The road to today wasn't easy for anyone involved with the Ball State football program, though it appears to have been at times. Pete Lembo seemingly has turned the Cardinal program around relatively easily, but in truth, he and his coaching staff have overcome many obstacles in doing so, and today is a tremendous reward for that effort and perseverance.
Ball State (9-3) will battle Central Florida (9-4) today at Tropicana Field (7:30 p.m., ESPN) in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl.
Two years ago this month, oft-maligned Cardinal athletic director Tom Collins could have done one of two easy things when deciding the future of the Ball State football program.
Collins could have saved the university a lot of money and simply retained Stan Parrish for another season, leaving the responsibility of cleaning up the program to someone else once he resigned from the position of athletic director. Many would have questioned this decision.
Or he could've hired a coach with ties to Ball State, Muncie or a prominent Big Ten program. No one would've questioned this decision.
Or Collins could have conducted the interview process thoroughly and discreetly and made the decision to hire the best coach for the job. Well, he did that and everyone questioned the decision.
Collins hired Pete Lembo, who had ran a successful program at both Lehigh and Elon universities, and he put his trust in the smaller-college coach that his ideas would work in the Mid-American Conference.
“Before we got here, we had never coached at the FBS level,” Lembo said. “We got here and guess what, the field is still 100 yards long and I think that we've proven that we can coach at the FBS level.”
Lembo and Collins both proved that their ideas could succeed, and in the case of the coach, he did that quickly. That immediate success begot more success due to the belief and confidence in all involved, from the Ball State administration to the Cardinal fans.
“Very fortunately for us, going as far back as our first game (a 27-20 win over Indiana),” Lembo explained, “there has been enough tangible success to reinforce that we are doing all of the right things.”
Ball State has been eligible for a bowl in each of Lembo's two seasons and today's game culminates 24 months of hard work – much of which no one other than the coaches, administrators and players saw. If there are any remaining questions regarding Collins' intuition or Lembo's strategy in building this program for the long term, the coach is still ready to answer them.
“We had high expectations for what we wanted to do when we got here and for what we want to do in the future,” Lembo said. “Prior to this it was just (FCS) playoffs. Now we're in a bowl in two years, and now I guess we've got to prove again that we can do the next thing, which is get our team ready to play a game against a great opponent. So keep the challenges coming and I believe that our staff will continue to rise to the occasion.”