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Remembering ’09 keeps Cardinals in focus

– The last time this happened, it rained cats and dogs and hamsters and points, and the kids from Muncie drowned. It was Tulsa 45, Ball State 13 in the waterlogged GMAC Bowl on Jan. 6, 2009. And the school purportedly took a $142,398 bath on the deal.

So maybe you hear Pete Lembo now and think he’s sprinkling too much sunshine on his cornflakes these days, what with Ball State headed south for another football after-party.

“This is what it’s all about,” Lembo said last week. “This is college football. This is what you want to be doing.”

Here’s the amazing thing about that, given the travails of 2009: He’s absolutely right.

If you’re Ball State and the national championship isn’t realistically on your radar screen, this is what it’s all about, this Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl against Central Florida on Dec. 21 in St. Petersburg, Fla. This is how you keep your program fed, by selling recruits on Florida in December. This is how you keep it moving forward.

Bowl games may burn a hole in the athletic department’s pocket, and, yeah, you may occasionally drown on the football field, too. But it’s how you keep score as a program.

“When we got to Ball State two years ago, one of our long-term goals was to get the program to a point where we could be playing in meaningful postseason games like this one,” Lembo said in St. Petersburg last week. “To be here as quickly as we are, in two years, is really special.”

And here’s the thing: If the last time they did this was a cautionary tale about the downside to bowl games, it wasn’t because of what happened. It was because of why it happened.

Or as center Dan Manick puts it: “We’re not going there to go on vacation.”

Amen to that, Lembo says.

“The first challenge is really to get a young team focused, knowing there are not many guys in the program that have ever been to a bowl game before,” he said. “It’s not a class trip. The main reason we’re going down there is to win the football game. That’s something we’ve got to make very clear.”

That would not be as easy as it might have been, had so much time not passed between that biblical night in Mobile, Ala., and now. But only five players – Manick is one of them – remain from the 2008 Cardinals who went 12-2, and they were all redshirt freshmen. So all they did was get soaked and watch Ball State get annihilated.

For everyone else, it’s been two lost years and two years of resuscitation since, and no real experience at living with their sudden success. At 9-3, they’ve learned how to win. Now they need to learn how to deal with the rewards and the responsibilities that come with winning.

“Two years ago when this process started, … we talked about building a program that could eventually compete for championships and bowl games,” Lembo said. “It’s neat to see we are two years into that process, and a lot of those things are happening.”


“But that sense of accomplishment quickly, I don’t want to say wears off, but quickly turns to focusing on the task at hand,” he added. “The best memory, the lasting memory, is going to be how we play the game and how we put ourselves in the position of winning the game.”

And by doing so, win so much more besides.

Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl

Ball State vs.
Central Florida
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21
Where: St. Petersburg, Fla.
Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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