CHIRP! CHIRP! CARDINAL COACH LEMBO IS THE REAL DEAL

“THE GOLDEN VOICE” WITH CHRIS LOWRY

SPORTS JOURNAL COLUMNIST

I’ve seen this before. It was my senior year of college at Ball State in the fall of 2007 and I was calling ballgames for the Cardinal football team on the student radio station, 91.3 WCRD. BSU’s record the first three years of my collegiate tenure went like this: 2-9, 4-7, 5-7. Clearly some progress was being made under head coach Brady Hoke, but nothing too earth-shattering. And the atmosphere for home games was nearly non-existent. I think back to 2004 for the last home game of the season when I watched the Cards pick up a win over Mid-American Conference foe Central Florida and former Notre Dame coach George O’Leary (yes, the Knights used to be in the MAC. Clearly they were the ones to start the Mass Conference Migration we enjoy today). I saw that game with one of my buddies and together I think we made up approximately 10-percent of the crowd that day.

Fast forward to 2007, and as I watched this BSU team throughout the course of the year, I realized that these guys were pretty good. A narrow defeat at Michigan the year before helped pave the way for a strong 7-5 regular season, which concluded with an International Bowl loss in Toronto to Ray Rice and Rutgers. The Cards were solid, but not great that season. A one-point loss at Nebraska that year still haunts the minds of many Cardinal faithful.

But 2008 was special. BSU went a perfect 12-0 in the regular season and peaked at #12 in the Coaches and AP Polls. The Cards were an ESPN staple and 22,000 seat Scheumann Stadium was regularly filled. A couple fluke plays and a horrendous call ended the perfect season in the MAC Championship Game against Buffalo. Brady Hoke left for San Diego State prior to the following bowl game which resulted in a pounding to Tulsa under new coach Stan Parrish, who would finish a miserable 6-19 in Muncie in his two seasons.

Something tells me, however, that Ball State football is about to be back to the level of play the Cards enjoyed in 2007 and 2008 – if not this season, then in the very near future. Former Ball State Athletic Director Tom Collins hired Pete Lembo to take over the program in December of 2010 after Lembo spent five years as the head coach of Elon, which followed five seasons at Lehigh.

Immediately upon arriving in Muncie, Lembo instituted a more comprehensive weight-training program for the Cards. Almost across the board, BSU players increased their strength. Lembo took a Cardinal team that I felt had a drop-off in talent from previous years and went a more than respectable 6-6, including wins against Army and Indiana.  It was a very satisfying .500 campaign, and perhaps one of the reasons I felt that way was because I bought in. I have bought in lock, stock, and barrel into what Lembo is doing in Muncie.

I remember being in the post-game press conference at Lucas Oil Stadium that season after the Cards big victory over the Hoosiers and seeing how relaxed and at-ease the new coach was after beating the Hoosiers. It was then that I realized this was not a guy in over his head; Lembo truly wants to change the culture in the Muncie community.  The game-day culture didn’t truly change at Ball State until ’08, and then it quickly reverted back to the norm. Lembo is trying his best to engage fans through various efforts in the community and through social platforms. Lembo interacts through Twitter (@Pete_Lembo) and has an excellent fan letter he sends out prior to and following every ballgame. The letter is filled with insightful and honest thoughts about opponents and the state of the Cardinal team (go to www.ballstatesports.com to register.)

I officially met Lembo this past summer at the Kokomo Country Club for a Ball State alumni fundraiser. Sports Journal Publisher Dean Hockney and I both came away impressed at his passion for the game and friendliness in talking with the media. In fact, I sent Lembo an email the afternoon prior to the season opener wishing him “good luck” and received a reply back an hour later. How many head coaches are going to do that, especially on game-day? Several months ago I spoke with Eastern Comets football Coach Josh Edwards, who likewise agreed that Lembo is starting something special in Muncie and said it wouldn’t shock him to see Lembo with a BCS program in the future.  For that to happen, (and I hope it doesn’t) Lembo would have to continue his success on the gridiron.  That success appears to be starting quicker than anyone anticipated.

The Cards are 3-1 this season with wins against Eastern Michigan, Indiana and South Florida. The only loss came at Death Valley against a ranked Clemson squad. This past Saturday against South Florida, the Cards picked up their first-ever victory against a BCS program other than Indiana. The ballgame came down to coaching and heart versus talent. Coaching and heart won. The Bulls continuously converted busted plays into positive yardage. The talent discrepancy was apparent, as quarterback B.J. Daniels and his Bulls showed off athleticism that the Cards could not match. South Florida has more talent than Ball State, but still couldn’t leave Scheumann Stadium with a victory. The Cards continuously drove down the field against its BCS foe, much like a week prior against IU. And what about that Mid-American Conference offensive line? It has allowed a grand total of TWO sacks all season long. The weight-training program is clearly paying off.

Fans are starting to take note again as well. After a decent contingent of Cardinal faithful made the trek to Bloomington a week ago, more than 16,000 fans showed up this past Saturday to watch the South Florida game. Not great, but it’s a start. Aside from a contest at Army, Ball State will stick with MAC play through the rest of the regular season, and after three other MAC schools knocked off BCS teams this past weekend, that promises to still be quite a challenge. But Lembo and company have the train moving in the right direction.

2012 probably won’t be a program defining season, but I’m telling you to pay attention to what’s going on in Muncie these next few seasons. Trust me, I’ve seen this before.

(Chris Lowry is the radio voice of the Kokomo Wildkats and Howard County athletics on 1350 WIOU-AM. He contributes a monthly column to the Sports Journal.)

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