MORGANTOWN. W. Va. — The doubters were there from the beginning, Jerrod Calhoun said, which only confirmed to him he was in the right place.
“One of the things coach (Bob) Huggins told me was that I was not going to get a great job in the beginning,” said Calhoun, a former WVU assistant under Huggins and now is in his third season at Youngstown State. “He always told me there was a reason certain jobs were open. The challenge is to make it a good job.”
Those doubters in Youngstown told Calhoun he was a basketball coach at a football school, one that has won four FCS national championships.
Basketball? The Penguins had never been to the NCAA tournament or even record a 20-win season.
“You know, I heard the same things in Fairmont,” said Calhoun, who coached at Fairmont State for five seasons before taking the Youngstown State job in 2017. “They had football going at that time and basketball had dropped some.”
In his final season at Fairmont State, Calhoun guided the Falcons to the Division II national championship game.
He is now in his third season with the Penguins (6-5), who will host No. 25 West Virginia (9-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Covelli Centre, an off-campus arena that Youngstown State has never played in before.
The game is the second in a two-for-one deal. The Penguins played at WVU last season and will return to the WVU Coliseum next season for the third game.
“The entire city is really excited,” Calhoun said. “We understand that West Virginia will have a large share of followers, but there is excitement here, too, in bringing in a top 25 team from the Big 12. That’s never happened here before.”
Calhoun would to add a long list of firsts to the program, but building a program from the cellar of the Horizon League is not a hurry-up process.
“The difference at this level of Division I is scheduling,” Calhoun said. “The first year here, we had, like, six or seven buy games just so we could raise money to renovate some of our facilities.”
A buy game is a one-year deal where a small school travels to a larger school for a large payday.
“That first year was a blur to me,” he said.
It should have been, with five straight games on the road to end the non-conference season — including games in the states of Indiana, Illinois, Utah and Idaho — and four other neutral-site games.
In the end, those games helped renovate the team’s locker room and meeting areas.
More is needed, but Calhoun has the Penguins in a better spot in his third season.
There was one buy game this season against Louisville — a 78-55 loss in which the Penguins trailed by seven at the half — but Youngstown will also play seven home games in its non-conference season.
“My first year we played just two home games in our non-conference schedule,” Calhoun said. “I think it was four last season. That was something we wanted to focus on. We wanted to get to a place where we could afford to play more home games. We wanted to get to a place where we could play more in front of our fans and the support we’ve received here has been amazing.”
It’s small steps like those that has Calhoun keeping his focus on the bigger picture.
“Last year, we went 8-10 in our league, which was the second-most conference wins this school has had,” Calhoun said. “We were top four in attendance in our conference. It’s those kinds of things that let you know you’re building something good and you’re doing it the right way.
“The challenge is to keep it growing. This school has never won 20 games or been to the NCAA tournament. I’m excited to try and accomplish those goals. That’s why I took on this challenge, to strive to build a winner where it hasn’t been done before.”