COLUMBIA — To hear Mark Phelps tell it, as far as assistant coaching jobs go, it really does not get any better than Missouri.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
That’s why the former Drake head coach, who was introduced as the Tigers’ newest men’s basketball assistant on Tuesday, said he didn’t need to do a whole lot of soul searching when Missouri coach Frank Haith first offered him the chance to replace Rick Carter, who left to take a similar position at Xavier last week.
“There wasn’t anything that wasn’t appealing,” Phelps said. “When you look at the University of Missouri basketball, it’s easily a top 20 program in the country. It starts at the top, certainly. Mike Alden, as director of athletics, is one of the pillars in college athletics at the Division I level nationwide. And you’re talking about the state of Missouri … the fans in Missouri are unbelievably knowledgeable, unbelievably passionate about basketball. The support for the University of Missouri’s program is among the best in the country. Facilities are off the charts. Columbia, Missouri, is a true college town — you’ve got the best of everything. And then again, you have to go to the people. Coach Haith and his reputation, his staff.
“Do you have a chance to win at the University of Missouri? Absolutely, and at the highest level, so there wasn’t anything that wasn’t really, really attractive,” Phelps continued. “Again, I had some other opportunities and this was, by far, an absolute no-brainer. I would have run to Missouri on two feet for the opportunity, and that was my mindset, to get back into coaching after a brief break.”
So yes, it’s clear that Phelps, who went 77-86 in five seasons at Drake before he was fired in March, is excited about his new job. But it also looks like his new boss shares that excitement. Haith told a group of reporters at the Kansas City Tiger Club Golf Tournament on June 10 that he already had a candidate in mind for the position, and hinted that he was pleased with his options. In a news release issued by the school on Tuesday, Haith said Phelps was his “first call” when the position became available.
Perhaps Haith sees a little of himself in Phelps, who — like Haith — never played college basketball. Phelps played at Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, Va., where he was a teammate of former North Carolina star J.R. Reid, and wasn’t good enough to land a scholarship. Phelps went to Old Dominion, where he first majored in business and promptly changed his mind — “principles of accounting kicked my tail,” he joked — and became a volunteer coach at his old high school.
“When your playing days are over — and mine were over before they began — you can continue to compete as coach and have an unbelievable platform to impact the lives of young men,” Phelps said. “That’s why I got into coaching, and to be honest with you, those two pillars have not changed.”
Phelps eventually moved on to a small private school in Petersburg, Va., called Rock Church Academy, which he guided to a 104-41 record before taking over as the head coach at Atlantic Shores Christian High School in Chesapeake, Va., where he went 44-12 in two seasons. Phelps eventually joined N.C. State’s staff in 1996 as director of basketball operations, was promoted to assistant coach in 2000, and was named recruiting coordinator and director of scouting in 2005.
Just like that, a burgeoning college coaching career — which would eventually take him to Arizona State, Drake and now, Missouri — had begun.
“I didn’t get into coaching to be a college coach,” Phelps said. “I’m certainly extremely happy it happened … but yeah, I didn’t expect this to happen like this. I’m glad it did.”
With that, here are some other interesting tidbits MU’s new assistant basketball coach revealed about himself in a 30-minute interview with The Star on Tuesday.
Phelps’ prior connections
Phelps said Haith first reached out to him last week through associate head coach Tim Fuller, which is no coincidence. Turns out the two go back several years, dating back to Fuller’s days as a high school coach in Clemmons, N.C., where he coached future Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul.
“I recruited Chris Paul very, very hard when I was at North Carolina State,” Phelps said. “Tim was a high school assistant coach and that was the first time he and I met. And so that was the first time we got together and we’ve had an acquaintance/friendship/mutual respect for each other the whole time.”
During his 10-year tenure at North Carolina State, Phelps also became familiar with Haith, who spent 1997-2001 as an assistant at Wake Forest before eventually landing the top job at Miami in 2004. N.C. State went 2-1 against Haith at Miami before Phelps followed Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek to Arizona State before the 2007 season.
“You know, maybe it’s an overused term, but certainly I think he’s a player’s coach,” Phelps said of Haith. “I think players relate to Coach Haith extremely well. He certainly has a style of play conducive to players having an attack mentality. As coaches, you want your guys to be out there playing as free as possible, and that’s the feel you got from Coach Haith’s team.”
Phelps also lauded Haith’s ability to recruit high-level players and develop them, and understood that Missouri’s coach was essentially looking for the same skill set in his newest assistant.
“At this level, it’s kind of understood — we’re looking to do things at a high level in every area of the program,” Phelps said. “He wants someone to be able to have relationships and help in player development, coaching on the floor on both ends and then have a role in recruiting, (with it) being the lifeblood of any program. So I think his expectation of me is to have a positive impact in every part of the program and that’s certainly my goal, my intention, my mission on a daily basis.”
A philosophical match made in heaven?
It can always been tricky when a coach has a staff full of assistants with head coaching experience — sort of a “too many cooks spoil the broth” sort of thing — and Haith’s top three assistants have a combined 14 years of head coaching experience between them (nine for Dave Leitao, five for Phelps). So it’s probably a good thing that when asked about his offensive philosophy, Phelps offered a disclaimer, of sorts, before answering.
