Ball State Basketball Back on Track

by Bert Beiswanger

cardsTimes, they are a changing in Muncie. So it seems.

The nightmare that has been almost a decade of futility for Ball State basketball appears to be over. After a string of bad hires and poor leadership from the top of the university down through the athletics department, Ball State basketball fans have something to be proud of again, or at least something to be more interested in.

It appears there is a new-found commitment to athletics at Ball State. Last Saturday, the university announced it’s in the midst of a campaign aimed to raise $20 million to upgrade facilities across all sports, including a new practice facility for the basketball team and improvements to an already impressive Worthen Arena. For a department that seemed to be a back burner priority in recent years, it’s a welcome commitment. And that commitment includes round ball, the Hoosier pastime. Excuse the die-hard fans if they seem a little giddy. They clung to this program when apathy was the norm and little hope was in sight. They’ve been thrown a lifeline.

I’ll spare you the details of how Ball State got to this point. You can get up to speed with this piece on last year: The Sad State of Ball State Basketball.

Ball State is now led by athletics director Bill Scholl, a former deputy athletics director at Notre Dame. Scholl has only been on the job one year and already he’s instilled enthusiasm and leadership within the once struggling department with a string of solid hires. That string now includes new basketball head coach James Whitford.

Whitford is highly regarded by all who have worked with him. That includes Arizona head coach Sean Miller. He was Miller’s associate head coach at Arizona and previously assisted Miller at Xavier. Can Whitford lead Ball State basketball back to the top of the MAC perch it rested on frequently over the course of two decades in the 80s and 90s? Time will tell. But it’s clear he has the vision and passion to do so.

Whitford is familiar with Ball State from his time as an assistant coach at Miami University. The Red Hawks are longtime rivals of the Cardinals and he was there to experience the peak of that rivalry and MAC basketball. Ball State and Bonzi Wells versus Miami and Wally Szczerbiak. It didn’t get much better than that back in the 90s. He knows very well the type of atmosphere that once existed in Worthen Arena and believes it can again.

“When the Ball State job opened up, my mouth was watering,” Whitford said at the press conference announcing his hiring. “I was itching in my seat to get the job.”

In addition to Miller, Whitford has learned under an impressive group of coaches, including Herb Sendek and Charlie Coles, the all-time Mid-American Conference wins leader, at Miami. What’s interesting to note is that Whitford turned down the opportunity to be Miami’s head coach just last year. He also turned down numerous other head coaching jobs. But something about Ball State told him it was the right opportunity. It’s no coincidence that Coles, who lobbied for Whitford to get the job, has long regarded Ball State as one of the premier jobs in the MAC.

“I have been fortunate to be with some of the best coaches in the country and have learned a tremendous amount from each,” Whitford said. “I think the combination of the great coaches I have been around and the great teams I have been a part of has put me in position to be ready for this challenge here at Ball State.”

Whitford is known as an excellent recruiter. Who he convinced to join him as his associate head coach may ultimately be one of his most important recruiting efforts. He wasted little time in hiring former Florida Gators star Brett Nelson. Nelson played on the 2000 National Championship runner-up with NBA veterans Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem. He also played for one of the best head coaches in the country, Billy Donovan.

Nelson has six years of experience as an assistant coach, including a stop at Arkansas working for former head coach John Pelphrey in 2010-11. As Pelphrey, now an assistant at Florida, recently told the Muncie-Star-Press, Ball State may have found a diamond in the rough in Nelson.

“Quite honestly, I think he’s as bright a star as there is out there for an assistant coach,” said Pelphrey to the Star-Press. “He’s going to be a head coach some day. There aren’t five better assistant coaches in America than Brett Nelson.”

So, competent athletic direction in place: check. A head coach driven to lead and do whatever it takes to stir a winning drink: check. An associate coach willing to meticulously manage the details, already pounding the pavement for the next big commitment to Ball State basketball: check.

What do you call the process of getting all these things right? As Donovan reminds his crew in a recent UPS commercial, “Logistics.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

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