This month, I spoke with Mark Edwards, who retired from coaching in 2018 after 46 total years, 37 of those as the head coach at NCAA Division III Washington University in St. Louis. He collected 685 career wins, 34-straight winning seasons from 1984-2018, 20 NCAA Tournament appearances, three Final Fours (2007-09) and two national championships (2008, 2009).
This is the third installment of our ongoing series chronicling my conversations with Mark Edwards, with a new topic each month. In our first talk, we discussed how the ongoing COVID-19 situation can and will affect recruiting, and in our second, we covered the differences between good, great and championship teams. This month, we delved into how basketball has changed over the years.
Mark Edwards Monthly: How Basketball Has Changed
Justin Meyer: Hi Mark, good to talk with you again. I thought that this month we could talk about how basketball has changed over the years. You’ve seen a few of them, after all.
Mark Edwards: It’s obviously changed tremendously from when I first started playing in fifth grade. That was a long time ago. Then, it was just a sport. It was just something you went out and did. When I was in high school, I played at a good program. Illinois had no summer camps. They weren’t allowed. You had no summer leagues. The only thing you could do is the coach could open the gym and you could go and shoot around in the morning. Beyond that, there was no developmental stage for the game of basketball. I think that’s the one thing that has really changed. Developmentally, there are so many more opportunities available for young kids who are coming up in the sport.
I think learning the game of basketball, that’s changed a lot, too, primarily because of the source of learning. Today, a new kid is exposed to the game of basketball by a variety of sources, and some of it is not very competent, I don’t think. They’re teaching them the game of basketball for the final product, not for the skill development. To me, that’s a dangerous path to go, because what you’ll do is get a bunch of skilled athletes coming into the game, but you’re not going to develop players. That to me are the biggest changes I’ve seen.
JM: With there being so many opportunities for young kids, I have to imagine that manifests itself in a lot of ways. That’s everything from a kid who really wants to progress in the sport and play hyper competitively, going through AAU or camps or whatever, and down to a kid who just wants to play, so there are local rec leagues readily available to them. I assume when you were in fifth grade, those things weren’t around?
Mark Edwards: No. We did have grade school basketball teams, though, which a lot of places don’t have nowadays. At the time, Illinois classified in lightweight and heavyweight, and it was based on a formula of how tall you were and how much you weighed. It was taught by a teacher at the school, coached by a teacher at the school, who had an interest in it, and it was good experience,
You only had one voice in your ear at a time. Nowadays, these athletes have voices from all over the place. You have parents, you have an AAU coach, a high school coach, a friend of yours, whatever. There’s so much input into a players development right now, it can be a little overwhelming. You could spend the entire day developing as a basketball player. It just depends on what your passion is.
I know that in the 70s when I was at Washington State, we used to have a big basketball camp, and that was the primary outlet for learning the game of basketball away from your own local situation. But a lot of states didn’t allow kids to go to camps. I know Illinois didn’t. I know Texas didn’t. Texas didn’t allow basketball camps, because it interfered with football. So, up in Pullman, Washington, we’d get kids from Texas. Their parents would send them up there, because nobody would even know they were there. You really had to work for offseason development. You either had to be from a family that really knew how to do it, or you had to search it out and really work at it. Nowadays, you get discovered and get on a select AAU team, and youre traveling all across the country depending on the level of skill your team has. If you’re a good player, its pretty hard to not be discovered. The avenue to being a good basketball player has totally changed.
JM: There have to be some pros and cons to that. Obviously, a pro is that kids who are talented and work hard, taking advantage of the opportunities in front of them, are going to be noticed at a much higher rate than they would have before, so you’re seeing more opportunities for more kids who deserve it. But there have got to be negatives to this as well, like with everything.
Mark Edwards: I don’t know if it’s a negative, but it is cautionary. There is so much emphasis placed on individual skill: dunking the basketball, dribbling behind your back, breaking another players ankles. Everything you see on highlights is an individual skill, and even when you have a good pass, it’s based on the individual skill. What’s lost in that is the team concept of how to take that individual skill and combine it with four other people.
To me, the essence of basketball is a whole variety. Some people say it’s a very simple game, but it’s a very complex game to apply. When you turn on social media, all you see are dunks, all you see are great plays. You don’t see the defense. You don’t see the team concepts. You don’t see the two or three passes to get the ball up the floor to get it into a scoring position. They’re there, but they’re not highlighted. I think a lot of times, as these kids are developing, this is reinforcing them. Some of the organizational programs are based on just individual skill. I hate to say you just roll the ball out there, but sometimes it appears that way.
