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 third installment of our series on him. We encourage you to read the first and second part to cover Coach Edwards’ history until the mid-1980’s
Before reaching the Final Four in 2007 or cutting the nets in 2008, heartbreak followed Mark Edwards and the WashU Bears.
After the winning season of 1984-85, it took another two seasons for Edwards to qualify his Bears for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1987. WashU won a nail-biter against Rust College in the first round, 69-68, in the program’s first postseason game since 1965. But the Bears came up just short in the Regional Championship, falling, 66-64, to North Carolina Wesleyan.
That would be the theme for the next two seasons. WashU won the University Athletic Association (UAA) in 1988, the conference’s first season of existence, finishing 22-7 (9-1). Edwards’s team won its first two games in the tournament but ultimately fell, 58-55, to Nebraska Wesleyan at the buzzer in the quarterfinal.
“I had a senior-laden team with an All-American,” Edwards said. “We were ranked and everything else. Led that whole game, and then got beat at the buzzer. Those kids to this day remember that. They talk about that game as being the most disappointing their whole career.”
Then in 1989, another successful regular season led to a tournament berth, and after an odd situation brought upon a forfeit in the first round, WashU lost another painful one, this time by the closest margin yet: a 69-68 defeat to Centre College in the Regional Championship.
Three of the best seasons in WashU men’s basketball history, and the three best in Edwards’s tenure in St. Louis, and all three ending in crushing ways. It was his job to walk into those locker room after each defeat.
“Well, you’re in sport. Those are things that happen,” Edwards said. “The important thing as a coach is to recognize the fact that you’re on stage. How you react to this, how you respond to this, how you deal with it is going to set the tone for how (the players) handle it. And I think the big thing with the disappointment, you can’t turn it into a grieving process. Nobody died. The thing is, you have a future, and you just had a great experience that has to be the motivator for the next.”
Those were only a snippet of the excruciating losses and other setbacks Edwards, his players and the program as a whole endured before making their deepest run in 2007. The former coach said the margins are thin, but that’s life in basketball and otherwise.
“If you’re going to base your whole life on the outcome of one event, then you have chosen incorrectly what it is you’re trying to do,” he explained. “I think the important thing is you realize it’s a continuum. You came close, and we came close an awful lot. If you look at our records over the years, I had some really good teams. Teams that were very capable of winning the national championship, and all it takes is one bounce: somebody fouling out, somebody sick, having a tough game, not getting shots or them getting shots.
“There are all kinds of circumstances that can waylay you on that trip. If you let that define your career, you let that define your legacy, then you miss the whole point of sport. So yeah, it was disappointing, but you know what? It was also energizing. And when you walked into the room to start the next season, you walked into that team meeting, you carried that energy with you, and the players picked up on it.”
It took Edwards 26 years, 12 NCAA Tournament bids and plenty of bad bounces before that energy turned into a Final Four appearance. It’s something Edwards only really appreciates now looking back.
“At the time, you don’t realize it. You’re so thrilled, and you turn right around to play in the Final Four,” he said. “Unless you win the national championship, you’re going to be disappointed because that means you got knocked out somewhere along the way.”
In 2007, two of WashU’s four wins to get to the Final Four were within one possession, perhaps a sign that this was the year the ball bounced its way.
But that’s not how it went. Virginia Wesleyan College beat WashU at the buzzer, 67-65, in the national semifinal, and all the joy of reaching the program’s first Final Four was immediately dampened.
At that time, a Third Place Game was played between the two national semifinal losers the next day, and Edwards’s players had no interest in suiting up again after having their hearts ripped from their chests, but their coach wouldn’t let that happen.
“The kids were really down. This was a semifinal game, and we had a basket that we made at the buzzer, but it was after the buzzer went off,” Edwards said, adding it was the right call, albeit disappointing. “It took some really gut-wrenching talk of, ‘Hey, this is what is defined as.’”
The team ended up playing and collected a, 92-84, win over Wooster and the national third place designation. After the game, Edwards said his players were grateful his staff has convinced them to play.
