Youngstown State returns to winning ways

Brandi Brown leads Youngstown State with 19.9 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Youngstown State Athletics

In his short time as a head coach, Bob Boldon has already done something few of his peers would dare attempt.

And we're not talking about keeping a straight face while selling the virtues of calling oneself a Cotton Blossom or Penguin.

With the regular season still winding to its conclusion, Youngstown State has safely clinched a winning season, its first since 1999-2000. That is an impressive enough achievement for a coach in his third season at the school and who was himself only three years out of college when the Penguins last had more wins than losses. But that alone is hardly unique. Plenty of coaches turn around programs that didn't win many games.

Not so many turn around programs that didn't win any games.

A team doesn't put up a 0-30 record on bad luck alone. The 2009-10 Penguins lost a game against Loyola by four points and two other games by nine points. That's as close as they came all season to a win. They lost every other game by double digits, often by 20, 30, even 40 points. On a road trip through Indiana in the middle of February, they lost by a score of 82-36 against Butler, then turned around and lost 80-28 at Valparaiso.

Let's just say Butler and Valparaiso weren't exactly Connecticut and Stanford that season.

That was what Boldon technically traded up to when the Ohio native left an assistant's job at Florida Gulf Coast to rebuild Youngstown State (his head coaching experience came in two seasons at Division II Arkansas-Monticello, the aforementioned Cotton Blossoms, and one season at NAIA Lambuth).

And immediately, with the wave of a basketball wand, the Penguins took flight.

All right, not exactly. Getting Penguins to fly probably would have been easier.

Youngstown State improved in its first season with Boldon, but a 6-24 record wasn't exactly cause for a parade. I remember being in Youngstown that season when league power Green Bay passed through town. Boldon's team put up a surprisingly good fight against a team that eventually advanced to the Sweet 16, but the entire evening, from the first-half struggles to the sparse, skeptical crowd, hardly gave off a vibe of unbridled enthusiasm.

A coach can look at tape, see the deficiencies and mistakes and try to correct them. It's more difficult to gauge the toll that 0-30 record took on players for whom basketball became about as fun as an afternoon with Eeyore.

"I don't think I did a very good job; I don't think I realized the biggest obstacle was the mental side," Boldon said. "I spent too much time trying to fix the physical side of it, and it took me probably a year to figure it out. That's probably the biggest mistake I made my first year. Coming off an 0-30 season where you lost every game by an average of 25 points is, in the sports world, traumatic. It made game days not very exciting for them, as you can imagine, going into the game when they're expected to lose, and not only expected to lose, but expected to lose pretty significantly."

One of the more remarkable aspects of the rebuilding underway in the northeastern corner of Ohio is the fact that a player now arguably the best in the Horizon League, a player voted the preseason conference player of the year a season ago ahead of eventual Green Bay All-American Julie Wojta, was part of that winless team. Brandi Brown started all 30 games and averaged a double-double for that team, but she did so as an undersized post. Boldon's staff took one look at her stroke and decided they had a shooter to work with. She didn't attempt a single 3-pointer as a freshman. The following season she attempted 131 of them.

Brown still boards (she averaged better than nine rebounds per game as both a sophomore and junior and averages 11.5 this season), but playing on the perimeter opened things up for her to become a dominant scorer.

"She never showed an ounce of resistance," Boldon said. "She came in every day with a willingness to learn. She has become a good 3-point shooter, has become a great driver from the top of the key, while still doing a good job of finishing around the basket."

Boldon spoke while on a bus as Youngstown State made its way from Milwaukee to Green Bay (the former NAIA coach would normally have been driving his team in vans or having to follow up a big win by washing the uniforms himself). He was under no illusion as to the work that remains this season and beyond. And a day later, after his team put up a good fight in the first half against the league's unbeaten powerhouse, a 60-46 loss reinforced such reality.

None of which takes away how remarkable it is that a team so recently the worst in college basketball, maybe one of the worst ever, could win 20 games this season.

"That first recruiting class, I got hung up on more than I got talked to," Boldon said. "A lot of kids, when we were coming off the 0-30 season, they didn't want anything to do with it. And to be quite frank, I understood. I wouldn't have went to a school that was 0-30, so that made good sense to me."

It's easier to sell kids on becoming Penguins these days. Everyone likes a winner.