This will be a strange night for Arnie Ball.
As he is inducted into the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in Louisville, it will be odd because he's still coaching, still every bit the fiery competitor he has always been and this might mean he's no longer the underdog.
How can anyone be an underdog and under-appreciated if they are in the Hall of Fame?
Ball built his entire career by being the underdog and taking on the big schools, the West Coast and even his home state. His first players were mostly converted basketball players whom he had to build into volleyball players. Then he had to build commuter campus IPFW into a program that could challenge Ball State, Ohio State and Penn State to earn respectability.
Then he had to challenge the teams on the West Coast, first by going there and proving his teams could compete and then by inviting them to Fort Wayne where many wish they had never heard of after losing to Ball's teams and his sometimes rabid fan base.
He also had to pull basketball fans away from their TV sets to entice them to come to the Hilliard Gates Athletic Center. There they were part of a packed gym and they saw a real college atmosphere in Fort Wayne for the first time. How strange and exciting it was to see IPFW playing UCLA, USC, Stanford or Penn State and actually even winning a few times!
The volleyball teams gave the athletic department credibility long before anyone thought of trying Division I. How unique was it back then to see IPFW on the bottom scroll of ESPN?
And Ball always had the chip on his shoulder of the underdog. It drove him to compete, to build and to win. It's unlikely there's ever been any sports figure in Fort Wayne who talked at more elementary schools, to more church groups or to more kids. Anywhere he had a chance, Ball would sell his program, introducing the game he loves and creating more friends.
Even today, there is a group of hardcore fans who have supported his program for more than 30 years. They are the real ``Arnie's Army,'' and they have followed him everywhere. They love pulling for their underdogs, revel in every upset and rage at every missed call.
The really amazing thing about Ball isn't that he's been to seven NCAA Tournaments or that he's produced so many all-Americans, guided his son to an Olympic Gold Medal or built a perennially top 10 program in the Midwest. It's that he made us, Fort Wayne, Indiana, care about volleyball.
Fort Wayne draws more volleyball fans to events than anywhere in the country outside of Brigham Young and Hawaii, and for quite a few years was even drawing more than them. It's truly amazing how a niche sport allowed Fort Wayne to watch more than a dozen United States National Team matches and countless college Top 10 showdowns. Olympic teams trained here before heading overseas.
We've become the first community to televise a men's match live on a local station, the first to endow a men's program and the first to almost sell out an NCAA Tournament, and that was in Muncie of all places!
We did all these things because Arnie Ball shared his dream with us and convinced us to come along. This is the one place in the world where he isn't the underdog any longer.
But for goodness sakes, nobody tell him that. They'll likely get a lecture they might not survive. After all, Ball still has some matches he burns to win.