NEWS: Buffalo Hires Pete Lembo
Pete Lembo becomes the third former MAC head coach to take-on a new MAC head coaching adventure.
Pete Lembo is back in the Mid-American Conference.
News broke Sunday morning with Pete Thamel’s report that Lembo, eight seasons after he left his Ball State head coaching job after the 2015 season to be an associate head coach and special teams coordinator at Maryland, would be coming back to the MAC.
This time, he’s Buffalo’s head coach.
Was it for more money and less responsibility at a bigger program? Nope. Lembo’s move from Muncie to College Park also came with a $164k pay cut. Even then, Lembo ended up leaving Maryland after two years for a similar job at Rice, then Memphis for two years, then South Carolina for three.
Now, Lembo’s back in the MAC for his fourth head coaching job between the FCS and FBS levels. He has an all-time head coaching record of 112-65 with two FCS-level conference championships. He was the Eddie Robinson Award recipient and Patriot League Coach of the Year in 2001, the Southern Conference Coach of the Year in 2007, and a Broyles Award Nominee in 2019 and 2022 — all recognitions he received at different schools during his career.
This is the third time a former MAC coach has taken on a new MAC head coaching job. Bill Mallory — who won a MAC title at both schools — led Miami from 1969-1973, and NIU from 1980-83. Dick Crum led Miami from 1974-77 and Kent State from 1988-90.
LEMBO’S IMPACT AT BALL STATE
Lembo, 53, is a very familiar face for his five seasons at Ball State. Up to that point, Lembo was a two-time Patriot League-winning coach for Lehigh between 2001-2005. When Lehigh promoted him to full-time head coach, he was the youngest head coach in Division 1 football, and finished his five-year run as the school’s all-time winningest coach (44-14 overall, 26-7 Patriot). In those same five seasons, before being hired away by the Southern Conference school, Elon had a 14-42 record and asked Lembo to fix that. In his five seasons there, he brought the team up to an FCS Top 25 ranking for 34 straight weeks, and reached as high as the #3 ranking in 2008. He never won a conference title, but Lembo went 35-22 while providing some record-setting offenses before he tried his hand at Ball State.
Ball State, which wanted to keep as much of what it could from its 2008 MAC championship game-clinching season, was going to have to do so without the head coach that got them there. Brady Hoke left for San Diego State, and Stan Parrish, who hadn’t been a full-time head coach since he led Kansas State from 1986-88 (2-30-1 record), would be Hoke’s replacement. He went 6-18 in his two seasons as the Cardinals’ head guy.
So in came Lembo, 41 at the time, to improve the scene around Muncie. His Ball State teams over the years finished…
6-6 in 2011, but no bowl trip. The first non-losing season since 2008,
9-4 in 2012, second in the MAC West (6-2) and lost the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl to UCF to snap a six-game winning streak,
10-3 in 2013, finished second to the Jordan Lynch-led NIU Huskies again, and has some Heisman-hopeful moments in their weeknight MACtion game.
5-7 in 2014, went 4-4 in MAC play and replaced a lot of talent on the roster, plus new coordinators.
and 3-9 in 2015, a poor season that clearly didn’t have as much juice as behind like this program had not too long ago.
WHY’D LEMBO LEAVE BALL STATE?
Head coaches from the MAC, historically, don’t leave their jobs to be assistants for somebody else’s staff.
Lembo was the second MAC head coach to do that though. Former Central Michigan coach Dan Enos left his team to be Arkansas’ offensive coordinator after the 2014 season. Then, after being frustrated with the lack of resources available to him at Ball State, Lembo packed his bags and left for, even if it’s not a head coaching position, a first chance at being on a Power 5 staff.
In Lembo’s case, money wasn’t the issue as much as opportunity and experience. He took a six-figure-per-year pay cut to become Maryland’s special teams coordinator and assistant head coach to 38-year-old DJ Durkin, a first-time head coach.
Having gone to school nearby at Georgetown, Lembo had friends and family in the area. The move from Muncie, Indiana, to College Park, Maryland, cut the distance between him and his parents in Raleigh, North Carolina.
And Maryland also provided Lembo the chance to fill a hole on his resume that was becoming increasingly glaring. The Power Five football programs are becoming massive operations and athletic directors are increasingly leery about turning them over to coaches without that kind of experience.
In 23 years as a college football coach, including the last 15 as a head coach with a record of 112-65, Lembo had never coached at a Power Five school. He is now getting hands-on experience in that world.
“At Ball State, we had four full-time academic people for the entire athletic department, one of which that just worked with the football team,” Lembo said. “Here at Maryland we have six full-time academic support people that just work with the football program.” (-AP/Ralph Russo, 2016)
That’s not to say Lembo always wanted all the luxuries in the world, either.
Here’s Lembo’s 2016 eye-rolling stance on having big, fancy indoor practice facilities:
“Quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised when I got here to see all the space that is available,” Lembo told The Star Press back in 2010, referring to the 40-yard turf field inside the Jo Ann Gora Student Recreation and Wellness Center.
But that was Lembo speaking after coaching for five seasons at Lehigh in the Patriot League and five seasons at Elon in the Southern Conference, where things were more quaint, less extravagant, whatever. The point is that back then, Lembo was content with what Ball State had to offer.
He didn’t envy other MAC programs and their indoor practice facilities one bit.
“I talked to some coaches in the (MAC) recently,” he said in the same interview, “and I candidly asked them how many times they used their indoor facility this season.
“Three or four was the answer.”
A lot has changed since then. Now, Ball State is one of only two MAC schools — the University at Buffalo is the other — with no indoor practice facility. Five programs (Eastern Michigan 2010; Toledo, 2010; Ohio, 2014; UMass 2014; Miami, 2015) have built indoor facilities since 2010. Eastern Michigan spent $3.9 million on an inflatable dome that covers a turf field while Miami spent $14 million on its meatier facility that resembles an air hangar.
By the time Lembo left in late 2015 to take an assistant's job at Maryland, he was reportedly upset with the program lacking resources. He wanted bigger and better, presumably, than what the school could put in front of him. The Star Press reached out to Lembo for further comment, but he declined while saying he was nothing but happy during his time in Muncie. (-The Star Press/Dakota Crawford, 2016)