After spending the past eight seasons helping Sean Miller build winners at Xavier and Arizona, the 41-year-old career assistant accepted his first head coaching gig Saturday, taking over a program that has been playing below-average basketball for more than a decade. The Cardinals announced his hiring while Whitford was still in Atlanta for the Final Four. He is scheduled to be introduced to the media Wednesday in Muncie.
"I left an unbelievable situation," he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press a few hours after the announcement. "I believe I had the very best assistant coaching job in the country and what I wanted was to compete for league championships at whatever school I went to."
He's been at Arizona for four seasons, the last two as Miller's associate head coach.
But he's never embarked on a rebuilding project quite like this.
He takes over a program that has been in tatters since it opened 2001-02 with back-to-back upsets over Kansas and UCLA in the Maui Invitational. Over the next 11 seasons, the Cardinals have gone just 145-184, 83-101 in conference play. The Cardinals haven't been to a postseason tourney of any kind during that time.
Of the 10 Division I schools in Indiana, only Evansville has a longer NCAA tourney drought. The Purple Aces last made it in 1999, while the Cardinals haven't been back since winning their last MAC tourney title in 2000. IPFW, which began the transition to Division I in 2001-02, has never made the tourney.
The eight other Indiana schools, including Evansville, each have appeared in at least two postseason tourneys since Ball State made its last postseason appearance in the 2002 NIT.
Whitford becomes the fourth coach since 2006 at a school that sandwiched 9-22 and 6-24 seasons around Ronny Thompson's accusations following the 2006-07 season that he was working in a "racially-hostile environment."
Thompson eventually resigned as the Cardinals head coach in July 2007 after only one season. An external review later found evidence of "isolated incidents" of racially hostile or insensitive behaviors on the part of a few athletic department employees but not enough to create "an unlawful racially hostile environment."
None of it dissuaded Whitford, who thought Ball State would be an ideal landing spot even before Billy Taylor was fired last month after six mostly mediocre seasons in Muncie. Taylor went 84-99, including 15-15 each of his final two seasons.
It's a far cry from the team that won a record seven MAC tourney titles from 1981-2000 and reached the NCAA tourney's round of 32 in 1989 and round of 16 in 1990 before losing to eventual national champion UNLV 69-67.
"Ball State is appealing because of the facilities they have, I know (athletic director) Bill Scholl and President (Jo Ann) Gora have tremendous reputations, I know people who know Bill and they said he's good to work with," Whitford said. "I was coaching when Bonzi (Wells) was there and players of the past and I remember when the program was strong and the talent pool in Indiana was important."
Whitford, like most college coaches, also understands Ball State comes with a distinct home-state advantage — a deep reservoir of talent.
Of the 360 NBA players drafted over the past six seasons, 22, or 6.1 percent played either high school or college basketball in Indiana, a list that includes 13 first-round picks with at least one first-round choice in all six years.
Before following Miller from Xavier, after four seasons, to Arizona, he spent 11 seasons at Miami (Ohio), another MAC member. He also was a student manager at Wisconsin when former Ball State coach Steve Yoder and Stu Jackson were coaching the Badgers.
Whitford said he has already spoken to the Cardinals two signees, Zavier Turner and Franko House, and he's already got a list of potential names in mind to fill out his staff though he will be patient in making hires.
And after learning so much from Miller, Whitford has a plan to get the Cardinals on track.
"I've learned how to run a system, how to help young players develop and how to treat people," he said of Miller's influence. "It's a combination of working with Sean and two different experiences with him, four at Xavier where the culture was up and running and the situation at Arizona where we showed up in April, we didn't know anyone on the West Coast, we had to build a staff from scratch, we had to do a lot of things that was really similar to what we have to do now."