Arkansas State parts ways with basketball head coach Mike Balado.

Coastal Carolina vs. Arkansas State February 28, 2023 Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball Championship at the Pensacola Bay Center, Pensacola Florida. (Jimmie Mitchell)

Full transparency: I’m the guy who wrote “Give Mike Balado His Credit,” posted after a mid-season win streak powered by a surging Norchad Omier. At that moment, the Red Wolves were 13-4 and sitting atop the Sun Belt. In the preseason, Balado had landed a counterpart to Omier, hometown hero Desi Sills, joining Marquis Eaton and Caleb Fields as one of the most compelling guard tandems in the conference. It felt like the promise Balado Era had finally arrived.

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.

“It’s Time to Give Mike Balado His Credit” – Jan 23, 2022

The Red Wolves would lose four of its last six regular season games – season ending collapses had become a trademark for the program. A second round loss in the Sun Belt tournament ended the season. However, Omier was named the SBC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, and then he indicated that he would be returning to Jonesboro for another season. The season ended in the usual disappointment, but the future looked terrific.

Then Omier changed his mind and bailed for Miami. Desi Sills followed his lead and joined Kansas State [both would enjoy fine seasons at their respective teams, and are currently competing in the NCAA tournament, of which the Red Wolves have not sniffed since 1999]. With Marquis Eaton and Keyon Wesley graduated, the starting five was now down to Caleb Fields.

Balado scrambled, picking up new and exotic guys like power forward Omar El-Sheikh and 7’2″ Florida State transfer Alaaeddine Boutayeb. He and his staff filled the roster with a number of promising freshmen like Mak Manciel, Terrence Ford Jr. and Izaiyah Nelson. Despite the raw talent, there was too much youth, too much inexperience for Balado and his staff to salvage the season. The Red Wolves would finish the year 13-20, Balado’s 5th losing season in five tries.

Balado’s volcanic nature rubbed many the wrong way

One could determine that Balado started his career at Arkansas State at a disadvantage, replacing the popular one-and-done Grant McCasland whose demeanor was nearly the polar opposite of Balado’s brash and volcanic nature. Fans appreciated McCasland’s polite, church-going approach. Balado presented himself as a brawler, racking up technicals and occasionally trading barbs with fans and foes online. Opposing coaches and players often took a dim view of Balado’s on-court outbursts. None of that sat well with an impatient fanbase.

Me, I like Mike Balado. I met him soon after his hire. I learned that while basketball was his first passion, pro wrestling was his second. I told him that alone would endear him to A-State fans. During that interview, he insisted that his Spanish-speaking heritage would help him recruit. I laughed inwardly, but he wound up landing the first Nicaraguan to ever play NCAA basketball. He brought back local hero Desi Sills to Jonesboro, if only for one season. He made himself available to media, and was always polite to me.

But in the end, it’s about the win column. Balado was 82-100 in six seasons as A-State head basketball coach. This season, he endured an especially embarrassing loss to UCA. The team ultimately improved their play to close out the season, but ultimately nothing short of a visit to the NCAA Tournament was going to save him.

Per A-State Athletics Press Release:

“First, I would like to say thank you to the community of Jonesboro and Arkansas State University for the opportunity to be your head coach,” said Balado.  “I have nothing but great things to say about this city and the people in it, and they’ve made this a very special place for me and my family.

“I’m very proud of the players we’ve recruited here and that we’ve been able to graduate 100 percent of our seniors who exhausted their eligibility.  To all the players who have played for me, I want to thank them for their hard work and dedication to the program, as well as me and my family.

“I also want to say a special thank you to (former A-State Athletics Directors) Terry Mohajir and Tom Bowen and to (current Athletics Director) Jeff Purinton for the opportunity to work under their tutelage.  I wish nothing but the best for A-State in the future.”

Arkansas State will immediately begin a national search for its 17th all-time head men’s basketball coach.

PHOTO CREDT: Sun Belt and Mine