I also think there is a strong trend right now to bring back some of the competency in skill development and being able to assimilate it into a team format. In other words, I think coaching at AAU is improving and strengthening. I think they have credentials. I think they are legitimate, a lot of them. In the end, it’s up to the parent to determine, what is my kid going to get out of this?
JM: There have been changes also in play style and positions. In modern basketball, the center can be very, very different from the center from the 90s, 80s or before. How different are the positions? How different are the players physically and in their skill sets at those positions?
Mark Edwards: I think what you see is a lot of the positions are becoming interchangeable. Even the post position, they’ll flash people to post up and flash people to the basket now. They still have big, dominant inside players, but they’re all agile.
The other thing you’re seeing is a lot of players who would have been designated as post players moving out to the perimeter, because they’ve got shooting skills, and they’ve got quickness and agility. They’re not confined to one position.
But, you can say the big guy is not as major now as in the days of (Wilt) Chamberlain, (Bill) Russell and people like that, and that’s probably true. But I still think if Wilt Chamberlain were in today’s league, they would find a use for him. I don’t think those guys have diminished that far.
JM: A guy like Wilt Chamberlain will find his spot. A guy like Bill Russell will find his spot. And there are players in college and in pro who are that archetype of player who are still successful right now. But guys who are 6-foot-9 and taller are not automatically told they’re going to the block, the ball will be entered to them, they’ll put up a hook shot, rebound, and that’s their job. How much of this do you think is related to the availability of skill development now compared to when you were growing up or even 30 to 40 years ago?
Mark Edwards: That’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing today. When I was in fifth grade, you learned just to dribble and you learned to shoot the ball. You didn’t learn how to dribble and shoot. It was basic skills, it wasn’t combined skills. Today, thse 6-foot-9 guys, when they’re little kids and have some innate ability, they’re being taught all the skills. They’re learning not just hot to dribble but how to beat somebody off the dribble.
That’s why some of these schools are offering scholarships at kids who are freshmen in high school, because they can see that potential. That never used to happen. Recruiting didn’t start until the end of the summer of your junior year, so you were recruited as a senior.
JM: Part of this comes from basketball’s popularity boom, and that means more people are interested, more people are playing, more people are watching, and that also means there are way more resources in the sport. That allows for things like AAU to blow up. That allows for developmental camps for kids and coaches who train kids. How do you feel that all of these things have also affected the attitudes within the sport?
Mark Edwards: I think that’s a good point. There’s a certain element of basketball players out there who have a sense of entitlement. They’ve been told how good they are, they’ve been told they’re NBA quality, they’ve been told all this greatness, and those are the ones you read about and see promoted. But 90 percent are the ones you don’t know about. These are kids who just want to be basketball players and play at the next level, whatever that is to them.
I always said that the most important thing for a kid wanting to move on in the game of basketball is to understand the expectations of you at the next level. What do you have to do to be successful? The second thing is to understand what they expect of you. You see a lot of transfers now. Actually, transferring is now a very legitimate method of chasing your dreams, so to speak. A lot of times a transfer is because a player feels they were under-evaluated, mistreated, in the wrong place, something like that. They’re not normally for positive reasons. Instead of coming into a program, understanding what’s expected and working toward meeting those expectations, if it doesn’t work right away, you’re not going to wait until next year. You’re gone.
This is something that has really exploded over the last 10 years. The players are being told that they’re victims. ‘It’s not your fault if you’re not getting minutes on the court, it’s the coach’s fault. You need to go find another program.’ If that’s true or not, I’m not in a position to really say. But I do know when I recruited players to our program at Washington University, I say down with them and told them everything that would be expected from our program. If there was anything there they didn’t like, they knew it right up front. There was never any misunderstanding that way. There was never a question about being deceived on what to expect. I think that’s the way around it. Every level, every program, every school, they all have different expectations. Players coming in need to understand what those expectations are.
JM: You coached through a lot of different periods and eras of basketball, and you coached multiple generations of players. While you were coaching through those eras, did you coach differently? Did you approach players differently? Did you approach players in 1990 the same as in 2012?
