The television was one of those jobs with an 80-inch screen, so that everyone gathered in Schwebel Auditorium on the campus of Youngstown State could witness the glory. "Oh, man, were we excited," recalls Penguins senior wide receiver Willis Marshall. "It was everything we'd been working for." That was in November 1996, when players and fans of Youngstown State, which had finished the regular season 8-3, assembled to eat hoagies, down Cokes and watch the selection show for the Division I-AA football playoffs, which would undoubtedly include one of the nation's most storied programs. Or would it? One team, two teams...16 teams I selected, and not one of them nicknamed the Penguins. "Do you know what it's like when you get a phone call about a death in the family?" says Frank Page, a senior offensive lineman. "This was worse."
Worse than death?
"A lot of strong men had tears in their eyes," he says, "but it served as motivation."
Last Saturday in Chattanooga. Page and his teammates could smile again after Youngstown State won a record-tying fourth I-AA national title, having come from behind to defeat bigger, stronger, faster McNeese State 10-9. "Take all those old feelings and throw 'em away," Marshall yelled after the game. "All of that makes all of this so much sweeter. This was our revenge."
Though they had won national championships in 1991, '93 and '94, the Penguins had suffered disappointments of late, going 3-8 two years ago before last season's snub. But Youngstown State is steeped in tradition. It's the sort of place where old champions come back to cheer on their alma mater. Coach Jim Tressel, who has led the Penguins to all four of their titles, doesn't mind reminding his players of that history. "Poise and patience," he said after last Saturday's victory. "I like to think our program has been built on those foundations. That's exactly what we told our players this morning: The winner would be the one with more of both."
Translation: The winner would be the one that didn't screw up.
Tressel was right. After trailing for most of the defense-dominated game—but making few mistakes—Youngstown State caught a break early in the fourth quarter when, with the Cowboys leading 9-3, McNeese State quarterback Blake Prejean lofted a floater into the hands of linebacker Jeff Fackrell. The Penguins, starting from their 34, pushed the ball up the field, helped by a Cowboys face-mask penalty and shabby tackling.
Then, with eight minutes remaining, McNeese State committed the decisive blunder. On third-and-goal from the Cowboys' nine-yard line, Youngstown wideout Renauld Ray went in motion. When quarterback Demond Tidwell took the snap, both of McNeese State's cornerbacks followed Penguins receiver Randy (Coates to the right. Ray glided alone along the left sideline, snared a perfect toss from Tidwell and jogged in for the game-clinching score.
"Demond was calm as could be," said Ray, a sophomore. "He just kept telling us to relax and take our time, that good things would happen. We're not your average team—we can handle things very well."