The journey to 600: Men’s basketball coach one win shy
Memories of losing records can be long lost when success piles up over time. For the Washington University men’s basketball team, one would have to dig through 30 years before finding its last losing record.
Currently holding a 16-2 record including a spotless 7-0 mark in the University Athletic Association, the Bears will add another winning season to the record books this year, with only seven games left in the regular season. For 33 years, that winning atmosphere and culture have been created by head coach Mark Edwards. One win shy of the 600th of his career as head coach at Wash. U., the journey to this mark hasn’t been easy.
“600 is a huge honor, and it’s an honor for all the players that contributed to it,” Edwards said. “We’ve really accomplished so much, from the national and UAA championships to the winning seasons, so it’s nice to step back and admire at times. But to get to that number, it’s really about the fire to compete that we’re celebrating, not just the wins.”
That fire, before Edwards became head coach, was mostly non-existent. The basketball program was decidedly mediocre for decades up until 1971, when it went on hiatus. Ten years later, athletic director John Schael and then-Chancellor Bill Danforth decided that it was time to rebuild the program to create a competitive environment on campus. Their search for a coach led them to Edwards, who graduated from Wash. U. in 1969 with a major in zoology. At the time, Edwards had 12 years’ coaching experience, nine of which were with Division I Washington State University as an assistant.
“I really believed that Schael could turn the whole athletic department around and provide a vision for the department to grow,” Edwards said. “It was a startup program, and I felt that the school valued its coaches and wanted athletics to be something students could be proud of. I bought into that idea and decided to take the job.”
While Edwards believed that he could build the program into a winner, he experienced little success in his first three seasons as he struggled to recruit strong players and finished with records of 3-16, 6-20 and 8-18. Despite these outcomes, Edwards remained upbeat and tried to instill a belief in his players that they could flip their record into a winning one.
“It was about changing the culture and mentality, which can be difficult when you really haven’t had much success,” Edwards said. “But kids started buying into this idea, and their attitude allowed us to continue getting better and better.”
Those improvements helped transform Wash. U.’s image into that of a rising, promising program, and Edwards was able to successfully convince his first Division I prospective player to play for the Bears in 1984. The addition proved to be a breakthrough as it opened the door for more Division I prospects choosing Wash. U. and to the Bears’ first winning season under Edwards in 1984-85. Since then, Wash. U. has never had a losing season, appeared in the NCAA Division III tournament 17 times, won a record 12 UAA titles and tallied a cumulative 69.2 winning percentage.
“Our success really made basketball into a viable option that prospective students could embrace and respect,” Edwards said. “People believed that they could come here to not only have great academics but also compete for a national championship. We’ve been right there every year, but we needed to solidify our goal.”
The Bears eventually fulfilled their dreams in 2008 and 2009, winning back-to-back national championships. For Edwards, both championships were the greatest moments of his coaching career. While it’s been nearly five years since his last title, the Bears have remained contenders.
“Obviously I enjoy winning titles, but that’s not the thing that motivates me,” Edwards said. “To be in a locker room and sense the excitement and pride, to me, is much more important. It’s about the opportunity to get close to players and help them evolve into great team players.”
According to Edwards, seniors Alan Aboona, Tim Cooney and Chris Klimek have grown into a solid core for the team as both leaders and players. Together, he said, they’ve created a tight team dynamic and carried on the program’s competitive culture and winning mentality.
“They feel very strong with each other,” Edwards said. “Klimek knows he doesn’t have to score 28 a night in order for this team to win. Aboona can easily open up the game with big three-point plays. Cooney will come up with the big steal, the drive to the basket or clutch jumper, whatever it is you need.”
Edwards is confident that his team will end this season with success, whether it be national acclaim, a perfect conference record or simply a way to send the senior class out on a high note. But with Schael retiring in a few months, he hopes he can send his boss off on a high note.
“He’s done so much for the athletic department in his time here,” Edwards said. “He’s a good example of quality leadership, and it would be tremendous to honor him with another national title.”