“Let’s say this first — I think the most important piece to that is to make sure I’m doing what my boss wants me to do, and right now, my boss is Coach Haith, so it’s important to understand how he likes to play,” Phelps said. “Now, what makes it easy and fun and exciting is that it’s very similar to my mind-set. Let’s be in attack mode. Let’s play with force at both ends of the court. Let’s initiate action instead of reacting. Let’s play extremely up-tempo, in attack mode, on the offensive end. Spread the floor, recruit really good players, help those players develop to their full potential and put them in a situation where they’re making plays, they’re scoring points, they’re dictating the outcome of games … that was my mind-set, that was my goal at Drake and we had success at various levels playing that way.”
Phelps said his defensive philosophy also matches up with Haith’s.
“Playing good, hard-nosed man-to-man with individual player accountability, working together as a team, I think that’s the base,” Phelps said. “And then also, I think it’s really smart to mix in some zone every once in a while, to try to change the pace, to try to break a rhythm of a good offensive team as they may get in rhythm against your man-to-man defense. That’s the same purpose of adding some full-court, some pressure packages in your scheme as well. Once again, I think that fits really well in talking to Coach Haith about how he wants to do things. I think we’re right on the same page, and I’m excited about that.”
Disappointment at Drake
Phelps said he learned a great deal about himself during his five seasons at Drake, which ended in disappointment — the Bulldogs went 37-53 in the Missouri Valley Conference during his tenure — but ultimately helped him become a better person.
“I think any time you endeavor to do anything of significance, I think it’s important to always be self-reflective, to always look at yourself in the mirror on a consistent, daily basis and do an honest, brutal self-evaluation and say ‘Hey, how can I get be better, how can I get better at this,’” Phelps said. “And I think what I’m most satisfied with is during those five years, I feel like have indeed become a better person, a better husband a better father and a better coach. I’m excited about that … we did have some success and we certainly would have liked to have a little bit more success on the floor, but the relationships I established with the people I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with and the players I coached will be relationships I treasure for the rest of my life. And again, when you’re put in rough situations you learn a lot about yourself.”
So if he could go back and do it all over again, would he do anything differently?
“Um … win a few more games,” Phelps said with a laugh. “I’m probably more of the mindset of looking forward. I probably don’t have a public inventory of all the things I wish I had done better. Obviously, win a few more games and advance a little bit more in postseason. But I think if you ask any coach in America, they’d probably tell you the same things. Success is relative, there are certain standards of success and I wish we had a little more success on the floor, but certainly in terms of relationships and helping players off the basketball court taking care of business, earning a valuable degree from a great university, we had a lot of success there. So I’m more just excited about personal and professional development that I experienced during that five-year period and how I can use that to really have a consistent positive impact here at Mizzou.”
Sendek a mentor
Phelps was understandably very gracious about the impact Herb Sendek has had on his coaching career. Sendek brought him on to his N.C. State staff in 1996 and over the next 12 years, proceeded to give Phelps the coaching foundation he needed to land a D-I head coaching job, like he has with several others.
“The one thing he did is he prepare you for every aspect of operating a Division-1 college basketball program,” Phelps said. “There was a blueprint for everything, from coaching on the floor, practice, individual instruction, relationships with players, relationships with your peers, with administration with athletics, with faculty and staff across campus, recruiting, everything you can imagine. Being the highly organized, intelligent Carnegie Mellon graduate that he is, you felt like you were really prepared for anything that came your way. He preferred to be prepared and not have to use that preparation as opposed to the alternative, which is just kind of being nonchalant and winging it. So I’m thankful for those 12 years of that apprenticeship, for lack of a better way of putting it, in college basketball.”
Recruiting a must
One area where Phelps will be counted on to contribute heavily is on the recruiting trail. During his 12 years as an assistant under Sendek at N.C. State and Arizona State, Sendek charged him with recruiting all over the country, from the Eastern seaboard to the West Coast.
“I recruited the Eastern seaboard, the South and the Midwest when I was at N.C. State and really stretched over there to the West Coast as well,” Phelps said. “When I went to Arizona State, we kind of recruited from the Midwest over to the left back to the West Coast. And when I was Drake, I recruited coast-to-coast and had players from Washington D.C., North Carolina, and three or four players from California on our roster.”
Phelps also landed three players from the neighboring state of Illinois during his time at Drake, including guard Rayvonte Rice, who averaged 15.4 points per game in two seasons before he transferred to Illinois in April 2012.
“We recruited Illinois hard,” Phelps said. “I have good contacts there and I’m excited about jumping back into Illinois. In Chicago, there are some tremendous players so we want to take advantage of that.”
Perhaps the most well-known recruit that Phelps says he helped land is swingman Julius Hodge, New York’s “Mr. Basketball” for 2000-01 who went on to become the ACC’s player of the year in 2004 and N.C. State’s third leading-scorer of all-time. Phelps noted that Hodge, who is from Harlem, went to St. Raymond, the same high school that produced incoming freshman point guard Shane Rector.
“The Missouri basketball brand is something recognized, appreciated and valued, I think, from coast-to-coast,” Phelps said. “Missouri is a school that you can recruit nationally to. The fact that I’ve been able to recruit both coasts and certainly in the Midwest I think prepares me to jump in there with Coach Leitao and Coach Fuller and do a good job of recruiting for Missouri.
“This is an awesome, awesome place. Great crowds, great passion, great home-court support, great style of play, unbelievable relationship with the head coach. This is going to be a great place to recruit to. And certainly I have to learn more about Columbia, more about the SEC, and all that’s going to happen as we go forward day-to-day. But there are so many things, on the surface and beneath the surface, that make this a great place for a young man to come and get an outstanding education and play basketball at the highest level.”