Friday, June 19, 2009
Marks coaching just hoops at UTPA
By Andy Katz ESPN.com
Ryan Marks should have landed the Texas-Pan American job on his stories alone.
This is one man determined to be a head coach at a Division I school, regardless of the locale.
Marks was on the Northern Illinois staff in the mid-1990s, unsure about whether or not he should pursue a junior college job or find another spot within Division I after former Illinois assistant Rob Judson took over, once the Brian Hammel-Andy Greer experiment ended.
Marks was at an AAU event in Chicago when a coach came up to him and asked if he were interested in any Division III jobs. He handed him a list of five. So Marks started calling and got to Southern Vermont, a seldom-heard-from school in Bennington, Vt.
It took a few months, but UTPA finally decided on Ryan Marks as its next men's basketball coach.
"I found out they were looking for a basketball coach who could also coach baseball," Marks said. "I was told the baseball season in New England doesn't last long. I said I was a high school baseball player and a Cubs fan."
Marks said the questions were somewhat basic -- he was asked if he could hit fungos, throw batting practice and drive the van.
"All my contemporaries, guys in their late 20s and early 30s in the biz, told me not to take the job," said Marks, who had already spent some time as an assistant at Div. II Central Missouri State. "But the older guys who had mentored me, like [former Saint Louis and UNLV head coach] Charlie Spoonhour and John Hammond [now the general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks] said I should."
So he did.
Marks was a hit on the basketball court, going 57-29 in three seasons and 37-12 in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference. He took the Mountaineers to their first NCAA Div. III tournament appearance in 2002-03 and the school's first 20-win season (24-6) as well.
What about that baseball gig?
Well, recruiting was brutal. He couldn't sell a spring break trip. He couldn't tell the players they had fall ball. Since Killington and Mt. Snow weren't too far away, he had to hope that snowboarders and skiers didn't mind playing some baseball after the snow melted.
"I used to put the basketball players on the roster and rotate them in the lineup so we had enough players each game," Marks said. "In my second year, the snow melted late so we didn't even start playing until April 15."
He won three games in three seasons. But he pulled off a coup when he won a GNAC tournament game because Daniel Webster, which finished ahead of Southern Vermont, couldn't host the playoff game.
"We smoked 'em," Marks said. "We also won our postseason basketball game, so I always said you couldn't beat a Ryan Marks-coached team in the postseason in Bennington."
Marks, a graduate of USC and native of Chicago, didn't hesitate when the St. Edwards' job opened up in Austin five years ago. The Division II gig put him in a major college town within reach of the University of Texas. The Hilltoppers were a success under Marks, compiling a 91-54 record in five seasons, including three appearances in the NCAA Division II tournament.
It also put him around the UT system. St. Edwards played at Texas-Pan American twice while Marks was there, once in the regular season and once in an exhibition game. Marks loved the UTPA campus, found out the area was much more of a metropolitan community than he imagined and was intrigued when Tom Schuberth was forced out in March.
However, the job was open 83 days before he was hired. Marks said the combination of an interim president and athletic director and an internal investigation into possible violations, which he said he's still not privy to, delayed the search. The violations, according to Marks, are likely to be in the recruiting realm, which could mean some scholarship and recruiting restrictions.
Texas-Pan Am, an independent, won 10 games last season, six of which were against Division I teams.
The Broncs are in a scheduling conglomerate of independent teams that is now called the Great West Conference (which includes NJIT, Utah Valley, Chicago State, North Dakota, South Dakota and Houston Baptist), with the hope that the conference tournament winner (to be played at Utah Valley) will get a sniff at a berth to the CBI or CIT postseason events.
Is it glamorous? No. But Marks knows how hard it was to get to Division I and is not about to allow his ego to stunt his progress.
"A lot of guys may look at this to be a quick fix, stepping-stone job," the 38-year-old Marks said. "But if that's your mentality, then don't take the job. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I've always wanted a Division I job and I do think you can build a program long-term here."
And when he arrived in Edinburg, Texas, he even made sure the baseball program knew he was there.
"I told them I could be a bullpen catcher, hit fungos and do batting practice," Marks said. "But there has been moderate interest at best."
Taking UT-Pan Am to a consistent level of winning will take someone with humor and a willingness to do a little bit of everything.
In this regard -- even though it took awhile -- the school appears to have hit the mark.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.