Why exactly do I believe that Ball State will prevail over Indiana in football for the third consecutive time Saturday? Because of Duke basketball.
Isn't that an explicit enough answer for any skeptics?
For those who have already lost me in this column, let me explain.
I have long believed that many of the nation's best coaches practice their profession in the obscurity of small gyms, empty stadiums and the quiet of a few hundred fans, friends and family members. They certainly are not the most prominent in the profession, but that doesn't affect their ability to instruct, lead and get the most out of their athletes.
Being at a high-profile institution absolutely helps you climb the professional ladder, but it doesn't necessarily make you better at teaching the nuances of the zone read option – or how to defend it.
My opinion was reinforced in the spring of 2007 when I sat courtside directly across from the Duke basketball squad as it competed in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament in Buffalo, N.Y. I observed very closely the Blue Devil bench as much – if not more – than I did the actual game (a Duke loss to an Eric Maynor-led VCU team, and Maynor was absolutely the best player at this tournament site, with Davidson's Stephen Curry being the second best), and what I saw stunned me. The Duke assistant coaches never coached during the game.
Not during the timeouts.
Not during the game.
Not to the players on the bench.
They talked amongst themselves outside the huddles during timeouts, while legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski directed every facet of his team.
That leads me to Saturday night in Bloomington. This game is going to come down to very late in the fourth quarter to determine a winner, and what proves to be the difference very well may be the coaching involved. In that regard, the Cardinals have an unquestioned advantage in Pete Lembo, who built his knowledge base in front of those aforementioned empty stands, over his Hoosier counterpart (Kevin Wilson), who has spent the vast majority of his career at the Division I level.
Now, before the Hoosier Nation threatens to alter the future of my dog (again), I'm not saying Wilson is a zero and Lembo a 10 on the coaching acumen scale often utilized by members of the media. But there certainly is enough of a difference in their experience and, most notably, accomplishments as a head coach that it can, and will, have an impact Saturday.
Lembo has followed a path that can better prepare a guy to be a head coach in my opinion. It's not the only path to coaching success, but it can be a better one in many ways.
He's spent time plying his trade at nowhere (in a football sense) schools such as Albany, Dartmouth, Hampden-Sydney, Lehigh and Elon before landing in Muncie.
Why are these stops significant? Because when you are a coach at the low levels of intercollegiate athletics, you learn from handling every aspect of the program top to bottom.
Lembo has had to break down his own film, run the drills, recruit with minimal resources, order the equipment, fix the equipment, supervise the managers, handle the film exchange, pick up the team meals, drive the team vans and do the laundry. You learn from these tasks.
At stops like Miami (Ohio), Northwestern, Oklahoma and now Indiana, Wilson has enjoyed the luxury of being able to rely on more staff handling the minute details of those college football programs than you can imagine.
Just as with Duke basketball, really, how difficult is it to recruit at Oklahoma? If you can't sell playing for the Sooners, you must be bad.
And how difficult was it to get Adrian Peterson to dominate games running the football? Or Sam Bradford running the offense?
I'm more impressed with Lembo's ability to unearth Jahwan Edwards, who didn't have another FBS scholarship offer, than Wilson's touting his work with Peterson.
And returning to the bad, let's address Wilson's head coaching experience.
As a head coach, Wilson – though in fairness it is still early in his career – has been awful. That isn't being mean, that's just being honest.
He replaced Bill Lynch and took the Hoosiers from five wins prior to his arrival to one win – over South Carolina … State.
Wilson was brought to Bloomington with the reputation of being an offensive wizard and he promptly led the Indiana offense to 69 fewer points than Lynch's team had scored in 2010.
If you want to understand what good coaching is, Lembo took over the Cardinals and in his first season led the team to six wins (up from four the previous year), which made Ball State eligible for a bowl game. But just focusing on the increased victories isn't what caught my eye about Lembo and his staff a year ago that demonstrated what really quality coaching can do.
In 2010, the Cardinals committed 68 penalties, fumbled 24 times and threw 16 interceptions. The following year under the new coaching staff, Ball State had 14 fewer penalties, 14 fewer fumbles and five fewer interceptions.
That, my friend, is coaching.
Lembo has been a head coach for 12 seasons. That is a dozen years of organizing practices, managing games, supervising recruiting (while selling the concept of playing outside of the limelight) and running the entire operation. He won 11 games in his first season as a head coach. It is a good thing Wilson has seven years on his contract, because it may take him that long to get to 11 victories.
Indiana utilized a national search firm, spent millions of dollars to lure Wilson from Oklahoma and gave him an inordinate amount of time on his contract.
Ball State did none of the above to bring Lembo to Muncie, yet its smaller investment will reap rewards come Saturday night, yet again.
Cardinals keys to success
1. The big 'ol nasties - The Cardinals have the most experienced offensive line in the country - literally. And if you thought that the Indiana State O line created running room, well, you haven't seen anything yet. Which brings us to...
2. Runnin' on - Ball State has three running backs (Jahwan Edwards, Horactio Banks, and Barrington Scott) that could be starters or regulars if they were in Bloomington. The Cardinals will control the clock and the pace of the game with their rushing attack. Which brings us to...
3. "Wenning!" - The Cardinals have quarterback Keith Wenning and Indiana doesn't. The Ball State junior will make the crowd at Memorial Stadium walk out to their cars muttering "How come we didn't recruit him?"
4. No D - "Ball State" does not contain the letter D and that is very fitting. The Cardinals defensive unit got beaten physically and emotionally at Clemson, as many will. They have to have 11 guys show up and compete or Indiana could rack up some points on them.
5. Kick 'em where it counts - Close games often come down to special teams and Ball State will dominate in the kicking game. And that would be the case even if they were playing a lot of the other Big Ten teams.