Now that the Ronny Thompson era of Ball State men's basketball has come to a rather ignoble and inglorious end, it is going to be absolutely incumbent upon Ball State Athletic Director Tom Collins to make the right hire. At one time Ball State would have had numerous candidates lining up at Collins' door for the chance to become a head coach at the school located in the heart of basketball country. Now, many coaches are casting a wayward glance toward the direction of Muncie. Who could blame them?
One year ago, after his pursuit of then North Carolina-Wilmington head coach Brad Brownell was rebuffed with Brownell opting for the head post at Wright State no less, Collins shocked just about everybody by announcing the hiring of Ronny Thompson.
"I spoke to well over 100 athletic directors," Collins was quoted as saying at the time of Thompson's hiring, "and the one name that continued to come up in all my discussions was Ronny Thompson." Of course it did, if you were the one mentioning his name in all the conversations. One can only imagine AD's around the country busting out laughing after hanging up the phone with Collins. Thompson, frankly, was on nobody's radar.
Thompson, whose only real qualification seemed to be that he came from the loins of renowned Georgetown head coach John Thompson, was a second-tier assistant under Stan Heath at Arkansas and most considered the younger Thompson to be on very shaky ground as a Razorbacks assistant coach. In fact, those inside the Arkansas athletic program expected Thompson to get the axe but Collins saved Heath the trouble when he made the stunning announcement naming Thompson to succeed Tim Buckley. It was a move that smelled of desperation and the hope that a "name" coach was all that was needed to salve the open wounds of Ball State basketball.
Unfortunately, the wounds became gangrenous under Thompson, a coach with no ties to the local recruiting base and who seemed to go out of his way to alienate the very people who could have helped him get a foothold in the Muncie and surrounding communities.
Almost immediately Thompson alienated the folks at Ball State by dismissing long term, dedicated employees for no other reason than not being familiar or "comfortable" with them. Now, a new coach is allowed to bring his own people in, but this was not the way to get started.
Dismissing a loyal secretary and respected strength and conditioning coach should not have been high on his list of priorities. Nor should trying to shakedown local business leaders for perks such as HDTV's and lease cars which was said to have occurred shortly after Thompson's arrival with Thompson apparently believing just being a "Thompson" and head coach at Ball State entitled him to instant respect.
During Thompson's tenure at least five players had left the program and the program finished 9-22, the most losses ever in a single season at Ball State. The Cardinals bowed out in the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament to Eastern Michigan, 51-48.
To make matters worse, Thompson continued to completely ignore his own backyard when recruiting, preferring to bring in kids from far flung places like California with other coaches privately chuckling that Thompson's recruits, much like the coach, were not exactly high on the division one charts. During this most recent "evaluation period" Thompson was nowhere to be seen and on those rare times when he did grace the area with his recruiting presence, scoffed at the quality of players available, even at local prep power Muncie Central.
Then there was the issue of repeated violations of a secondary NCAA rule prohibiting coaches from being present during voluntary off-season gym and weightlifting workout sessions. The first such instance occurred within just a few short weeks of his being hired. Ball State self-reported the violations to the NCAA, placed a reprimand in the personnel files of the BSU coaches involved and chalked it up to an honest error by a new coach. This would be a potentially acceptable explanation except it happened again recently as Thompson and his coaches were seen by several people around the athletic department committing the same violation. Again the Cardinals self-reported but now are waiting to hear back from the NCAA after this second violation.
On the heels all of this came a strange incident wherein Thompson purportedly found notes with "racist language" directed at him and the coaches. These notes were allegedly slipped under the door of his office which is located in a secure area accessible only by the athletics staff. It gives one pause to wonder what were the true origins of these letters. Some have suggested it was an ill-conceived ploy by a man desperate to keep his job. If that was the case it did not work as a well-documented report by Ray Mernagh at HoopWise.com was posted on July 6 outlining that Thompson had either submitted his resignation or was on the verge of doing so, the damage being too great at this point to repair.
In an effort to get a straight answer, longtime Ball State beat writer for The Star Press, Doug Zaleski, was repeatedly promised but was never given the opportunity to interview Thompson all the while with Collins insisting that Thompson was simply on vacation and would be returning as head coach next season. That all came to a crashing conclusion however when Thompson formally issued a letter resigning from his $182,000 per year job. The letter, interestingly enough, was delivered to Ball State President Jo Ann Gora and not Collins.
Now. Collins, just fifteen months after naming Thompson, must quickly do damage control and bring in somebody with credibility to run the Ball State program but it will not be an easy task to clean up the mess left behind. This time Collins' job may hinge on this hiring.