MUNCIE – James Whitford isn't ready to proclaim that he has the knowledge to turn the Ball State men's basketball program into a Midwest power overnight – but he did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
And the night before that. And the night before that.
The new Cardinal coach is living a lonely, if not busy, existence at the Muncie hotel, as he takes the multitude of steps that are needed to get the Ball State program back to where its alumni and fans expect it to be.
“The Ball State name still carries a lot of weight,” Whitford said. “People recognize the brand and the tradition of the school. The thing that has stood out to me, from the day of (my hiring) is that people want us to win.”
None more so than Whitford and his coaching staff, however.
After accepting the position on April 5, Whitford's life has been a whirlwind. He's hired a couple of assistant coaches (Brett Nelson and Jason Grunkemeyer), scheduled some games, shook a million hands, and traipsed across the country over the past few weekends trying to secure talent for next season and beyond. All while missing his family (wife Amber and sons Liam and Spencer won't join him in Muncie until July) “a lot.”
“We have five guys graduating (in 2014), so we're always on the hunt for the right fits,” Whitford said. “It's been a blend of (2013 and 2014 recruiting) because we did have a couple scholarships open when I got here. We were looking aggressively to see if we could find the right fits for this year and certainly that junior class.”
Per NCAA rules, Whitford could not speak on two players that have recently verbally committed to play for Ball State next season. However, guards Mark Alstork (6-3 guard, Dayton, OH) and Quinten Payne (6-4 guard, Saint Charles, IL) both verbally committed after listening to what Whitford's sales pitch last month.
“We have unbelievable facilities here and they are only getting better,” Whitford said of one of the most important traits that he has emphasized to all of the coaches and recruits that he's been interacting with.
The Cardinal administration recently unveiled a $20 million campaign to enhance a number of athletic facilities, which will include a basketball practice facility.
“To me, the practice facility will put us on par with really any school in the state,” Whitford said. “We have a town that is passionate about Ball State basketball. The people in this community have come out in the past and I'm confident, if we get this running, they'll come out again.”
Whitford believes not just winning basketball will attract fans to Worthen Arena, but exciting and successful basketball is critical, as well.
“I have to sell myself to recruits,” Whitford said. “We're going to play an exciting brand of basketball, a style that is fun for those guys to play in.”
Over the past 30 days, there's been little reason to envy Whitford's daily routine. He grabs a quick bite to eat at the hotel, heads to the office all day, and returns to the hotel after dinner “where I make phone calls until I fall asleep.”
He's pretty much finalized the roster for 2013-14, though “you never really are done recruiting,” he said. But that 2014 class will be one that could make or break how his tenure in Muncie is regarded. And he knows it.
The Cardinal roster has a glaring hole of zero juniors next season, and if Whitford had his way, he wouldn't have five players in the same class leaving at once.
“Five is about as big of a class, to me as a head coach, that I would want to bring in,” Whitford said. “That class is really going to define the beginning of our era. We have to make sure that 2014 class has the right type of kids and has the right talent level. That's a really important class.”