Bearcat, has not been talked about as much as your high school signees. What can you tell me about him?
Wolford: After we had a chance to look things over as a staff, we came upon the realization that we only have two scholarship running backs on the roster, and one of those was redshirted. Then we looked at the fact that we signed two kids. After evaluating last season, we feel like we need four guys who could play. If you lose one of those four, it could be devastating. We just felt like we didn’t have enough depth at running back. Bellamy is very talented, that is very easy to see on film. He’s got some maturity to him, he has been out of high school for a year, he’s got size as he weighs between 215-220 pounds, and he uses his natural vision to run really well between the tackles. He is a guy that will come in here and get a chance at the job, and we will see what happens.
One thing I can predict about Wolford, he is a no-nonsense guy when it comes to football. To sense his passion and love of the game are truly refreshing and has the community buzzing over the potential factor. He may only be the sixth head coach in Youngstown State Football history, but we might not see number seven for a very long time.