“He Definitely Changed the Culture” – Pedon Set for Subsequent Success After Year One Woes
Written by Mikey Fornelli on March 3, 2023
Image courtesy of Redbird Athletics
NORMAL, Ill – Just under a year ago, the Redbirds needed a coach.
From Porter Moser, Dan Muller, and many in between, it had been a rough go for Illinois State men’s basketball since the start of the twenty-first century. The last few seasons under Muller had been no different, with below-average seasons and bonus eligibility making way to constant roster turnover. In fact, of the last five starters in 2022, only one had stayed on board as Muller and half the roster got off.
That one player, senior Kendall Lewis, stayed on long enough to meet Coach Ryan Pedon, a former Ohio State assistant now tasked with navigating this ghost ship- and while the overall record was not where they wanted it, Pedon’s impact in just one season is seen daily around the locker room. In 2023- through a complete roster overhaul and new coaching staff, Lewis put together arguably the best season of his college career in his second year at Illinois State, his second school, during Pedon’s first season. Per Kendall himself, that is no coincidence.
“I could talk forever about coach, and this change we had.” Lewis said, “[Ryan] came in with a positive attitude and a positive mindset, and that’s why I’ve been rocking with him since the beginning. That’s all we needed in a leader. This was Coach’s first year, and we all learned together, we all learned as a team. That’s what made us connected.”
This connection is not news. Coach Pedon and his team spoke all season long on the bond they had created, and Pedon never failed to mention how much he admires his team’s character- even following the conference tournament loss that ended their season.
“One thing about our team that really hits home with me as a coach is that we are far from perfect, no one is,” Pedon said, “but I never question their heart or their spirit...I love the group I have in the locker room. I love their spirit.”
Pedon is not one to compliment himself, and a devil’s advocate may even take the words of one of his players with a grain of salt. However, praise for Pedon does not end in Normal- it stretches to Northern Iowa and Coach Ben Jacobson, one of the winningest coaches in Missouri Valley Conference history, who recognizes the change in culture at Illinois State. Jacobson, who had not met Pedon prior to this season, calls upon the example of the growth he witnessed from the Redbirds from December to January of the most recent regular season.
“Conference play is hard, especially hard for new players- whether you’re a freshman or transfer,” Jacobson, a five-time MVC Coach of the Year, said. “When you’re new to this league it can be hard, especially if you catch some of the older teams first. I saw that in our first game at Illinois State. Two and a half weeks later, just how much different they were in all aspects- offense, defense, and what matters most- edge and camaraderie. It’s not the ‘hey, we’re going to play good when we win and play bad when we lose.’ It’s a good indication of what Ryan is going to do at Illinois State. He’s going to be great.”
Pedon and the ‘Birds put up a valiant effort in their tournament loss to UNI, even coming back from twenty-one in the second half to within six at one point. Jacobson has been with the Panthers since 2006, and in that time has knocked ISU out of Arch Madness four times, including two championships. Being that Pedon is the fifth different ISU coach he has faced over that time, it would be easy for Jacobson to take his win and not comment on the first-year coach. However, the coach who has won more games than anyone else in the Valley took time to call Pedon a winner himself.
“You can feel that he is all about the things that are important to winning.” Jacobson said, “there are about four or five things there that really matter, and it appears to me that those are the things he’s focused on.”
With 2022-23 in the rear-view, Kendall Lewis, Ryan Pedon and the Illinois State men’s basketball team have a lot to be proud of in their first year together- despite any scores or the record. Records improve with loyalty, with experience, with years working as a team and limited roster turnover. If Lewis’s mentality following the UNI loss is any indication, the Redbirds are on the right track.
“I’m ready to rock with Pedon through whatever,” Lewis said. “I’d run through a wall for him. I wish we could have gave him a win, he definitely changed the culture at Illinois State.”
Just under a year ago, the Redbirds needed a coach.
What they found was a leader.