Comparing Lembo to MAC’s Recent Past
By Paul Myerberg // May 10, 2012
A brief history of the MAC. As it pertains to quick turnarounds, to be more specific. Pete Lembo went 6-6 in his first season at Ball State, matching the Cardinals’ combined win total over the previous two years — a period otherwise known as the Stan Parrish era. If this sort of development continues, it stands to reason that Ball State will at least make a strong challenge for the MAC West title in 2012. But rarely does this sort of progression occur in the MAC; instead, it often takes at least two full seasons before a once-moribund program can surpass the rest of the pack.
Catching up with pack, however, is a different story. You can make the case that Ball State has already caught up with most of the MAC, those teams outside the league’s top tier — as of last season, the group of Northern Illinois, Toledo and Ohio.
After all, the Cardinals beat Ohio last fall. They also had the Huskies, the eventual conference champs, on the ropes in November before losing by a field goal. So Ball State is almost there, just not quite there.
Take a look back at recent MAC history. Let’s say 1999, since that’s when the league added Buffalo to give it 12 teams — a number that continues to fluctuate, with Temple out, Massachusetts in, Bowling Green in the East, in the West, and so on.
At one point or another over the last 13 years, a good percentage of the MAC has suffered through a Ball State-like downturn, winning six or fewer games over two years, if not worse. How several of these teams were able to turn things around is simple: they hired the right coach. But how long did it take, on average, to make a winner? And did the program make a steady progress, or did it take one step back for every two forward?
Let’s look at five examples: Turner Gill at Buffalo, Frank Solich at Ohio, Al Golden at Temple, Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and Brady Hoke at Ball State. While these examples won’t reveal the Cardinals’ future under Lembo, it is interesting to see the path each coach took up the MAC standings.
Begin with Gill, who led the Bulls from 2006-9. Buffalo went 10-69 from 1999, when the program joined the MAC, through 2005, Jim Hofher’s final season. Here’s Gill’s four-year tenure, including scoring margin merely as a simple barometer for how competitive each team was both in and out of conference play:
2006 2-10 (2-6); scoring margin of minus-221
2007 5-7 (5-3); minus-40
2008 8-6 (5-3); plus-29; MAC East, MAC champs
2009 5-7 (4-4); plus-4
Solich took over in 2005 from Brian Knorr, who went 9-35 from 2001-4. While Ohio was five years removed from a seven-win season under Jim Grobe, all of Grobe’s players had since graduated, leaving Solich with an empty cupboard. His tenure, through last season:
2005 4-7 (3-5); minus-144
2006 9-5 (7-1); plus-23; MAC East champs
2007 6-6 (4-4); plus-7
2008 4-8 (3-5); minus-38
2009 9-5 (7-1); plus-49; MAC East champs
2010 8-5 (6-2); plus-48
2011 10-4 (6-2); plus-117; MAC East champs
It’s fair to include Golden among MAC coaches, even if the Owls didn’t join the league until 2007, a year after his arrival. In 2006, Temple played as an Independent. But he was still building by that point, having taken over a program that had won only three games combined from 2003-5. Here’s Golden:
2006 1-11 (0-0); minus-365
2007 4-8 (4-4); minus-118
2008 5-7 (4-4); plus-4
2009 9-4 (7-1); plus-94
2010 8-4 (5-3); plus-71
Brian Kelly set the bar for quick MAC turnarounds. He took over a Central Michigan program that had won four or games or less in each of the previous five seasons, a period that bridges the Chippewas’ final season under Dick Flynn and Mike DeBord’s entire tenure, and won a MAC title before leaving for Cincinnati. Here’s Kelly:
2004 4-7 (3-5); minus-118
2005 6-5 (5-3); even
2006 10-4 (7-1; plus-104; MAC West, MAC champs
Hoke provided the Muncie-area blueprint for Lembo to follow, though each inherited slightly different situations. Ball State was far from terrible over the three seasons prior to Hoke’s arrival 2003 — going 5-6, 6-6 and 6-6 under Billy Lynch from 2000-2. As noted, the Cardinals went 6-18 from 2009-10 under Stan Parrish. But Lembo took on a team only three years removed from a 12-2 finish, which does muddy the comparison. Here’s Hoke:
2003 4-8 (3-5); minus-125
2004 2-9 (2-6); minus-180
2005 4-7 (4-4); minus-183
2006 5-7 (5-3); plus-17
2007 7-5 (6-2); plus-41
2008 12-2 (8-0); plus-202; MAC West champs
While these examples paint a picture of how coaches have recently fared turning losers into winners, there’s no coach whose first season resembled the year Lembo turned in last fall — leading Ball State from 2-10 to 6-6. No coach in recent MAC memory has performed such a remarkable first-year turnaround.
Except one, though I wonder if the comparison works in this case. During his first season at Northern Illinois in 2008, Jerry Kill took the Huskies from two wins in Joe Novak’s final season to six wins and a bowl berth. Kill would win seven games a year later, 11 games a year after that, and parlayed his outstanding stretch into the head job at Minnesota.
The primary difference between Lembo and Kill, in this case, is that N.I.U. had won at least six games in each season from 2000-6. In other words, that dreadful 2007 season was an exception to the rule, not the rule itself.
Could you lump the two together? Maybe, but in my mind, it’s hard to equate Ball State’s 19 wins over Hoke’s final two seasons to Northern Illinois’ sustained level of great play from 2000-6. One thing for sure: Ball State’s hoping that Lembo’s tenure continues to imitate Kill’s turn at Northern Illinois, even if that means he’ll be headed up the coaching ladder after three seasons.
Tags: Al Golden, Brady Hoke, Brian Kelly, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Frank Solich, Jerry Kill, MAC, Northern Illinois, Ohio, Pete Lembo, Temple
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