Four Downs: The Lembo Leap
Pete Lembo is a rarity among rarities at the MAC's head coaching level.
First Down: Needing more (Not necessarily needing more)
Pete Lembo once made a lateral move to be an FCS-level head coach in the Patriot League to be an FCS-level coach in the Southern League.
Five years later, Lembo, made “the big jump” to FBS-level football at Ball State. The school apologized for the 40-yard patch of grass as the only indoor real estate to run practices on. This young man fixed his glasses and wondered why he wasn’t seeing a problem with having all that turf to still do work on.
When former Ball State football coach Pete Lembo first arrived in Muncie — perhaps still a bit unfamiliar with the state of Mid-American Conference athletics — the guy was thrilled. Complaints and concerns about not having an indoor practice facility or the program’s inability to raise funds for a new coaching complex didn’t faze him.
“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. (-The Star Press/Dakota Crawford, 2016)
That, though, was Lembo before he saw where the biggest jump was. Being offered more than what he got at his two previous stops was enough for him to be happy with his Ball State job, but that’s where being young has its drawbacks. He didn’t know what he didn’t know, and boy did he find out.
On-field, the Lembo experience for Ball State was about as good as anyone could’ve asked for. Especially at first; Lembo went 6-6, 9-4, and 10-3 over his first three seasons, but fell to 8-16 over his final two years. For as good of a job football-wise Lembo and his staff was able to do, Ball State needed more than just a qualified room of football guys. The support necessary for Ball State wasn’t there, Lembo noticed, and that was enough for him to take a $167k pay cut to go from being Ball State’s head coach to Maryland’s special teams coordinator.
It’s been eight years since Lembo left the MAC. I wasn’t really sure if he would ever get another crack at running somebody else’s show.
But now, after Buffalo faces a situation where its head coach became one of the very rare MAC head coaches to leave their jobs for assistant positions, it replaced Maurice Linguist with the man who did the exact same thing in 2015.
Lembo left Ball State and a league he was proven to be competitive in out of frustration. He was 33-29 at Ball State (23-17 MAC) and only had three losing seasons in his 15 years as head coach. This guy knows what he’s doing. If Lembo was going to show what he was capable of from his chair, the university needed to learn how to play FBS football.
Ball State’s indoor practice facility finally came to life in 2021, only three years after the school opened an indoor golf facility.
Likewise, Buffalo didn’t have a football building when Lembo stormed out of Muncie. Ball State and Buffalo were the only ones in the MAC without an indoor practice facility after four MAC schools (five if we include former MAC member UMass) erected indoor facilities since 2010.
Buffalo’s was built by 2019, but let’s not get too sidetracked by one facility, because there’s a lot more that goes into recruiting players than being able to pitch an indoor practice building. Per Sportico’s financial database, Buffalo is the MAC’s biggest spender with a total operating expense of over $39 million in 2021-22 for all sports, and third in the MAC in football expenses ($10.8 million) while Ball State spends $11 million less for all sports and $2.5 million less in football.
Buffalo’s no Alabama, but as far as MAC football is concerned, Buffalo’s spending efforts are still competitive with the top of its weight class.
Second Down: How much of a slam-dunk hire is this?
It’s hard to look at this move and imagine how this could backfire on the field.
Lembo’s all-time coaching record of 112-65, is 53 years young, and has spent the last eight years fine-tuning his work in the Big Ten (Maryland), C-USA (Rice), American (Memphis), and Southeastern conferences (South Carolina) as a special teams coordinator. When he first came to the MAC, the former Georgetown center and Staten Island native proved that he knew how to get young quarterbacks on the field to produce at a high level. He turned two FCS programs into ranked winners and only had one losing season to that point.
When Lembo first came to the MAC, he didn’t exactly know what he had signed up for. Now he’s anything but ignorant of his new head coaching job.
