This post is quite a bit longer than most but it’s not everyday that your close friend wins his 600th game. Read on about a true role model - for kids, players, coaches, husbands, fathers - human beings!
The following is the (non-recommended) career path Mark Edwards chose: a 6’8” standout prep player at Peoria Richwoods, he continued his career at Washington University, a Division III school – one of the most prestigious academic schools in the nation. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in zoology (pre-med) and did graduate work in psychology before entering the military.
By then he decided he was going to be a coach. His coaching career was to start as a graduate assistant at the school where his college coach had relocated (Washington State), only to begin his graduate work and discover, one month later, that his former coach/current boss and mentor had been let go. It was 1972 and although the two had never met, the new coach, George Raveling, recognized the value of “this new kid.” So Mark got to continue his career as a Cougar. He toiled for three years as a graduate assistant until Coach Rav had the opportunity to promote him to full-time status. It was at that juncture that their long hours (the joke was that George only wanted his people to work half a day – and he didn’t care which 12 hours they were – and even that is an understatement) produced the success that coaching staffs strive for. WSU reeled off five consecutive winning campaigns, culminating with a trip to the NCAA tournament for only the second time in its history (the other coming in 1941).
In the spring of 1981 Edwards received a phone call that was going to send him on the journey of a lifetime. The year after his senior season at Wash U (as the school is affectionately referred), the men’s basketball program was dropped. The phone call that day was from Wash U’s AD, John Schael, and its reason was two-fold: 1) the men’s basketball program was to be resurrected and 2) would Mark like to be its head coach?
Due to the love he had for his alma mater - and the chance to “run his own show” – he (after consulting with his lovely, understanding and patient wife, Mary) accepted. Since he and I were GAs together from 1973-75, I immediately called to congratulate him and ask him how excited he was to be heading up a new program, especially because it was his alma mater. I still recall his first comment. “Manny” (the name he chose for me the first time he laid eyes upon me – an amusing story, perhaps, for another blog), “You can’t believe it. They don’t have anything here.”
“I know and that must be great,” I said. “To be able to start from scratch, recruiting kids for your first team.”
“No,” he told me with a hint of panic in his voice, “I mean they don’t have anything! I can even find a basketball. Oh, Manny, I can’t believe what I got myself into.”
I tried to calm him down, reassuring him that if anybody could get it done, he could – how he understood the culture of the school, the type of kid it would take to succeed there, i.e. quite a bit more academically-oriented than what he’d been used to (I think he told me the average SAT scores were over 1500, which might have been the total for a certain Pac-10 school’s starting front line), that he didn’t have to get as talented a player as he’d been used to and that he would be able to “coach them up.” He thanked me (although he didn’t sound so confident when he hung up). At that time I was an assistant at the University of Tennessee, where, for recruiting trips, we would use “one of the school’s planes.” My only thought was, “Holy mackerel, am I glad I’m not there!”
After going through his initial three seasons of 3-16, 6-20 and 8-18, most coaches would be disheartened. While Mark didn’t exactly feel it was time to discuss a contract extension, he did tell me that he thought the guys were making improvement. And they did, producing the breakthrough winning season they so desperately needed. And that is what’s been happening at Wash U for 30 consecutive years! Winning seasons – and then some. That initial winning campaign was only the beginning for Coach Edwards and his Washington University Bears. Two years later they hit the 20-win mark (small “m”). Now, however, with the Big M leading the way, there were several other barriers to be broken. Make that shattered.
In 2006-07 Mark accomplished “the coach’s dream,” leading Wash U to the Final Four with a 25-5 record. His team must have enjoyed the experience because they returned the following season after posting a 25-6 record. But this time, they weren’t just participants - they were champions, winning the NCAA Division III National Championship. The ensuing year put Washington University into elite hoops company as one of only four teams (North Park U, 1978-80; U of Wisconsin-Platteville, 1998-99, and U of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, 2004-05) to win back-to-back National Championships, only this time with a gaudy 29-2 record.
Since the UAA conference (better known as “The Brain League”) was established- 26 years ago - the Bears have won over 77% of their conference games. So far this season, the Bears are on a 12-game winning streak, 17-2 overall and reside in first place with an unblemished 8-0 record (for the first time since 2008-09 and we all know what happened that year). Their current national ranking is 4th.
Mark’s been awarded numerous and varied Coach-of-the-Year honors (including national honors twice). But that’s not what Mark Edwards is about. Everything he’s done has been for his alma mater and the young men he’s coached. People often hear that about coaches but cynicism creeps in when the coach starts doing commercials and writing books. Mark Edwards has always been more comfortable watching commercials and reading books.
At the NABC Coaches Convention (held each year in conjunction with the Division I Final Four), one of the most approachable coaches can usually be found in the lobby chatting it up with his peers. If you have trouble recognizing him, just look for the one with the smile on his face and the 600 wins (and counting) on his resume.
On behalf of everyone who has ever known Mark Edwards, I congratulate him on this outstanding accomplishment. Who knows when he’ll retire, but whenever he does, one thing will be certain for his successor. He’ll have a whole lot more to work with than Mark did when he first returned to the Wash U campus. Good luck to him and his Wash U Bears as they go for National Championship #3.