Last 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 second 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. This month, we delved into what separates good, great and championship teams, and how he experienced them as a coach.
Mark Edwards Monthly: Good, Great and Championship Teams
Justin Meyer: Hi Mark, happy to talk again. You said that you wanted to talk about the differences between good teams, great teams and championship teams, so tell me: what are the differences?
Mark Edwards: Number one is recognizing the fact that great players and great teams aren’t mutually inclusive. You hear about players and their dedication, their hard work, what it takes to become really good shooters, ball handlers, etcetera. But the next step is how to insert that into the team concept. This is the intriguing aspect of what team sport is: how to take all those great individual abilities and combine them into one. That’s also the danger of team sport, because all it takes is one slip, one person who doesn’t want to pedal the same direction, and the house of cards falls apart. That’s the premise of trying to make these determinations.
JM: Teams that play as the greatest sum of their parts succeed the most. You have to be as efficient as possible to succeed: the team that best utilizes the resources available to them, all of their players are utilized correctly, they buy in, they fulfill their roles, and all the coaches are the same. At the college level, resources include the money spent on recruiting. You have to make sure that’s spent efficiently. That includes time and money spent on training players. That has to be done efficiently.
Mark Edwards: Yes, but if you’re talking about how to categorize a good team, a great team and a championship team, really what you’re talking about is perspective of expectations and from which perspective you’re taking it.
First of all, I don’t like “championship team.” I don’t even consider that in my evaluation of a team. A championship team is one that survives competition to be the last one standing. Does it necessarily have to be a great ream? Not necessarily. It usually is if it’s on the national stage, but the thing that has intrigued fans and people from all over and what makes sports really popular, particularly like the NCAA Tournament, is that it can be anybody that’s peaking at the right moment, has the right balance, makes the right decisions or has somebody that just gets really hot. There’s a whole variety of things that can into that. I think championship team is a category by itself and doesn’t define greatness. So, it comes down to the difference between a good team and a great team.
This is where I think sports has a problem; who defines that? You have two perspectives. You have the fans and outsiders’ perspective, and you have the team and insider’s perspective. What is the expectation from the fans and the outside people, and what is the expectation from the team? Now you can find out if you have a good team or great team.
A good team lives up to or exceeds those expectations, and a great team achieves their expectations, exceeds them and does something special. Whether it’s a championship or going from a losing season the year before to a winning one, it’s going to vary. It’s going to vary based upon the scenario they performed in. Whenever I would evaluate my teams, I would first try to discount outside expectations, because then shooting to please somebody else would be the number one thing we’d be shooting for. I tried to mold the team expectations of what they can accomplished and what they can do, and then I feel comfortable saying if this is a good team or great team.
I was fortunate enough to have some really good teams, some great teams, and even some championship teams. In my first three years as a head coach, we had losing seasons. I look at the last losing season we had for my whole career, and I know that really was a good team. They were just learning how to win, and they were on the verge of it, even though they only won eight games. The next year, they exploded out and had a winning season, setting the tone for the rest of it. The next year, they almost got to say that was a great team in the context of where they were playing, what they were doing and what the expectations were.
JM: As a coach, is this something you can only know at the end of the season? Can you know if you have a good or great team by January or February of a season, or does it take until the following June to look back and know? Or maybe even five years later?
Mark Edwards: You have to remember that during the season, it is an ongoing thing. It’s like living through history; even though you might be aware of it, you don’t really feel the impact until you’ve done it. Let’s say you have a team that’s really playing great basketball, and you’re excited about it. But you know you’re only as good as your next game. You know you have to get the conference championship to get in the NCAA Tournament. You know all these different things are goals you’re working towards. Yeah, you’re off to a good start, but you haven’t achieved any of them yet. So, you have to keep the focus forward, not where you are but where you’re going. That’s important.
The next thing is, you’re going to have bumps along the way, and it’s going to appear that sometimes that bump is going to be enough to derail you. I remember the time we went in the NCAA Tournament, and the night before we were supposed to play our first game, our starting point guard sprained his ankle and was going to be out for the game. We were sitting in the locker room and discussing the situation, and I’m well aware that it’s a bump in the road, but that doesn’t stop the train. One of the players makes the comment, “Well, that takes care of our dream.” This to me is part of the focus you have to face throughout the season, and this goes for every team. Look at the Bulls teams featured in The Last Dance. Look at the things they had to put up with, had to go through and fight through. Every team has those incidents. The teams that are able to conquer the internal stuff as well as produce on the floor are the ones that are great teams, particularly if they have the results that put them into that category, like winning.
I remember another game in one of our championship years where we went on the road to play two games in conference. The first night was on a Friday in Rochester, New York. It was a great game. I mean one of those games that you were proud to be a part of, and we lost. Then, we had to get on the bus the next day to get to Pittsburgh. We had to go three hours on a bus in a snowstorm on a Saturday for a Sunday noon game against a good Carnegie Mellon team. We came out and played like we played an overtime game Friday night and spent hours on a bus in a snowstorm. We ended up losing that game by 30 points. At the time, you’re looking at these things, and you’re wondering how you deal with it. We went on to win the national championship, and there were times during the rest of that season and in tournament play where we had to fall back upon that experience and remember that we vowed we weren’t going to put ourselves in that situation again where we didn’t have the energy or focus to win the game we needed to win.
There’s no point during the season where you can yes or no. There’s no point even as you walk off the court after the last game that you can yes or no. I look at the last team I had – the team I call my “forever team” because it was the last team I ever coached – and they were a great team. We could have done a lot of things, but we came up short. The last game I ever coached, we lost. Now, a lot of people can say that, because it’s usually the case if you don’t win the national championship. But I look back at that team, and it wasn’t the loss that defined it. It wasn’t the failure to reach our goal. It was the process that got us there. To me, that is the critical part of looking and evaluating what you were a part of.