Before Lembo left Ball State, Buffalo was looking to build up its program. Lance Leipold, who had six Division 3 national titles and a 109-6 career record at Wisconsin-Whitewater, was an easy hire to make. With all that success, how could he fail? This is a guy who knows how to stack bricks and not let the house fall apart.
Two MAC championship appearances later, Leipold left for the Kansas job in the spring of 2021, which led to the hiring of Dallas native Maurice Linguist. Linguist had none of the head coaching chops Leipold had, but he could recruit out-of-area talents to the new and improved Buffalo.
Leipold built and improved the infrastructure around Buffalo, and Linguist was able to provide recruiting highways across state lines. Now Lembo, the guy who could always do more with less, gets to finish what they (and he) started working toward.
Third Down: Some players Lembo coached
PR, Calvin Austin III — A punt returner and wide receiver for Memphis who was also an All-American track runner for the school. Austin had some success as a special teams player in Memphis, and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a receiver in 2022.
TE, Adam Bergen — An All-American at Lehigh, spent seven seasons in the NFL and USFL as an undrafted free agent in 2005.
RB, Jahwan “Quake” Edwards — Ball State’s all-time leading rusher (4,558 yards, 51 TD)
P, Jack Fox — Former punter for Rice who was named the C-USA Special Teams Player of the Year in his one season being coached by Lembo. Jack Fox is currently punting for the Detroit Lions.
KR, Antonio Gibson — A co-special teams player of the Year for the American conference in 2019, was eight in the nation with 28.0 return yards per attempt. He’s currently in the NFL after being a third-round draft pick by Washington in 2020.
WR, Terrell Hudgins — Nicknamed Shakespeare “because all he does is make plays” as an Elon receiver. He’s an all-time great receiver at the FCS level and even passes Jerry Rice for career receptions (395) and yards (5,250).
KeVonn Mabon — Had his best season as a senior in 2016 (after Lembo left) but was a starting, rising receiver who ended up with a cup of coffee in the NFL.
WR, Aaron Mellette — An Elon receiver who worked alongside Hudgins. Mellette was a two-time All-American and was a seventh-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens.
DE, Jonathan Newsome — An Ohio State-to-Ball State transfer who was a two-year starter for the Cardinals, both times an All-MAC selection, and fifth-round draft choice by the Indianapolis Colts in 2014.
K, Riley Patterson — A former kicker for Memphis that drilled 92% of his field goals, and was a first-team all-conference pick. Patterson is in the NFL today too, and spent time with the Lions and Cleveland Browns this season.
QB, Scott Riddle — Four-year starting QB at Elon who graduated as the school’s all-time passing leader — statistically one of the top FCS-level QBs with over 13,000 career passing yards. He also played baseball at Elon for two years.
WR, Willie Snead — Snead was a premier receiver for Ball State, and is one of the few MAC players to forego their senior seasons for the draft instead. Snead went undrafted in 2014, but he still signed a $1.5 million deal as an undrafted rookie with Cleveland and is still in the league today.
QB, Keith Wenning — A two-time Second Team All-MAC QB who was drafted in the sixth round by Baltimore in the 2014 draft. Wenning was already a starting QB before Lembo was hired by Ball State, but graduated as the school’s all-time leading passer.
Fourth Down: Special Teams FEI ratings? Who even looks at those?
The details are paramount to leading MAC programs like Ball State and Buffalo to victory. A born-again head coach after an 8-year sabbatical as a special teams guy just spent so much time only figuring out the details and has done a desirable job at every stop along the way.
By BCFToys.com’s information, the opponent-adjusted figure FEI says that South Carolina had a top-5 special teams group in each of the last two seasons.
Could Buffalo have a top-5 special teams unit like it saw the Gamecocks have?
Like Memphis in 2019?
Knowing offense, for Lembo, was certainly a given when he came to the MAC. But his ability to prove that he knows what he’s doing in the most overlooked aspects of the game ought to be a wake-up call for the rest of the league. And some free advice for anybody who didn’t catch MACtion during some of its best years — you don’t want to sleep on what he’s capable of doing in his revival stop.