It isn’t unusual for college coaches to deliver in their regular meetings with the media a good dose of adulation for their upcoming opponent, regardless of whether it is actually deserved or not. That's called “protection,” just in case the coach and his team manage to lose a game, that in reality, it probably shouldn’t have.
In the case of Ball State football coach Pete Lembo, however, his weekly message to those that follow the Cardinals almost always contains multiple meanings.
Lembo certainly wants all to know that on the field each game is challenging in its own way, including this week’s opponent, which is a two-win Akron squad (Saturday, noon, ESPN3). But the third-year coach also usually finds a way to let the Cardinal Nation comprehend just how difficult each game actually is due to the inherent advantages Ball State opponents often possess off of the field.
“The first thing that I think is important to share, and for everybody to appreciate about Akron, is that this is an institution that wants to be good in football,” Lembo said recently.
That opening salvo was delivered with the subtlety that only a native New Yorker could muster.
What Lembo is referring to is a myriad of projects that Akron undertook in recent years to improve its football program, as well as other athletic programs, and give the Zips every possible advantage – within reason – that its student-athletes could enjoy.
“Their history is not Ohio State’s history in football,” Lembo continued. “But that doesn’t mean that their future has to be that way.”
Let me cut through the coach-speak for you in case you still need such; Akron opened a $61.6 million dollar football stadium in 2009 and Lembo’s team performs in a stadium that has metal bleachers. And obviously he’s not willing to sit back and accept that moving forward.
If Cardinal fans enjoy beating Indiana, competing at the top of the Mid-American Conference, and going to bowl games, then they also need to understand how much financial commitment that takes on their part (in some cases $61.6 million).
“Akron is willing to do what it takes to become a very, very good football program,” Lembo continued, “and a good athletic department.”
Even at the non-BCS conference level of Division I football, the effort to increase a program’s “wow factor” in the eyes of teenage recruits is expensive and critical, and as Lembo’s message indicates, fans can’t bring a financial knife to this gun fight.
“In terms of that stadium,” Lembo said, “Akron is going to be among the best in our conference when it comes to budgets, resources, coaches salaries and things of that nature.”
To the credit of Ball State’s leadership, those in charge get what Lembo is saying, and they probably don’t need a very public and weekly reminder from their coach. This spring, the university unveiled a plan to raise $20 million to address, to a degree, its lagging athletic facilities, of which the football facilities will be enhanced.
“Akron’s president has transformed their campus and athletic facilities, and a commitment to athletics has been a big, big part of that,” Lembo explained. “You can see that there is a great value on that, beginning with (InfoCision Stadium).
“So somebody there has bought into the notion that football can be a great vehicle to help the university in the long run and transform the culture of their campus.”
Message delivered. Again.