“Without a doubt, every one of those kids after the game, ‘Coach, it was definitely worth it,’” Edwards said. “You see, it’s a learning experience. Sometimes that learning, you don’t recognize what it is until after it happens. Losing along the way, that’s what it’s all about.”
In the following year, a roster similar to the one that made it to the Final Four in 2007 finished the job in 2008. After decades of building, of promising generations of players that one day the program would be on top and countless punches in the mouth, that lofty goal Edwards set in 1985 could be checked off the to-do list.
Then, the craziest thing: it happened again. Edwards and his Bears repeated in 2009, doubling up on a dream that took nearly 30 years to actualize.
What did Edwards learn from his teams’ runs in 2007, 2008 and 2009?
“The ball bounced the right way, no doubt about it,” he explained. “I’ve had some really good teams, just wasn’t good enough on the night we lost.”
In the 2009 First Round, WashU traveled to Elmhurst, Illinois, to battle Lawrence University. The Bears led the whole game, but after giving up a few threes and a momentum swing, the game came down to the final possession after a timeout. Up two with seconds to go, WashU had to get one last stop as Lawrence ran its attempt at a game-tying-or-winning sideline play.
“They had a guy who had gotten really hot at the end of the game, and we knew they were going to try to get him the ball, we were going to switch,” Edwards recalled. “Well, we screwed it up. One guy switched, the other guy didn’t. The guy with the ball didn’t have anybody on him. He drove all the way to the basket and hit the underside of the rim on an uncontested layup, and we win.
“The year before (in 2008), we were playing Buena Vista (in the Sectional Semifinal), and the guy took the shot to win at the buzzer, and it bounced up and down on the rim and rolled off. If it went in, we’re out. If it didn’t, then we moved on. I can list other games like that all along. I won’t say it’s luck, but I will say that you need to recognize that sometimes things happen and you just have to be in the right position at the right time in order to take advantage of it.”
It’s hard for Edwards to say if he has a favorite between the 2008 and 2009 titles. Both are special for different reasons: 2008 was the first-ever national championship won by a men’s team at WashU, and obviously the first climb to the top of the mountain has inherent meaning. But in 2009, his team did it with a target on its back, carrying the moniker of national championships all season yet not succumbing to that pressure.
“I enjoyed the first one just as much as I enjoyed the second one, and I enjoyed the second one just as much as I enjoyed the first one,” he said. “If that sounds like a confusing answer, maybe that’s why.”
It’s easy now, a roughly a decade on from the two championships and three Final Fours, and celebrate what Edwards and the Bears were able to accomplishing when he was at the helm. But for most of the time he was head coach, there were no national championship or Final Four banners hanging from the rafters. There were plenty of wins, conference titles and postseason appearances, but every season ended in disappointment.
Some people refer to those types of situations as having a monkey on one’s back. People often comment on current coaches or players lacking titles, certain awards or anything else as needing to get that monkey off their back. That wasn’t the case for Edwards.
“If you consider it to be a monkey on your back, you’re never going to be successful, because you’re playing to win a national championship, and that’s the only reason you’re playing it,” he explained. “Then it becomes an obsession and not a passion, and when something becomes an obsession, the boundaries of behavior, what you’ll do to get there, etcetera, change. Taking things into perspective is very important. I can give a kid a hug after a loss as much as I can after a win. It’s needed for a different reason, that’s all.”
Edwards chose to describe his program before the national championships in a different way.
“I preached to all the teams that didn’t win a national championship that someday, somebody will win it, and you will be a part of that,” the coach said. “When we won that in 2008 and 2009, it represented the efforts of everybody all the way back to 1982, and they sincerely believed that. So when you say is there a monkey on your back, I think it’s a program unresolved until that was won. And then once they won it, it was like, ‘Yeah, Coach said all along we could win a national championship, and we finally did it.’”
Edwards coached at WashU until retiring in 2018, completing 37 years in charge in St. Louis and a 49-year coaching career. Between his second national championship and retiring, he and his Bears experienced plenty of bounces against them, but nothing can ever take those two triumphs away from Edwards and his alma mater. The life lessons the former coach gained from his years in basketball will make up the fourth part of our coverage of him.