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Youngstown, Bison winning the facilities "arms race" in the Missouri Valley

by Mike McFeely

Youngstown, Ohio

At many stops in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the football facilities are less than ideal. Most of the schools in the league are "basketball schools" that put their emphasis on the men's basketball teams, which play in the rugged Missouri Valley Conference. For those used to seeing the first-rate stadium and facilities at North Dakota State, seeing how King Football is treated in Macomb, Ill., or Terre Haute, Ind., can be a shocker.

The same cannot be said of Youngstown State. One look around the 20,630-seat Stambaugh Stadium (the tallest structure in Youngstown), or the football offices, or the Watson and Tressel Training Site tells you football is No. 1 on this Mahoning Valley campus.

There are reasons for this, of course. This is football country, located almost exactly between Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the heart of the Rust Belt. Ohio is a hotbed of football while Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania border are only about an hour away.

NDSU rules the Football Championship Subdivision these days, with two straight national titles. The Bison have the tools to add a third. But in the 1990s it was Youngstown State that was the program to envy in what was then called Division I-AA. 

The Penguins won four I-AA championships in the '90s ('91, '93, 94, '97) under coach Jim Tressel before he moved on to a little school named Ohio State after the 2000 season. Tressel, despite running into issues with the NCAA, is still a revered figure in Youngstown. He is credited with returning some swagger to a city beaten down by the decline of the steel industry in the 1970s and '80s. 

Tressel will be honored this weekend when the Pengiuns host NDSU in a game that will likely decide the league title.

For a visitor to Youngstown's campus, the feeling is one of Division I athletics. At least in football. The stadium is excellent and the athletic offices are adorned with football championship trophies and murals honoring the rich tradition of Penguins football.

But the building that really stands out is the Watson and Tressel Training Site (WATTS). Completed in 2011, the building houses a full synthetic-turf football and soccer practice field, a 300-meter track, a pair of long-jump pits, a high-jump pit, four batting cages and an artificial turf golf practice green.

It is state-of-the-art. It's already hosted two Horizon League indoor track championships. The San Francisco 49ers, owned by Youngstown natives, have used it to practice the last two seasons.

Built for $14 million -- with some admitted rough patches, since ground was broken in 2007 and it took four years to complete -- it's a facility that stands out in the Missouri Valley. The first $1 million was donated by Tressel and his wife Ellen and Frank and Norma Watson, who made their money with a welding company.

My first reaction when I toured the building Thursday was, "NDSU needs something like this." But after talking with Bison athletic director Gene Taylor, I learned it is not in the cards.

"We just completed our indoor track facility and we can pretty much secure the Fargodome when we need it for indoor practices if we need to. Plus we have (an artificial) turf practice field and a turf field at Dacotah to use," Taylor said. "We don't need something like Youngstown has."

Insead, Taylor said. NDSU will focus on a bubble-type practice facility that could be inflated and deflated. That would give the Bison football team the option of an indoor practice area if the dome was not available in the spring or fall.

The indoor field at Youngstown State is impressive, though. It gives the Penguins and Bison the best football facilities in the league. They are winning the football facilities "arms race" in FCS's top conference.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)