Lembo turns around Ball St. fortunes with approach
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MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - The last thing Ball State players figured they needed last season was more changes.
After playing for two head coaches and three defensive coordinators the previous three seasons, the Cardinals were wary of starting over yet again. Then they met coach Pete Lembo and his staff.
"The first couple of weeks and months, they came in and it was a lot different,'' quarterback Keith Wenning said. "Some of the older players and the approaches that they had, it took a while to buy in. But after a while, they had some stuff they wanted to accomplish and once they started to accomplish those things, everybody bought in.''
Lembo is no typical Football Bowl Subdivision coach.
The bespectacled, soft-spoken 42-year-old Georgetown grad earned a master's degree at the University of Albany-SUNY in New York. He coached in the Ivy League and until taking the Cardinals' job last September, Lembo had never been involved in a college game between two Football Bowl Subdivision team - as a player or coach. He holds open practices every day and invites the public to attend.
And now, Lembo, who rebuilt two dormant Championship Subdivision programs, is turning heads in the Mid-American Conference.
Ball State sank from MAC contender under Brady Hoke in 2007 and 2008 to records of 2-10 and 4-8 in its next two seasons. Lembo got the Cardinals within reach of last year's MAC title game and this year they open Aug. 30 at home against Eastern Michigan.
The Cardinals have been picked to finish fourth in the MAC West Division, but players believe Lembo's approach will keep them in the championship mix.
"I think when you talk about the guy, you talk about his personality, the character of his kids,'' senior linebacker Travis Freeman said. "It's not always about X's and O's, it's about creating better character, and I think it's starting to pay off with all of the things we do.''
When Lembo arrived in December 2010, he found a team in need of a solid foundation.
He brought the entire Elon coaching staff with him to Muncie in hopes of providing continuity. He made the top priority developing personal relationships between himself and the players, his assistants and the players themselves.
He made a commitment to generate more support among alumni and the community, and pleaded with players to help with area projects. One day during summer camp, Lembo took the players to downtown Muncie and sent six into each business with schedules and posters.
The results have been so positive that Lembo feels like he's known the players for years rather than 18 or 19 months.
"We were able to show them that we (the coaches) were all on the same page and from there we were able to build those relationships. It made a difference to those guys,'' Lembo said. "Sometimes you hear about a new staff and all they talk about is bringing in their own guys. We got here and the first thing we said was that, `We're all in this together.'''
Lembo, as the Ball State players found out, stayed true to his word - and his resume.
In five seasons at Lehigh, he went 44-14. Twice, he was named Patriot League coach of the year. Twice, he took the team to the FCS playoffs. And after going 11-1 in his first season as a college head coach, Lembo was named the FCS coach of the year.
Then it was off to Elon where Lembo took over a team that went 14-42 in the five seasons prior to his arrival. He went 35-22 in the next five, winning 24 games in a Southern Conference that includes national powerhouse Appalachian State. Lembo even got the Phoenix into the playoffs for the first time in 2009 amid a run in which the Elon offense averaged more than 400 yards per game for four consecutive seasons.
That's what prompted Ball State to consider hiring a coach with no FBS experience.
"I think Pete looks at himself very much as an educator, as an administrator, as a football coach, as a fundraiser, as a friend-raiser,'' said former Ball State athletic director Tom Collins, the man who hired Lembo. "He's more than a football coach. He's been great in the community, he's been great to the alumni, he's been great to the kids in the program. Pete's able to provide all of it.''
Steadiness, too. In the opener last season, 40,000 people watched the Cardinals fall behind quickly to Indiana at Lucas Oil Stadium. Instead of a runaway, Ball State stayed poised, Indiana ran out of steam and the Cardinals wound up with a 27-20 victory - one of the biggest in school history.
"I think it gave everybody a little more motivation as a program as an athlete, seeing all the outcomes, all the hard work,'' Freeman said. "It was like all this hard work that we've been putting in is starting to pay off.''
Time has not changed that assessment.
"Guys have been working their tails off all winter and summer and it's very exciting,'' Freeman said.
The big questions around campus are whether can Lembo keep winning his way and how long he'll be around if he does. Lembo said he knows his philosophy works and isn't looking to do anything beyond this season.
He feels he owes it to Ball State and these players to stick with the plan and build the program.
"Imagine you and I having a different supervisor every year and how that can determine how effective that will be at work every day and the philosophies and messages are maybe changing,'' Lembo said. "When you have that continuity you can really begin to build.''