It’s important to remember where Ball State basketball was in August of 2007 before wishing for it to be someplace else – or in the case of coach Billy Taylor – in someone else’s hands today.
After watching the attendance sag with each passing loss (there were 10 in the final 13 games) through the second half of the 2011-12 Mid-American Conference schedule at Worthen Arena, there may have been a shortage of fans, but not a lack of critics for Taylor and the Ball State program through the downturn. The disenchantment reached the point that outgoing athletic director Tom Collins, the man who brought Taylor in to stabilize a program gone completely awry in that aforementioned summer, felt the need to issue a statement saying that he would not be firing Taylor.
Taylor now works for athletic director Bill Scholl, but he insists that despite this past winter’s results, there will be no changing of his philosophy in building this program.
“Sometimes when there is change, people get nervous, they panic and they want to do things differently,” Taylor said. “We know that we have a good plan. We have a good course, a good strategy. The main thing for us is to stay the course.”
Taylor and his staff are out on the road recruiting this month and he is carrying the same message to the recruits of 2012 – that of accountability on and off of the court – that he did five summers ago when he took over what was regarded at the time as perhaps the most dysfunctional program in the country.
“I’m not going to change who I am as a coach,” Taylor said. “I’m going to continue to coach the same way. No short-cuts, we’re not going to try a quick fix now because there are some changes.”
Taylor inherited a 9-22 program that that was filled with claims of racial hostility, claims of NCAA rule violations, but verifiable apathy – particularly in the classroom – on the part of the existing players.
“Having come from Lehigh University, academics were first and foremost,” Taylor said. “Those were going to be the expectations and that is where there was some push back from some of the student-athletes in the program. I was making demands of them academically that they were not used to, were not expecting, and then quite honestly, didn’t want.”
Taylor called the obstacles that he has encountered in leading the Cardinals “unique” and has spent nearly as much time repairing relationships on campus, with high school and AAU coaches, and within the Muncie community, as he has conducting two-on-two with an open post drills.
“I knew the history of Ball State basketball and I was very excited about what we could accomplish,” Taylor said of that first summer. “It wasn’t until we got into the details and were able to figure out what is the state of the program? (There were) other obstacles within the community, kind of burned bridges and relationships that had been ruined, it was a very difficult time.”
Depending on how you want to view statistics, Taylor has either had increasing success in Muncie or he has had four non-winning seasons in five years. Both are true.
After an initial 6-24 season in 2007-08, Taylor’s squads improved to 14, 15, and 19 wins each of the next three years. This past season Ball State got off to a 12-5 mark, which included a win over Butler in December, before the wheels fell off and the squad finished 15-15.
“This past year was a year like none other,” Taylor said. “We really had it rolling. We thought that we had an experienced team that would take the next step. But one thing that you can’t prepare for is tragedy.”
Cardinal sophomore Tyler Koch’s brother, Matthew, who was close with several players, passed away in early February of a heroin overdose and Taylor said his team never recovered emotionally.
“The passing of Matthew was very sudden and very tragic,” Taylor said. “It had an impact on our team. We didn’t talk about it much at the time. We didn’t want to make it an excuse. It had a huge trickle-down effect on our team.”
Due to graduations and departures, Ball State has just seven returnees this season. However, Taylor feels secure in his future in Muncie because his new boss and he share a common value system. Scholl spent over two decades at Notre Dame, where Taylor played and later coached.
“Bill coming from Notre Dame, a lot of the values that I was taught as a student-athlete at Notre Dame, I’ve carried those (values) with me and Bill has those engrained in him,” Taylor said. “Bill has an understanding of the big picture and not necessarily getting caught up in wins and losses. Even though we all want to win, I want to win, and Bill wants to win, there is a big picture approach to the basketball program. We want to make sure that we are doing a great job in the community, we are graduating our student-athletes, and we are winning games the right way.”