From 2003 to 2013, Youngstown State University women’s basketball looked to be a program that could never get back to the mountaintop that head coach Ed DiGregorio took it to.
That all changed in 2013. After just three years with Bob Bolden at the helm, the Penguins were yet again on the search. YSU’s administration went after a winner and a winner is exactly what it got.
John Barnes came over from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay where he was an associate head coach. With a record of winning at every stop he made along his journey, it seemed to be a no-brainer that YSU hire someone with success with a school right in the Horizon League.
When Barnes got to Youngstown in the summer of 2013, he had more to clean up than even he might have understood.
A once-proud program was the near laughingstock of the Horizon League for nearly all of the 21st century up until his arrival.
The shocking departure of Bolden created some tension in the Penguins fan base as they were quick to believe that Barnes would also have no issue leaving once he showed enough to get a more important job. Luckily for all of the city of Youngstown and the administration of YSU athletics, that never happened.
“After much thought and with a mix of emotions, I am stepping down from my role as Head Women’s Basketball Coach at Youngstown State,” Barnes said. “I am grateful for the unwavering support of the YSU community and the Mahoning Valley. The players, coaches and fans will forever be in my heart and made this an extremely difficult decision. I can’t thank Director of Athletics, Ron Strollo, enough for all his support over the last decade. I will treasure all the memories I’ve made over the last 10 years and never forget what we have accomplished together. Penguin pride will always run through my blood! Thank you, Youngstown Nation, for allowing me to be a part of something truly special.”
It is not to be understated just how good and consistent Barnes made the women’s basketball program. After battling through a few tough years, Barnes found a way to bring in the style of players that he needed to play the style that ended up winning so many games.
On the floor, the Penguins’ success beyond the three-point line is Barnes’ crowning achievement. In 10 seasons at the helm, the Penguins hit at least 200 three-pointers. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Penguins would’ve hit 200 threes in all 10 years in Youngstown. He recruited and coached the top-4 all-time in three-pointers made in school history (Alison Smolinski, Nikki Arbanas, Indiya Benjamin, and Chelsea Olson). YSU led the Horizon League eight times in three-pointers made in his tenure.
In the 2021-22 campaign, all of Barnes’ hard work finally came to fruition as the Penguins won its first regular season title in 23 years compiling 18 wins in the HL. That is the most that any head coach has won in any conference in the program’s history. With that success, Barnes won the 2021-22 Horizon League Coach of the Year award.
Beyond the hardwood courts, tough practices, and wins and losses, Barnes kept a tight ship that made sure that basketball wasn’t the main prize. He recruited women that wanted to succeed in the classroom as well. YSU appeared on the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Academic top-25 nine times in his tenure. YSU has had a top-10 grade-point average, nationally, in five of the last seven years.
Whether it’s the six 1,000-point scorers that he recruited and coached, or it’s the high GPA that his teams have always had, he has always gotten the best from every team he has coached.
He coached the Penguins to five postseason berths as well as winning 19 games five times.
Barnes did the thing that he hoped to do; Leave the program in better shape than when he took it over.
He has done that in more ways than one. He has restored an energy that was completely missing in this city for many years around basketball in general. Barnes in a certain way allowed YSU to go get a guy like Jerrod Calhoun for the men’s team. Barnes showed just how important passion and tenacity means to a program that needed it.
“I want to sincerely thank Coach Barnes for leading our women’s basketball program to a level of consistent competitiveness within the Horizon League and in our region over the last decade,” YSU Executive Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Ron Strollo said. “When he took over, our program was still in the rebuilding phase to try and replicate the tremendous success of the 1990s. Under Coach Barnes’ leadership, our team reached the postseason five times and won its first regular-season conference championship in more than 20 years. He absolutely left the program in a better place than when he arrived 10 years ago. John is a friend to many, both in our department and within the Youngstown community, and we wish him well as he moves on from his time as a Penguin.”
Barnes steps down from YSU with 170 wins, good for second all-time in program history behind DiGregorio.
All in total, John Barnes did everything and more. He has put the university and the city in a place where it can succeed with women’s basketball for years on end. It seems like those rough mid-2000s seasons were 100 years ago because of the success of Barnes’ tenure.
Now, it’s up to John Nicolais in the Interim role to guide this program for the 2023-24 season and possibly beyond.
Thanks to Barnes’ teachings and coaching over the last decade, success has become a staple of YSU women’s basketball.