MUNCIE – There were questions about the Ball State football coaching staff when Pete Lembo was hired in December of 2010, the biggest of which may have been how would a bunch of coaches that had never recruited in the Midwest fare in selling themselves and the Cardinal program.
No one is skeptical about that anymore.
Since the staff was hired in December of 2010, the Cardinal coaches have hit the Midwest highways with as much frequency as the NCAA allows, and they have also racked up some frequent flier miles to the South, which is where Lembo and a lot of his staff came from when he was hired following a successful stint at Elon University in North Carolina.
Those coaches have done such a tremendous job of recruiting that the Cardinals are currently ranked as having the best class of 2013 recruits thus far in the Mid-American Conference by Rivals.com, a national recruiting Web site.
Asked if he chose the Cardinal coaches or the Ball State football program, freshman safety Chris Pauling was brutally honest.
“For the most part, I chose the coaches,” Pauling said. “I had never heard of Ball State when they first contacted me.”
Lembo has taken advantage of the deep relationships throughout the South that he and his assistants have built through the years and it has paid dividends multiple times since he came to Muncie.
“The fact that they were down-south coaches,” Cardinal freshman Chris Pauling said of his reasoning for choosing Ball State. “They had coached at Elon, which is an hour-and-a-half from my house (in High Point, N.C.), so I felt real comfortable coming up here to play for coach Lembo and (Cardinal defensive coordinator Jay Bateman).”
Lembo is not neglecting the Midwest. The current recruiting class of 2013 includes 14 of 16 verbal commitments from this state and surrounding others. To build relationships here like his staff enjoys in the South, nine members of the Ball State staff have divided Indiana up and each has his own recruiting area. However, Lembo was intelligent enough to also stay active in those areas where he and his coaches have developed relationships.
The Cardinal program currently has six players from Florida and four each from North Carolina and Georgia. In the highly-touted 2013 recruiting class, Ball State has a pair of players (Blake Dueitt and Daniel Garces) from Charlotte.
“We try to be very transparent about who we are and where we are at,” Lembo said. “We're not going to move campus down to Charlotte any time soon.”
Lembo said the fact that his coaches have been in the high schools throughout the southeast for years makes it easier to sell coming to Muncie to players.
“It's real important when we are recruiting players from a distance,” Lembo explained, “that they are learning about us and we are learning about them. A lot of the guys that have come here have some connection to the Midwest. And even those that don't are real comfortable being eight or nine hours away from home.”
Pauling said it was “real difficult” to leave home for a school so far away, and he made it even more challenging because he graduated a semester early in January so that he could enroll immediately and take part in spring drills.
“(My family) wasn't happy with that decision,” Pauling said. “They felt 'It's college, you are going to get there eventually, so why go early?' But this is really what I wanted to do. College football is what I always wanted to do. So I wanted to get here as fast as I could.”
The plan worked for Pauling, who is competing for the starting free safety spot with graduate student Jarrett Swaby, a transfer from Central Florida. Leaving North Carolina for Muncie also worked for sophomore running back Jahwan Edwards.
As a freshman, Edwards earned the Cardinals' Most Outstanding Freshman Award after rushing for a team-best 786 yards and 11 touchdowns. Unlike Pauling, there was no questioning the decision to go so far from home for college.
“Ball State started recruiting me as soon as (the coaches were hired),” Edwards said. “So I felt that I was needed and I was somebody that they wanted to add to the program. It wasn't my family's decision. At the end of the day, I have to take my own path in life. My mom is going to support me anywhere that I go.”