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Jeff Kolpack, Published October 05 2012

Youngstown State undefeated this season after missing playoffs last year

FARGO – Hardly a day goes by at the Youngstown State football offices when Eric Wolford doesn’t walk by four national championship trophies. It’s a reminder of what the expectations are for his program.

And when the Penguins went 11-3 and reached the semifinals of the Division

I-AA playoffs in 2006, it appeared the school was heading back to the 1990s when it won the four titles and finished runner-up twice.

But three successive mediocre seasons including a 4-8 mark in 2008 spelled the end of head coach Jon Heacock. The low point, said athletic director Ron Strollo, is when the Penguins had to start a freshman quarterback who was a receiver in high school.

Not only had the talent level fallen, so did the stature of the program within the community.

“The coaching change gave us an opportunity to do a self-assessment,” Strollo said. “It was easy to see that we hadn’t invested in the program like a lot of people had across the country.”

A bigger investment included bringing a veteran Division I Football Bowl Subdivision assistant like Wolford, who came from the University of South Carolina. It allowed him to hire better assistant coaches. On the facility front, the school built the Watson and Tressel indoor practice facility.

“We hired a coach to drive that train,” Strollo said.

The train makes a stop at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome on Saturday afternoon to play North Dakota State in a battle of two of the tops teams in the Football Championship Subdivision. After four unbeaten games, the Penguins are back in the national spotlight.

The blueprint Wolford drafted looks similar to the one NDSU took.

“Their coach is from Nebraska and I played at Kansas State when he was coaching there,” Wolford said, referring to NDSU head coach Craig Bohl. “We probably have a lot of the same beliefs as far as not taking any shortcuts in building a program. My thought process was some guys have only one chance to be a head coach and you better do it correct right away.”

The Bison went 3-8 in 2009, but one strong recruiting class bolstered the Bison to an FCS playoff berth in 2010 and a national title last season.

Wolford practically cut more players than he kept when he came on board in 2010 and the result was also a 3-8 season. But the Penguins were on the brink of a playoff berth last year before being upset by Missouri State in the last game of the season and finished 6-5.

“I don’t think you can deviate from discipline and doing things right, especially in that first year,” Wolford said. “You lay your blue print down and hold kids accountable. And if you do that, if you don’t worry about the wins and losses that first year and you just worry about getting better, I think it will bode well for the future.”

This year got off to a bang with a decisive win over FBS team the University of Pittsburgh in the season opener.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of rebuilding projects and have been a part of some successful ones and ones that haven’t been successful,” Wolford said.

So far, this one has been successful.

“I think rejuvenated is the right word,” Strollo said. “But we’re not there yet.”

Four trophies are a reminder of that.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia