By Bryan Gaskins
Tribune sports editor
Ball State once ranked among the best mid-major men’s basketball programs in the nation. The Cardinals rattled off 14 straight winning seasons and made five NCAA Tournament appearances from 1989-2002.
But since that run, Ball State has fallen into a state of mediocrity, with just two winning seasons in the last 11.
New coach James Whitford is confident the Cardinals are positioned for a return to prominence. Whitford was in Kokomo on Monday night to speak to a Ball State alumni outing at the Kokomo Country Club.
Whitford spoke about what sparked his interest in the job.
“When you walk in Worthen Arena and you look at the banners on the wall, there are 12 banners hung from 1989-2002. There was a time when Ball State was on such an incredible run and I remember those times. I know it can be done there because it has been done,” Whitford said. “And then we have an athletic director [Bill Scholl] and a president [Jo Ann Gora] who are really committed to our program. They are raising money for a new practice facility. I think Bill’s vision is incredible and Dr. Gora has a passion for athletics.
“I felt like with what has already been done and the commitment and the leadership from the top, I felt we could really become the dominant team in the Mid-American Conference and that is our goal.”
Whitford, 41, knows the MAC well. He spent 11 years on Miami of Ohio’s coaching staff before moving on to work on Sean Miller’s coaching staff, first for four years at Xavier and then for four years at Arizona. He was Arizona’s associate head coach the last two years.
Ball State announced Whitford as its new coach on April 10. He said the transition is going well.
“I’m confident we have a really good staff and that’s such a big part of it. Brett Nelson, Jason Grunkemeyer and Billy Wright are all terrific coaches and they’ve really helped,” he said. “We’ve hit the ground running on two fronts. We’re working really hard on the recruting part of it, trying to get kids to campus, and that’s going well. Everybody that shows up to Muncie is impressed. And we have our players in summer school and we’re able to work them out. We have good kids and they’re all working hard. I feel really good about the direction we’re heading in.”
Recruiting, of course, is the lifeblood of a program. Whitford talked about the type of player he hopes to bring into his program.
“There is a balance. We obviously want to bring in the best talent we possibly can, and we want to bring in kids who are high in what we call competitive character,” he said.
Whitford acknowledged in-state recruiting is a high priority, which is surely music to Ball State fans’ ears.
“There are great players in Indiana — that is part of the reason the job is so appealing,” he said. “We want to compete against the best schools for the top talent [in Indiana and elsewhere] and make sure we’re filtering out those are the right fit for who we are, for the way I am going to coach. We’re making the state of Indiana a big priority and you’re going to see that in our first recruiting class, for sure.”
Whitford’s return to the MAC coincides with the recent passing of MAC legend Charlie Coles, who played at Miami and coached at Central Michigan and Miami. Whitford called Coles an example for all young coaches in the profession.
“I worked with Charlie for 11 years. Two years we were assistants together, then nine years I worked for him. He was a mentor to me and a second faher to me. The thing I’ll give great credit to Charlie for, there’s about 30 people who’d say the same thing,” Whitford said with a smile. “I said the day of his service: Impacting lives, in my opinion, is the real measure of a coach. Impacting young people in a positive way. And by that standard, there are very few coaches I know who have done that as well as Charlie. I’m proud to have been a part of his life and will try to continue the things he taught me moving forward.”