When Billy Taylor was fired on March 14, James Whitford was gearing up for an NCAA Tournament run with Arizona at what he said was the best assistant coaching job in the country.

He was working alongside his best friend, Sean Miller, on a team built to compete for national championships for years to come.

But all that couldn’t keep Whitford’s eye off Ball State.

Even before DHR International Inc., a search firm hired by Ball State to help look for potential coaches, contacted him, Whitford said he was targeting the Cardinals’ vacant position. 

That mutual interest eventually culminated in athletic director Bill Scholl hiring Whitford as the 19th men’s basketball coach in Ball State history on Saturday. 

“I had such a good situation that it had to be an even better one for me to leave,” Whitford said. “Ball State is that one. It was too much to pass up.”

The Star Press reported Whitford passed up four opportunities in the past, including a chance to coach in the Mid-American Conference at Miami of Ohio last year, before taking the Ball State job. 

Whitford said great basketball tradition, great facilities and Indiana’s fertile recruiting ground for top high school talent drove him to accept the job. 

Whatever his reason for coming, senior forward Tyler Koch said he’s glad things can finally return back to normal. 

“It was more about filling the curiosity [than anything],” Koch said. “It was getting old with having people ask me who the next coach was going to be and who’s in the loop. It’s good to get this all over.”

Koch said players are meeting with their new coach Tuesday night, and Whitford said he’s also supposed to meet with recruits Zavier Turner and Franko House this week. 

Director of Basketball Operations Mickey Hosier has said House and Turner put their commitments on hold until they met with the new coach, but Whitford already considers them part of the Ball State family. 

“At Arizona you have unlimited resources and you don’t have that in the MAC,” Whitford said. “I’m familiar with those differences, but they’re not road blocks — just things we have to adjust to. I’m confident I’ve seen what it takes and know what it takes to build a winner.”

Whitford said with the state of Worthen Arena and the campus, Ball State sells itself pretty effectively. 

His ability to sell himself and the program is widely considered one of his strengths coming in. Whitford served as the recruiting coordinator at Arizona that landed a top-five recruiting class in the nation last season. 

But for him, getting good players is only part of the equation. Whitford repeatedly talked about the need for a solid foundation of players who want to push themselves and work hard to get better.

Quinton Crawford, a former guard for the Wildcats, echoed those words.

“He always talked about how hard honoring the process is, how all the players honor the process,” Crawford said. “That’s something he really stands by and that’s partly why he’s in the position he’s in right now. He’s honored the process. He’s waited.”

Whitford certainly waited and earned his opportunity, but he isn’t shy about where he wants the program to go. 

He said it won’t happen overnight, but mediocrity is not something Whitford expects from his team. 

“We want to be a team that’s competing for MAC Championships every single year we’re at Ball State,” Whitford said. “I have to find the right talent pool and the right structure, but if I can do that I’m confident we can reach our goals.”