I got to interview Mike Balado a couple days after Arkansas State named him the new basketball head coach. An assistant out of Louisville, a plum picked from the Rick Pitino coaching tree, Balado was an impressive in-person presence. He looked good in a suit. He radiated mystic energy. He seemed stamped from the very same mold that minted A-State athletic director Terry Mohajir. And he had a secret.
“I don’t even want to tell you,” he said, shifting nervously in his leather chair. He seemed grateful for the glass coffee table between us, as though it provided a bit of a barrier that could shield him from the awful truth. I pressed. I needed to know the nature of this secret!
“I love professional wrestling,” said Balado, and we exchanged testosterone fueled laughs. Wrestling! Hell yes! He was going to fit right in at Jonesboro.
Four years later, I suspect Balado still likes wrestling, but I’m not sure how well he fits into Jonesboro these days.
Pulling Red Wolves basketball out of the coldness of mediocrity is a trial even Hercules would take a hard pass. Triangulated between UofA, the University of Missouri, and the University of Memphis, Jonesboro is a talent black hole with few appetizers to attract recruits. While the football program sees millions pumped into its facilities, the basketball program is just happy when a local bank sponsors its venue – one just as suited for a rodeo or a tractor pull as it is for college basketball. The team hasn’t sported a winning record since 2016-17 – which vaulted Grant McCassland all the way to North Texas.
Theres more – or rather, there’s less. Arkansas State hasn’t had an NBA draft pick since 2002, when 7-footer Jason Jennings went 43rd to the Trailblazers (he took a job in Europe instead). A-State’s biggest claim to fame is Hoop Dreams, a documentary which nobody has rented since Hastings went out of business. There’s just no juice in Jonesboro.
When Balado took over in 2017, he had more lifting to do than most mortal men. When he submitted a 11-21 season his rookie year, we were confident that what we were seeing was the ugly side of what’s known in coaching circles as “The Process.” Give it time.
Since collecting those 11 wins, Balado has turned in records of 13-9 and 16-16. This season, we’ve managed two wins against teams that don’t even factor into RPI and a telling loss to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Overall, the team is 2-4 and its play isn’t getting better. The field goal percentage is bad (44%). The free throw percentage is bad (72%). We rank 168th in DIV 1 for rebounds. We can’t nail threes. We’re allowing 74 points per contest. There’s just no game in Jonesboro. No Process!
Balado is a bit of a hot head – he doesn’t mind drawing a technical. It might be some of that pro wrestling flare erupting from his soul. However, I don’t recall a technical from Balado ever spurring the team to greatness. In fact, Balado Ts tend to drain the team of its energy. Listlessness has become a bit of a program trademark. Rarely do the Red Wolves come out of halftime hot. The Red Wolves aren’t particularly tall, or physical, or fast. We have a guy from Nicaragua on the roster. Is he good? I don’t know! So far, he’s our flashiest selling point.
I guess what I’m saying is, aside from the Red Wolf on the chest, it’s awfully difficult to root for this team. When you can’t even get a win against UAPB at home, then what’s the point? Does anybody care? Are we supposed to be okay with beating up on Crowley’s Ridge College? Yes, COVID19 has made everything stupid, but give us something, Mike Balado. Does the athletic department need to sell a water feature to improve facilities? Because football has one to spare.
Sun Belt conference play begins on January 1, and there’s little reason to believe the Red Wolves won’t be 2-6 when we visit Monroe.