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Ben Smith

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Ball State’s turnaround not surprising to coach


– Go back to the beginning of this, Pete Lembo asks now. Go back to a football program that had fallen from a great height and here comes this guy from GPS Tech (Elon? Where?), and who knew, really? Who knew?

Ball State, headed to St. Petersburg to play Central Florida in the Beef ’O’ Brady’s Bowl on Dec. 21. Ball State, three years removed from 2-10, landing in a bowl that doesn’t have an explicit tie-in to the Mid-American Conference – which means it had to win a beauty contest to land the bid and did.

Not even Lembo saw this happening so soon. And, listen, he hates admitting that, because it feels like a sellout of everyone and everything that’s made it happen so soon.

“That’s a touchy question for me to answer,” he acknowledged Monday. “I think most of us that looked at the challenge coming in and looked at the schedule and looked at some of the holes on the roster, and you’d be hard-pressed not to say that we’re not ahead of schedule.

“But at the same time I never want to sell our players short, and I certainly don’t want to sell our assistant coaches short either. We had high expectations for what we wanted to do when we got here, and for what we want to do here. So there’s two sides to that answer.”

Less equivocal is that luck with injuries has played a role in this. Preparation and attention to detail, too. And more than anything, a capacity for adaptability.

Lembo might marvel at what an easy sale it was, introducing an entirely new system and mindset to players who had seen both outrageous success and disheartening failure. But the very fact they had seen all of that gave Lembo and his staff peculiarly fertile ground to till.

Who’s more amenable to change, after all, than a football program that’s experienced both 12-2 and 2-10?

“Since Day 1, we’ve talked about no egos, being all in this thing together, being on the same page, trusting each other,” Lembo says. “I think we’ve put together a very cohesive plan for our guys, and our guys have bought into that plan. They’ve trusted us.”

And that trust has been rewarded. Go back to the beginning, Lembo asks, and here is Ball State beating Indiana right off the hop, and then going on to finish 6-6 despite a cascade of injuries. And that in turn led to 9-3 and six straight wins to finish against the strongest MAC in memory and a bowl game in Florida.

“Going back to our first game beating Indiana at Lucas Oil, there’s been enough tangible success to reinforce that we’re doing all the right things,” Lembo says. “Any guys that might have been questioning the methods or the decisions, there’s been enough tangible success to say ‘Hey, this is working, and we need to keep moving forward together.’ ”

And now they move forward to St. Petersburg, right across the bridge from Tampa and one of Lembo’s prime recruiting grounds. A dangerous Central Florida team awaits. Injured quarterback Keith Wenning may or may not be ready to play. And this is uncharted waters for Lembo and his staff, who, for all their success at FCS Elon, never had to prepare for a bowl game.

As if that matters an iota.

“Now I guess we’ve got to prove again we can do the next thing,” Lembo said Monday.

He could barely hide his smile.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.