YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Twenty-five years ago, Youngstown State won its first National Championship in 1991 — the start of four Penguins 1-AA championships in the ’90s, all led by head coach Jim Tressel. That team will be honored during halftime of YSU’s contest against Northern Iowa on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Stambaugh Stadium. Here’s a look back at that glorious championship season from start to finish:
The start of YSU’s 1991 campaign can actually be traced back six years to a 1985 news conference when — on the weekend before Christmas — an unknown assistant from Ohio State named Jim Tressel was named the Penguins’ new head football coach.
In his first four years, Tressel’s record was a combined less-than-stellar 23-24. Then, in his fifth season, YSU went 11-0 — only to lose in the first game of the playoffs.
That disappointment set up 1991.
“You know, the only thing I remember about going into that season was how disappointed we were with the way the season before ended,” Tressel said.
“That year, Coach Tressel had all the seniors talk about what they were going to do to win a national championship,” remembered Chris Vecchione, a senior defensive tackle in ’91 .
So, from the outset, a national title was YSU’s goal. But that was momentarily put on hold when the Penguins were just 4-3 after seven games.
“It looks like it’s very mediocre,” Randy Smith, a freshman defensive back in ’91, remembered. “It looks like this team is going to struggle to get into the playoffs.”
However, longtime YSU play-by-play announcer Bob Hannon — along with the players and Coach Tressel — can vividly remember game eight.
“The Georgia Southern game,” Hannon said. “That was the turning point of the season.”
YSU traveled to Georgia Southern — the defending national champions who were 55-2 at home — and won at the stadium that would also just so happen to be the site of the ’91 national championship game.
On YSU’s way out town, Coach Tressel — always the motivator — stopped at Georgia Southern’s Eagle Creek, filled a jar with water and mixed it with water from the Mahoning River. He then put it out for his team to see.
“And he says that we’re going to bring this back down there in eight weeks,” Vecchione said. “We’re going to dump the Eagle Creek water back, mixed with the Mahoning River water, and we’re going to win the national championship.”
Fast forward, as YSU won out in the regular season to make the playoffs.
Its first postseason win came against Villanova on a last-second Jeff Wilkins field goal. The Penguins then hit the road for Nevada-Reno — which was ranked number-one in the nation — and escaped with a victory when Nevada missed a would-be game-winning 27-yard field goal.
On to the semifinals, where YSU was back home against Sanford. Vecchione scored the only touchdown, Smith notched three interceptions and the Penguins blanked the Eagles to advance to the title game.
Which takes us to December 21, 1991, as the Penguins returned to Georgia Southern to play Marshall for the championship.
Before the game, Tressel took the jar of mixed water from seven weeks before and walked back down to Eagle Creek.
“He went ahead and dumped that water,” Vecchione said. “We always called that the magic of the water in that vase. That brought us back.”
Two third-quarter touchdowns gave Marshall a 17-6 lead.
But in the fourth quarter, quarterback Ray Isaac hooked up with Herb Williams for a touchdown. Then Ryan Wood scored from three yards out to put YSU up by one.
Finally, Tamron Smith’s short TD run gave YSU an eight-point lead and Malcom Everett knocked away Marshall’s final pass to clinch a 25-17 Penguins win and their first National Championship.
When YSU returned home, it was greeted by 2,000 people at the airport. Coach Tressel let then-Mayor Pat Ungaro hold the trophy and the Youngstown community threw a parade.
Keep in mind, this national championship came just a mere 14 years after the first big steel mill closed. Youngstown was still sorting itself out.
History has shown that 1991 — and the first national championship — was the start of something new.
“I’d like to think it began the march that you can see has gone on now for 20-some years,” Tressel said. “The Valley’s doing some great things right now and it’s fun being back at this end of the 25 years.”
Following the championship victory 25 years ago, Tressel fittingly exclaimed this while conducting an on-field TV-interview with Jim Gray:
“Thanks so much to all you people back in Youngstown and in the Valley. This one is for you and our seniors. Thanks so much.”