Mark Edwards: As you grow, you change. I’m sure I changed in my style and approach in the way I handled kids. But there were a couple things I did not change, and one was setting a common goal for the team. That never changed. From the very first day I walked into the very first team meeting when we started the program to the last team meeting I had before I retired, the number one goal was to win a national championship, and they bought into that. Even though they didn’t all win it, they bought into that.
Now, how we did that, how I interacted with the players, that did change. That changed as I got wiser, as their expectations changed, and a lot of factors impacted that. How is difficult to pinpoint, though. If you’re talking about style of play, I think I’ve learned over the years coaching what particular attributes I value most in a skill set. I’ve come to the conclusion that the number one thing is competitiveness, and the number two thing is being able to shoot. The three-point shot has changed the game tremendously, and there will always be a spot for someone who can shoot the three.
JM: The three-point line was instituted a while ago, but for a long time, it was not the emphasis of the game. You can look at 90s basketball, and there was a three-point line. It’s not that nobody shot threes, and it’s not that it didn’t factor into the game, but you still had a very heavy emphasis on post play. It hasn’t been until the last five to 10 years where you’ve seen a real move, literally, to the three-point line.
To me, the potential impact of the three-point line should have been obvious within the first 10 years of it being implemented, but it took a long time until it took hold that those shots are much more efficient. Why do you think that took so long?
Mark Edwards: I think the three-point shot started out as an asterisk with respect to being a legitimate skill. The three pointer is rewarding somebody an extra point for doing the same thing they’d always been doing: shooting the basketball. You put a little distance there, and you get an extra point.
When the three-point shot came into effect in college in 1986, our first game was on a Friday at MIT at Rochester in a tournament. We had the first game at 10 a.m. in the morning on the first day of the season. On the first possession, we came down and hit a three against Rochester. They got the ball out, went down the floor, pounded it inside and got a post shot. We came down, ran something, got a three. They came down, got it inside, turned it over. We came down, hit a three, they went down, got it inside and scored again. So, there were three possessions each, and the score was 9-4. That’s when I realized what a potential weapon that could be.
Now, all of our game wasn’t played to get a three. But to have somebody who can hit it when it presents itself was big, and you’re seeing that today. Players who can shoot the three will always have a role. I think the three-point shot is one of the biggest changes in basketball, and we’re still feeling the impact and learning how to use it.
JM: Now, a lot of teams design their defense to run people off the three-point line. This has been one of my big confusions with basketball. It took so long to adjust properly to the three. It’s a very difficult shot to block, you can bypass the entire defense by shooting over top of them, and the yield is one point higher. In so many ways, the three-point shot is better. I don’t know why in basketball it took so long.
Mark Edwards: Part of it is, inherent in the game is that the best shot you can get is the one that’s closest to the basket, and you run offenses to try to get a wide-open layup. It’s hard to grasp that sometimes the best shot you can get is an outside jump shot that’s wide open, and that can come based upon the offense you’re running, not based on him standing there and happening to be open to shoot a three. It had the stigma of an easy shot to get any time you wanted. It’s not, but it was like the three-point shot is a cop out. You can come down and just jack it up. That’s not true, that’s not the way it’s played. But there was a real reluctance to surrender that mentality that you have to get the ball closer and closer to the basket.
Now what’s happening is players have become so gifted and skilled that you have to provide more help on the drive. You’ve got people dropping off outside shooters to provide support in the post, on the drive, on the fast break or whatever aspect of the game requires speed, quickness and agility. Next thing you know, there’s a guy standing at the three-point line wide open, because his man had to run and guard somebody else. I think what you’re seeing is the other players are becoming so skilled that they have to draw attention defensively from players who are guarding on the perimeter. Of course, the secret if having somebody who will give the ball up.
The players today offensively are quick, talented, skilled, strong and big, and it’s almost impossible for one person to contain them. One player can’t contain a great player, it has to be a team effort. The bigger, the stronger, the faster you are, the more talented skills you have, the more you’re going to create defensive problems. I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind thatthe rapid skill development of players and strength is a big challenge that basketball faces. The strength factor in basketball today is unbelievable.
But, I still think defense is the secret to winning. Being able to negate what the other team has been working on so much is the best way to win. However, offenses have created situations where the defense has to be more creative in how it responds, like with switches or a number of different things. A stagnant zone isn’t going to work. Defense now requires a lot of versatility. That’s the challenge and the fun.