Editor’s Note: Mark Edwards was the head men’s coach at Washington University in St. Louis from 1981-2018, amassing 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 series on him. You can find Part 1 of the story here.
In 1981, Mark Edwards was met with a decision.
Ten years earlier, the WashU basketball program had been discontinued. Reductions had to be made, and while most schools that needed savings cut football, the athletic director at the time doubled as the football coach. That meant basketball got the axe just one year after Edwards graduated.
“It was crushing,” Edwards recalled. “I wrote a letter to the chancellor at the time and said how disappointed I was as an alum. The sweat equity you put into a school and into a program, to see it totally disregarded, I was hurt.”
For a decade, WashU continued with no basketball program. But in the early-1980s, a new regime took charge, and this one saw a future where academics and athletics survived and thrived at the university. The school reached out to its alum in Pullman, Washington, who had served as George Raveling’s assistant at Washington State for nine years.
Edwards was wary at first. He wanted to be certain that if he left for his alma mater, his new bosses would walk the walk. After hearing them out, he was convinced they were as committed to WashU’s success as he was.
He left Pullman and went back to St. Louis, moving to Division-III and starting his own program from scratch, which was just the way he wanted it.
“We were at ground level. There was no team,” Edwards said. “It gave me the opportunity to craft the program, bring in the players. Their expectation was to contribute to something new. It wasn’t like I was coming into a program that was faltering, and you had to change their opinion of what was going on or you had to fight the tradition that was there of losing. We had no tradition. We had the opportunity to create that ourselves, and I felt that was a big plus.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy. Building from nothing meant a roster of exclusively freshman. The team was Division III, but chiropractic schools and seminaries helped fill out chunks of the roster. Edwards worked with the hand he was dealt.
His first team went 3-16. It earned one Division-III win all season, a 60-59 thriller against Grinnell College, a winless team.
“It was our last chance to get a Division-III win,” he said. “We won it on a shot at the buzzer in overtime, and our kids were jumping up and down like we won the national championship.”
In another game that year, the other team entered the game with only six players. WashU was up 10 when opposition fouled out its second player, leaving it with only four. The Bears lost the game.
“You look at situations like that, they occurred all the time throughout that first year,” Edwards said, chuckling at the memories. “When that happens, you start to second guess yourself a little bit, but then you realize you have to believe what you’re trying to get your players to believe, and you buckle down and keep plugging ahead.”
In his second and third seasons, Edwards led the Bears to 6-20 and 8-18 records, respectively. The program was noticeably improving, but it was still tough sledding to endure those years. He told himself consistently to stay the course.
“The hardest thing was trying to convince good student-athletes to come to Washington University with the idea of winning a championship without the tradition behind it. All we had was a dream to be able to offer them,” he said. “You have to be patient. Anybody who is working to build something has to recognize that.”
Finally, in his fourth season, his program had its first winning record since 1968-69, Edwards’s senior year. The team had a talented freshman class in 1984, including Kevin Suiter, whose 1,824 career points is still the most-ever in WashU men’s basketball history. Edwards and the whole program was excited to get over the .500 hump and bring back a good chunk of its production for the upcoming 1985-86 season.
After the season ended in 1985, Edwards went to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s scholar athlete dinner for high schoolers. One of the speakers was Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a St. Louis-native who had won a silver medal in the heptathlon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In her speech, she discussed how crushing it was come up short for the gold.
“Here I am feeling pretty confident that we just had a winning season for the first time ever,” Edwards explained. “We’re beating chiropractic schools, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee is disappointed with a silver medal. That put it all into perspective. Success is relative to what you’re shooting for.”
That’s when Edwards changed the course of his program.
“When I walked away from that, I decided we were going to be shooting for the top,” he said. “Every day, every year, when I’d meet with the team, I’d try to convince them that there was a championship in the room: that this was something we were going to try to achieve and this was our goal. Yes, we’re going to celebrate all these little steps in between, but we weren’t going to lose track of what our long-range goal was.”
After setting the national championship as his program’s goal in 1985, it took Edwards until 2008 for it to finally be realized. The path to his two national championships and more will be explained in the third part of our coverage of him.