For the last week or so, and especially the last few days, the coaching carousel has hit a fever pitch across the landscape of college football. As that has intensified, so too has the mentioning of Pete Lembo. It’s not a surprise really, as even I have wondered quite publicly what Lembo could do at a massive program with automatic qualifier status, shiny facilities, a non-apathetic fanbase, and a recruiting base and budget significantly larger than dear old Ball State. As of yet, and with vacancies being filled at the likes of Kentucky, Purdue, Boston College, etc. perhaps the “Pete Lembo” nameplate is safe for a while in the football complex. Or is it?
Though I championed Lembo for the Kentucky vacancy, that was an argument made largely because of my Wildcat fandom and not based in reality. However inaccurate it may be, the odds of a MAC coach going straight to the SEC, even a middling bottom-feeder is largely impossible. Even Nick Saban had to make a stop in East Lansing before being taken seriously.
Brady Hoke thought the same was the case with Michigan. It was largely thought that winning in the MAC wasn’t enough to justify a leap to the Big Ten. Darell Hazell would beg to differ, as would Jerry Kill. But given Michigan’s national stature, I can’t say I disagree with that. But given the recent developments of Dave Doeren to NC State and Hazell to Purdue, I’d say that winning in the MAC, however short that winning tenure, is perhaps enough to qualify a coach for all but the biggest and brightest lights. To those athletic directors who see past the “name hire” or the elusive search for the oft-mentioned “homerun” to spike tickets and interest, I say good on you.
Cards fans and fans have other schools have tweeted and emailed me regarding Lembo and his interest in their various vacancies and whether or not I thought he would leave. That’s a much longer answer than a tweet, and frankly, writing (or cutting and pasting) the same answer multiple times just seems like a tremendous low thing on my list of things to do. So I thought I would handle it here.
- Will Pete Lembo leave Ball State? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is I doubt seriously that Pete has an interest in coaching for the next thirty years in the MAC and I also doubt that his on-field results will dictate that no one would be interested. Given those two qualifiers, I also doubt that Ball State will be willing to put up the finances to retain him. On top of all that, with the MAC the odds of winning consistently on a national level are limited and the ability to compete for national championships or soon to be playoff berths is next to impossible. So will he leave? Probably.
- When will he leave? That’s the $64,000 question. Part of me thinks the coaching carousel for this year is about to wind itself down. Tennessee is still scrambling for a coach but that vacancy does have some significant impact to Lembo. Same with Colorado. While I don’t think the Volunteers will come calling (though if a few more turn them down, who knows) one of the finalists is Charlie Strong from Louisville. I could see Tom Jurich at least giving a cursory look to Lembo. Louisville and Muncie aren’t that far apart, negating the things about fit and locale, and given the amount of insitutional support at Louisville for football and their pending move to the ACC, that could be significantly attractive. The Colorado hire is much the same, as I don’t think Lembo heads to Boulder unless something unexpected happens in their search but should Butch Jones leave Cincinnati, the same sort of Louisville logic applies for the Bearcats opening. As of this year, at this moment, those are the two plausible scenarios and both of those I wouldn’t consider probable. If I were a betting man, I’d say next year is the more likely option. Much the same as 2008, the Cards will be a seasoned team with no presumable front runner in the MAC. Given what I think will be a special year for the Cards, a lack of returning skill players in 2014, a dearth of experienced coaches with winning MAC track records, etc. Lembo will be the top MAC option if things go according to plan.
- Where would he go to? Despite the fact that Hoke did it, I would be surprised if Lembo left BSU for another mid-major non-automatic qualifer school. That limits him to opportunities from the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Pac 12, and Big 12. Given his history and geographic recruiting experience, I’d think that limits him to the Big Ten, Big East, SEC, and ACC in the eyes of potential employers. Based on the SEC needing a name hire and their (correct) assumption that SEC football is the biggest and best brand in all the land, I’d say that further limits him to the Big East, ACC, and Big 10. Realistically (and especially if Doeren has success in Raleigh) an ACC job that comes open at the close of 2013 would worry me. I hope and pray that it isn’t Maryland for numerous personal reasons and professional reasons for Pete. Knowing my karmic luck, I would be shocked 0% if that happens.
Now could all this be for naught? Of course. Perhaps next year doesn’t go well for any number of reasons. That limits the options. Perhaps Pete and family are happy in Muncie. Perhaps the University ponies up the money to keep Pete there for a few more years. Perhaps Pete feels a sense of loyalty to the employer that gave him his first FBS job. Maybe Ball State makes a significant enough investment in the football program with things like indoor practice facilities, stadium jumbotrons, etc. that long term success in Muncie and MAC dominance is possible. Any of those things could complicate the answers above.
I think when it really gets down to it, the thing that makes Pete a successful head football coach is what will make his next decision about his future the right one. Ask anyone who has interacted with Lembo or played for him and they will eventually circle back to one particular word: cerebral. Pete is not the thick-necked stereotypical football coach. He isn’t the Les Miles crazy that some coaches wear like a badge of honor. He isn’t the soulless assasin that Nick Saban is. Pete is the thinking man’s coach. His second half adjustments are measured and effective. It’s hard to imagine his next move won’t be the same.
I look for Lembo’s next move to not be just “a move” but more specifically the “right move”. Patience in life and often times coaching is a hard to find virtue. So many times coaches adopt the strike when the iron is hot mentality and sell high after buying low regardless of the quality of their next investment. Lembo seems to be biding his time, preparing his team, and building for long-term success in Muncie, even if he won’t be around to see it. And for that reason and that reason alone, Cards fans just need to enjoy the ride.