Mid-Major Identity Crisis

I take it tickets are still available.

I take it tickets are still available.

I did something Saturday that I probably shouldn’t have. I returned to my alma-mater, Ball State, to watch a basketball game.

That may not sound like much of a regret but it is when your basketball program is finding every way it can to hinder itself. Just like Michael Bay when he makes a Transformers movie.

I detailed how I became a Ball State fan when I guest wrote for Over the Pylon, a Ball State sports blog. No need to rehash how I my relationship with Ball State athletics began, the issue now is maintaining it.

Ball State’s problem is more than the 4-15 record of its mens basketball team. It’s more than the fact the football team lays an egg in seemingly every big game. It’s more than the poor finances of the Olympic sports like field hockey, swimming, volleyball and tennis. It’s the fact the athletic department has no identity.

This is a common problem for schools in the MAC, Sun-Belt, Conference USA and Mountain West. They can’t figure who they are.

My sports editor at the Ball State Daily News explained it perfectly to me when I covered the school’s mens volleyball team. Mid-majors like Ball State can’t focus on every sport. They simply don’t have the resources. It leaves schools in Ball State’s situation a tough to choice to make.

  1. Focus on football at the expense at every other sport you have. Count on the football team to increase boosters and hope the other sports can do more with less.
  2. Just view football as another sport and pool more resources to others. Don’t worry if the football team struggles because other programs should emerge to satisfy fans and boosters.

There are good examples for each here right in the Mid-American Conference. Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, and Central Michigan take option No. 1. Football is what drives them as all three have predominantly been among the conference elite in that sport. TCU, when it was in the Mountain West, had a football focus allowing it to get promoted to the Big 12. The same can be said for Marshall in the 90s and early 2000s when it was in the MAC.

Option No. 2 has worked MAC examples Kent State, Akron, and Miami University. Kent State has been a force in basketball and its baseball team has crashed the party at the College World Series. Akron has had great success in basketball and men’s soccer. Miami can even fund a hockey team that reached the Frozen Four.

This is where I come back to Ball State. In the 1990s the school had an identity. Rick Majerus had the basketball team running as a MAC powerhouse. The mens volleyball team was competing for national championships, and is still the only sport the school has with any hope of achieving a national ranking on a yearly basis.

Then the school had an athletic director change and the focus shifted to football. Having an awful football team was no longer an option. For a time it seemed to work as Coach Brady Hoke was a genius, leading the Cardinals to an undefeated regular season in 2008. Then Ball State struggled to find a replacement as bigger schools stole Hoke and he is now at Michigan.

While the football team has improved, the lack of local recruits will always hold the program back. Coach Pete Lembo has to go into other states far from Indiana to sell the school. The basketball and volleyball teams do not have that problem. Recruits can be found just a short drive away and the facilities in those sports are excellent for a mid-major. Ball State could have been as good as Butler in basketball or as good as UCLA in mens volleyball. It can still happen. This should be its identity. But in football the best it can hope for is to win the GoDaddy.com Bowl.

That is why it was so sad watching the basketball team play Northern Illinois at home Saturday. The roster is composed of seniors who were too old to transfer for just one year, and freshmen who would have needed to redshirt if they went anywhere else. Even against NIU, a school that focuses on football, Ball State couldn’t get it done.

The Cardinals broke out to 30-15 lead late in the first half only to let Huskies cut it to 30-22 at halftime. Ball State’s starters got into foul trouble and Northern hit a huge three to force overtime. The result was a 67-65 NIU win. Ball State’s talent scarcity showed as it went a horrendous 14-28 from the line. Hitting just one more free throw in regulation would have won the game.

Ball State had blown a game to a conference rival with a losing record at home. To make it worse, no one cared. The fans have bought into the notion that Ball State is a football school because of a few winning seasons, so why does it matter if the other sports struggle?

I wish I could share in their ignorance.

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