I first met Mike Balado at the A-State System Office in Little Rock, where Arkansas State was holding a presser for the new Red Wolves head basketball coach. I was afforded some time with him. We sat in a sun-drenched meeting room discussing his thoughts on the program and how he might turn it around. He mentioned, reluctantly, his love for pro wrestling. (I insisted that such an admission would endear him to Jonesboro.) He claimed that his Hispanic heritage would be useful to recruiting. (I bit my tongue, thinking “Yeah, sure, Mike.”) We talked a bit about Louisville and Rick Pitino.
What was evident was that Mike Balado was thrilled by the opportunity to be a head coach and that he was ecstatic that the opportunity was Arkansas State, a program that hadn’t won the Sun Belt in decades.
The first four seasons were, shall we say, a struggle. With only one non-losing season (16-16 in 2019-20), the Red Wolves were 50-88 under Balado. His teams were tainted by long scoreless streaks, in-bounding misadventures, and dunk-parties by opposing teams. Balado himself often let his frustrations show on the sideline, with “Volcano Balado” accruing technical fouls with regularity. By the conclusion of year four (a dumb COVID Season that concluded with a 4th place finish in the Sun Belt West), there were more than a few calls for the program to move on from Balado and start anew.
However, though Balado S4 ended with a 10-12 record, you could see something shaping up nicely on the court. The new recruit from Nicaragua, Norchad Omier, was as rough as diamond dug out of Pike County, but he was clearly an emerging star. Caleb Fields had added an inside burst to his game, making him and inside/outside threat. Three-pointe specialists like Malcolm Farrington and Avery Felts were delivering quality buckets. But most impressive, the team no longer played like freelancers on the court. There seemed to be a new understanding of roles, and a new capability to to excecute.
Mike Balado, and assistant throughout his entire college career, was settling into his own as a head coach. The proof points began to pile up.
- It was, indeed, Balado’s Hispanic heritage that not only helped to land Omier in Jonesboro, but kept him at Arkansas State after delivering a Freshman of the Year performance for the Sun Belt.
- With COVID-19 providing an extra year of eligibility, everybody elected to stay with the Red Wolves. The team believed in the program and wanted back in.
- It was Balado who maintained a relationship with local star Desi Sills even as he was playing key minutes in Fayeteville. It was Balado who brought the shooting star home.
- It was Balado who led his team to 100% vaccination, helping to prevent cancelations.
- It is Balado and his staff who are responsible for the second half adjustments that has lead to the Red Wolves outscoring opponents 222-167 in the 2nd half (a margin of 11.0 points per game).
At the moment of this writing, Mike Balado’s Red Wolves are 13-4 and sit alone atop the Sun Belt standings. Omier is clearly the best player in the conference. Sills, Fields and Marquis Eaton are arguably the most dangerous guards in the Sun Belt. Bench players like Antwon Jackson and Markise Davis are just getting stronger. What’s not to like here?
Yes, Balado has rough edges. He is not shy about dropping F-bombs – a sin some people in Jonesboro find as egregious as kicking puppies and skipping church. His early teams were a mess (he’ll tell you that some guys no longer rostered just didn’t buy into the program). Many people believe that five years was too slow to turn the program around – as if the program hasn’t underperformed for thirty years. He’s a Floridian who speaks with a Bronx accent (at least to my Southern ears), and his temper flareups are unseemly to a righteous fanbase who see Hugh Freeze has the Christian epitome of leadership.
It’s time to pay Balado his due. We liked Grant McCasland because he was soft-spoken and churchy but he didn’t want to be here. Balado has taken a program that has languished in painful mediocrity since 1999 and has transformed it into a conference contender. This is what he was hired for.
Now give the man his credit.
PHOTO CREDIT: Arkansas State Athletic Department, Meagan Johnson