Culture Shock: James Whitford overhauls Ball State men's basketball
In the beginning, there was Franko House.
It was James Whitford's first year as the head coach of Ball State men's basketball and House’s first year on campus. That season the Cardinals posted a 5-25 record, but Whitford wasn't focused on the standings.
“When we first got here we didn’t get a lot of wins,” House said. “They [the coaches] went straight to developing players.”
Whitford knew it would take time to implement his plan for Ball State. More importantly, it would take time to change the program's culture, an idea he took from his time working as an assistant coach for Sean Miller, Arizona's head coach.
“We have an offensive and defensive system, but to me that is less important than what I call our culture,” Whitford said. “We cannot be good at our offensive and defensive systems, but if we are really good in our culture, then we will be successful.”
There are three tenants to Whitford's goal: competitive excellence, being all in and honoring the process.
“Competitive excellence is having relentless effort and laser focus every time we practice," Whitford said. "Being all in means everyone must buy in to the fact that the team is more important than the individual. And honoring the process is understanding that you are trying to be an elite athlete."
House in particular has seen drastic improvements since buying in that first year.
As a freshman, he hit 44.6 percent of his shots from the field, pulled down 155 rebounds and scored 179 points. His numbers climbed as a sophomore (50.4 percent, 165 rebounds and 309 points), and, as a junior last year, he led the team by shooting 54.1 percent from the field (among players with at least 100 field goal attempts) and 427 points. He also added 202 rebounds, another career high.
And last season, Ball State went 21-14 (10-8 MAC), winning 20 games and making a postseason tournament for the first time since 2001.
“[Whitford] gets the best out of every player,” House said. “If you look at me, I was overweight and couldn’t shoot my freshman year, but he knew for me to have an impact I needed to become more explosive and play longer spurts.”
But Whitford was developing players long before he became Ball State's head coach. From 1994 to 2005, he was an assistant coach at Miami University, first as an administrative assistant and then as an assistant coach. During his stint there, he helped develop a young player named Jason Grunkemeyer.
Grunkemeyer is now Ball State's associate head coach, and like Whitford, he emphasizes player development.
“It is everything really, because we really take pride in doing the best job of developing our guys,” Grunkemeyer said. “Development is something we have control over. You don’t always have control over the talent level of players, but you do have control of giving them the most opportunities to be able to develop, and hopefully we get rewards as guys stay in our program.”
Whitford’s coaching ideology has worked, and the evidence is in House. Two games into his senior season, House is averaging 22 points per game with 10 rebounds per game, and that performance — not wins — was the goal all along.
“The players aren’t here to help us win games, we [the coaches] are here to help them develop,” Whitford said. “If we develop them properly, we will win a lot of games.”