YOUNGSTOWN - Youngstown State University football coach Eric Wolford had never met Joe Tresey before he interviewed him for the vacant defensive coordinator position in 2011.
Wolford knew a little bit about Tresey, a John F. Kennedy graduate, because of his reputation. Tresey was coming off a short term with UCLA, and he also had stints as a defensive coordinator at BCS programs such as South Florida and Cincinnati. His two years with the Bearcats were especially impressive as Cincinnati led the nation in turnovers and interceptions in 2007. The Bearcats finished 17th in the nation in 2007 and 2008 and won the Big East Conference for the first time in school history.
Such a resume would catch the attention of nearly any coach, and after Rick Neuheisel and his staff were fired from UCLA in 2011, Wolford decided to inquire about the Warren native possibly returning to his roots. And Wolford did, in fact, have a little bit of previous interaction with Tresey.
Tribune Chronicle file photo / R. Michael Semple
Youngstown State University football team defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, center, instructs some of the YSU players during this year’s Red-White Spring Game April 19 at Stambaugh Stadium. Tresey is a John F. Kennedy High School graduate.
"I crossed paths with him in recruiting, but I never met the guy," said Wolford, who earned an excellent track record as a recruiter before joining YSU. "When you're recruiting players, and you're recruiting good players, and some kid tells you he's going to Cincinnati, and you're from a Big Ten School, you sort of scratch your head and wonder who's recruiting this kid. Then he tells me it's Joe Tresey. So that's kind of how it started in the beginning. And when you're looking for guys, you try to find people who are attracted to come back and live in this area. This is a great area to live in, but it's not for everybody."
Tresey knows the terrain quite well. The 1976 JFK grad grew up in Warren, and while he strayed away from the area for more than 20 years during a coaching tour that took him all across the nation, he felt the need to come back.
"Wolf called me, and I had other opportunities, Division I opportunities," Tresey said, "but we (Tresey and his wife) decided, 'You know what, the people here, that I grew up with, meant so much to me. Not just in Warren, but the whole valley - everyone I've known my whole life.' We felt the need to get back to this place. For some reason, we just did. And it's been a blessing - it really has."
The same can be said for the YSU defense.
The Penguins finished 11th in the Football Championship Subdivision in total defense in 2012, Tresey's first year on the job. It was the highest defensive ranking during Wolford's tenure - by far (YSU was 102nd in 2010 and 49th in 2011). That's not to say there weren't some rocky times in 2012, the worst being a 35-28 loss at Illinois State, a game the Penguins led, 28-7, late in the second quarter. Yet as the season progressed, so too did the YSU defense. The Penguins won their final three games of the season, allowing 23 total points in those contests (a 7.6 points-per-game average).
Tresey and Wolford said it took time for the players, and the coaches, to fully understand Tresey's schemes - not to mention his personality. A fiery and emotional coach, it's not odd to see Tresey racing down the sideline or screaming at the top of his lungs. And that's one of the things Wolford likes best. In fact, it was that enthusiastic attitude that won over Wolford during the interview process.
"His passion," said Wolford of why he chose Tresey for the job. "He has tremendous passion for the game of football. I appreciated the fact that family was important to him. He has a great wife, Patty, and son, Patrick, and he's very passionate about them. I think that tells you a little bit about the morals of a person."
Tresey's track record didn't hurt either.
"Joe has a had a very successful career, and I felt like he was the guy I could bring in here to ignite our defense and get it to play at a championship level," Wolford added. "We made our way through (the season), and at the end of the year, we were playing pretty darn good defense."
Defense is what many critics point to as to the missing link for the Penguins during Wolford's three-year tenure. At his introductory press conference in 2009, Wolford said his long-term goal was to return YSU to the national prominence it enjoyed when Jim Tressel was coach. Defense was certainly a staple of an era that landed the Penguins four national titles (YSU only finished out of the top 20 in total defense once during its national championship years).
Last season appeared to be a big step in getting back to that point, and Tresey believes it was only the beginning of what's to come.
"It was a new system," he said. "It takes time for the system, and it takes time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of your players. When you get under the lights, it's a whole different world. You have to learn your team. And that's one of the good things about this year is we have a much better picture of the core of our team and their strengths and weaknesses."
The development was evident during spring practices. A violent and opportunistic defense forced six turnovers in the annual Red-White Spring Game, and players admitted they were beginning to fully understand the intricacies of the scheme.
"Everybody had to adjust to the new system, and it was going to take a little time to get comfortable with it, but as you see, we're definitely comfortable with it now," said starting cornerback Dale Peterman after the spring game. "It's a lot easier when you know exactly what you're doing. You can play a lot faster once you know what assignments you're doing. I think last year there was a little bit of confusion, so guys were hesitant because if you don't know what you're doing, you're not going to play as fast as you can."
YSU, which opens preseason camp on Wednesday, has the ability and experience to be a national contender this year, but such expectations have been heard before since Tressel's departure, and the Penguins have only reached the playoffs once (2006). This year could be different, and defense might be the reason why.
"We all know that you're never going to win a championship unless you have a great defense," Wolford said. "I expect to build on that momentum from last year. We've got good players over there. They're getting older. They're maturing. I think this defense could potentially be the best that we've ever had since I've been at Youngstown State."