In response to Tom Davis' column “Ball State community doesn't deserve this team,” I would like to address a number of points that I feel should also be considered when discussing this subject.
In his column, Davis was actually fairly correct: There is an issue with attendance of Ball State football games. As a current student, I know firsthand that Muncie does not shut down like NCAA football meccas, such as Happy Valley, do on game day. I am not sure it ever will. As a university, Ball State has never been heavily invested in athletics like Ohio State, LSU, and Florida. Basically, football is not an integral part of the education this current university administration has been “redefining.”
At the same time, I believe that Davis has unfairly cast both the football team itself and its fans, based solely on one game. He claims that the Cardinals are a new, leaner, meaner machine on both sides of the ball. Given that they ran for 329 yards and passed for another 267, that is a fair assessment.
However, he makes the claim that “the porous Cardinal Defense of 2011 is a thing of the past,” as a reason why more people should watch the Cards play. This is something that I have a hard time getting behind. The Eastern Michigan Eagles (who were a pedestrian 6-6 in 2011, and were ranked as the worst team in Division-I ball for most of their 10-loss 2010 season) still managed to score nearly 30 points, tried hard to dig themselves out of a 33-13 hole in the fourth quarter, and chugged out nearly 200 years on the ground. Long story short, a defense as stingy as what the Cardinals are claimed to be simply doesn't give up 200 yards rushing to middling teams.
From there, he claims that head coach Pete Lembo has “added another chapter to his story-book era.”
While I like Lembo and what he has done for the team, we are most definitely getting ahead of ourselves with talk like this. Lembo is 7-6 in his tenure thus far, which is hardly even a bowl-eligible record for a single season, let alone “story-book.” While his over .500 record makes him significantly better than his immediate predecessors, such as Stan Parrish (6-18 in two seasons), Brady Hoke (30-39 in seven at-bats), and Bill Lynch (37-53 in eight), we have still not come even close to world-beater status just one win into the season.
At the same time, I feel that the result of the individual game itself has been rather sensationalized. The 37-26 win was described as a “resounding…beatdown,” “basically whipped [the Eagles],” and proof that the Cards will be “among the elite teams in the conference.” While it is fair for Davis, who appears to be as much of a Cardinals fan as I am [read: near fanatical], to hype his team of choice, I don't think it is fair to make such claims based off of one game, especially when you consider the recent history of the Eastern Michigan/ Ball State matchup. In 2010, when both the Cardinals (4-8) and the Eagles (2-10) were stumbling their ways through forgettable seasons, the Eagles earned their first victory of the season against the Cardinals: a 41-38 overtime shootout. The Eagles had lost their previous game 52-6 and their worst loss a 72 point drubbing by the Ohio State Buckeyes. The next year, Ball State (6-6) nabbed the win in a 33-31 shootout with the Eagles (also 6-6). I give these stats as an example to show that even if the teams are grossly disparate in their records or very similar, their games have not been overly telling of these two teams' seasons as a whole, so what makes this match up the barometer of a season suddenly?
Concerning the comments made about the general apathy of the Ball State fan base, I think that some important facts have also been left out of this part of the argument. While Davis claimed on his Twitter feed that he had never written about “very few students attending the game,” he references a lack of fan presence -- and their apathy -- a minimum of four times in his column, and tweeted his displeasure over fan counts and participation twice during the season opener. This brings up the point made in the column about how other universities, such as Central Michigan, Akron, and Kent State all played at the same time BSU did, and all but one of those teams (Akron, by 109 fans) fielded more spectators (over 15,000) than Ball State (12,725). This is a fair argument, in a vacuum. However, a cursory investigation of the student bodies of these universities shows that CMU is home to over 28,000 students; Kent State, 27,800. When you marry these figures to the fact that Ball State enrolls just 22,000 kids (many of whom are commuters, and had already headed home for the long Labor Day weekend) it seems only appropriate that these other MAC schools would field more spectators: they are inherently larger and less commuter-based, thus they have more students on hand to attend games.
The just-under 13,000 fans who showed up to the game were considered “sad,” “late,” and apparently borderline alcoholic, as we left in the late third quarter “as if The Chug was offering free beer.” While I am willing to concede that the fact that we couldn't get another 7,000 bodies into the stands for the opener is disappointing, I am unwilling to make the claim that the general Cardinal apathy is a product solely of the fans and locals.
I think that another quick look at Ball State athletics history shows some causes for this. To find a coach that had a career winning record in cardinal and white, you have to go all the way back to Paul Schudel, who was 68-48-4 from 1985-1994, which translates to a coach who began his career before the vast majority of the current student body was born, and ended just a year or two after the current freshman class's births. After nearly 20 years of mediocrity, with just a season or two of real excitement and on the field success, it is hard to really claim that it is the fault of the fans for growing weary of watching average-to-poor football every year, in and out.
This case against the fans in the column as “not caring” also has its flaws. We are told to simply “forget about [the near perfect season of] 2008,” as though one of the best seasons in Cardinal football history is simply supposed to be erased, when talking about student spirit. That's akin to saying that we must look at Peyton Manning's career, but not take his Super Bowl victory and record-breaking touchdown seasons into consideration when deciding just how good he is. It just flat out doesn't make sense. The reason teams get average attendance is that they give an average performance. This is not throwing the BSU football team under the bus; those guys bust their tails every week, and I love to watch them. The simple fact of the matter is that their records and performance have just not been of “elite” quality. We also do not have much star power, though sophomore running back Jahwan Edwards, who averaged a first down per carry last Thursday, could easily begin to fix that.
While it is true that many Ball State students are simply bandwagoners, something that one can tell by simply looking at home attendance records as season's progress, it is not as though Ball State students are unwilling to travel. Easily more Cardinals fans than Hoosiers supporters showed up to play at the 2011 season opener against IU at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Cards put on a decent show and pulled out a win against a big-name school. We also have traveled well to all five of the bowl games that we have been invited to… and subsequently gone 0-5 in those contests. This inability to perform on stages where even the most casual Cardinal sports fans would be interested has created a general consensus that our football team simply is not going to get it done.
Speaking of high profile games, Cardinal fans are stuck in a very unique spot: they root for a team that doesn't have a really discernible rival. IU has Purdue. Ohio State has Michigan. LSU has Auburn. USC has the entire NCAA. Ball State has… Northern Illinois? Ohio? Temple? There isn't really a team that Cardinal sports fans can rally together against and despise in order to perpetuate attendance and school spirit, even when times are slim.
As such, Cardinal fans are basically stuck in this football Limbo that we have not been able to get out of. We know how our teams do. We love our players and are actually proud of the school we attend. But, we don't have any SportsCenter Top-10 highlight makers. We don't have the records. We don't have the rivalry. We don't have the history. Yet.
However, I think that Mr. Davis may be on to something. We might finally be able to drag ourselves out of this rut and get ourselves quickly down the path to relevance with this new-style team under Lembo. I long for nothing more than the day that I see “BSU” in the AP Top-25 and not have to double take and tell myself, “Oh yeah, Boise State…” and sadly read on. The Cardinals will be there one day, I'm sure of it.
But I still firmly believe that just one game into the season is far too early to judge the team and far too early to judge the fans.
As a final aside, I would like to thank both Mr. Davis and The News-Sentinel, for their openness and willingness to discuss the News-Sentinel's articles with even the most ardent detractors. The student body has not seemed this united in support of the Ball State football team since at least 2008, and for that, I think that Ball State owes Tom Davis an honest and sincere amount of thanks.