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Prepared to win games

Behind Lembo’s smile, Ball State coach a fierce competitor

“We shall fight on the beaches … we shall fight on the landing grounds …

Winston Churchill

Straightaway he misdirects you, this Pete Lembo. You walk into his office at Ball State expecting to see a football coach – all thundery glower and sandpaper growl – and a smiling man who looks like your freshman algebra teacher greets you.

You look for footballs and team photos and all the acquired gee-gaws of 20 years stalking a sideline, and instead you get … Winston Churchill.

Lithographs. Photos. Quotations. The man’s a regular fanboy.

“One of my heroes,” Lembo confirms.

And here is more misdirection, because at first blush Lembo could not be less like Churchill. One was intolerably pugnacious, a particularly useful quality in the England of 1940. The other is approachable, familiar, the kind of guy who can compare a veteran beat writer to great sandwich bread (“Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside”), and get a laugh even from the beat writer.

Make no mistake, though: Pete Lembo, Ball State’s second-year head coach, will fight you on the beaches and on the landing grounds, too. He’ll fight you until they chase him off the field.

Behind all that affability, first of all, is a football coach who knows where he wants to go and how he wants to get there, in minute detail.

At Lehigh a dozen years ago, he became a head coach at the age of 30, when his mentor Ken Higgins unexpectedly stepped down. He went 44-14 across the next five seasons, after which he moved on to Elon in North Carolina, where he took a program that had won 14 games in the five seasons before he arrived and won 35 across the next five.

“What I learned was, if you really believe in what you’re doing, you stay the course,” Lembo says. “Those first five or six years were a real struggle, and then, bang, all of a sudden I was a Division I head coach before I turned 31. So it’s amazing how quickly your fortunes can turn around if you stay the course and believe in what you’re doing.”

And now, the believing goes on. Tonight, the Cardinals play Central Florida in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl, after a season in which they went 9-3 and won five games by a touchdown or less. That makes nine times in Lembo’s two seasons they’ve won games by a TD or less.

Speaking of belief, and something more, besides.

“I think it gets down to the culture every day and the way we practice and the expectations,” he told last week. “We try to create a situation in the building, on the practice field, in the weight room, so that our guys are prepared to finish.”

Says Ball State athletic director Bill Scholl: “I think Pete is a perfect example of how you come in and you change the program and you change the culture around the program and develop the kids.”

As with everything surrounding Lembo, that’s hardly been accidental.

“We had high expectations for what we wanted to do when we got here and for what we want to do in the future,” he said this month. “We’re trying to build a program that is going to be successful for the long haul.”

Not that he doesn’t have short haul in hand, too.

“What do you do the next two weeks in terms of the number of days the team works?” someone asked a couple of weeks ago when Ball State’s bowl destination was announced.

Lembo’s amiability slipped a bit, and you got a peek at why his Cardinals are 15-9 since he arrived, and why they haven’t lost since Oct. 6, and why they’ve won all those close games.

“It’s all on paper,” he replied crisply. “I could tell you exactly what we’re going to do.”

Somewhere, Winston just smiled.

Ball State

vs. Central Florida
What: Beef ‘O’ Brady’s
St. Petersburg Bowl
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Where: Tropicana Field,
St. Petersburg, Fla. (40,473/FieldTurf)

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