James Whitford has been in this position before, prior to where he found himself Saturday morning. He had had earlier opportunities to become a head basketball coach, but this was different. He was being offered the chance to lead the Ball State men's basketball program and Whitford couldn't say no. And he would have been foolish to have done so.
“This isn't my first head coaching opportunity,” Whitford explained. “This isn't my second. I've had a number of schools come my way in the past few years. I've been aggressively patient in seeking the right one.”
When you've served as the “right-hand man” to Arizona coach Sean Miller for eight seasons (four at Xavier and four more with the Wildcats), you will have suitors. Miller is not only a highly-successful coach; he's a very bright man.
Miller had advised Whitford to seek a good job, not the first job. Ball State is a great job and Whitford understood that.
“There are a lot of good coaches that go to programs that have a history of not having much success,” Whitford said. “The coaches then fight an uphill battle.”
That won't be the case for Whitford. He'll win in Muncie. Miller wouldn't have relied heavily on someone that wasn't an incredibly knowledgeable coach.
Cynics can throw all the numbers from the past 11 years of Ball State mediocrity at me that they wish, I just know what I know, after following this program since the Jim Holstein-era as a card-carrying member of the Cardinal Knot-Hole Club.
I know a great basketball job when I see one and Ball State is a great opportunity. Whitford walks into a program that has many of the correct pieces already in place due to his predecessor, Billy Taylor.
“I know where the program was when Billy got there and I know where it is now,” Whitford said. “It's in a lot better shape. I know myself, like all of the people at Ball State, have great respect for Billy and appreciate the work that he's done.”
Taylor did everything well, with the exception of leading this program to its potential. Having gone 15-15 each of the past two seasons, given the resources of this program, simply wasn't acceptable.
“I've coached against some of the real good Ball State teams,” Whitford said. “When I was recruiting for Miami (Ohio) and Ball State got involved, that was a real scary sight for us.”
Like Whitford alluded, Ball State does have a good basketball tradition.
Many of the younger Cardinal fans don't know Billy Butts from their own, but Worthen Arena is as beautiful of a facility as the Mid-American Conference has. The state of Indiana produces an abundance of talent capable of filling a good portion of the Cardinal roster, and the Ball State campus is a fun place to be nine months out of the year (I grew up five minutes away, you'll have to trust me on that).
Throw in the fact that five of the Cardinals' top six scorers return next season, and it won't be long until Whitford has this program competing with the best in the MAC.
Cardinal Nation shouldn't be skeptical of Ball State athletic director Bill Scholl bringing in a guy from Arizona. Whitford has coached a pair of Indiana Mr. Basketball's (Ben Davis' Damon Frierson and Pike's Justin Cage) while he was an assistant at Miami and Xavier, respectively. He knows the difference between Lawrence North and Lawrence Central.
“I also know that Lawrence North (High School) coach Jack Keefer is a Ball State graduate,” Whitford laughed.
The Cardinal program could be on the brink of some big-time success. It just needed the right guy to get a few more talented players in the fold, get them to play a smart, disciplined style of basketball and Ball State's post-season drought will be a thing of the past.
Whitford fully comprehended that potential when the job opened. And that is precisely why he's here.