For every coaching hire that happens on any level of athletics, there’s always someone who likes it and others who don’t.
The reasons vary. Sometimes those reasons — on either side of the coin — make sense. Other times they’re pretty irrational.
Regardless, coaching hires often bring a sense of euphoric freshness. New coaches, no matter their pedigree, experience or lack thereof, give even the most beleaguered fan bases permission to dream — at least for an offseason.
Consider this ELCA boys basketball’s season to dream.
On Tuesday, a beaming Scott Queen, the school’s athletic director, stood by his new boys basketball coach Derrick Mason. Mason’s an Alabama native and former standout at Escambia County High in the nearby town of Atmore. He starred both as a quarterback and hooper, and got Division I scholarship offers in both football — which Mason declares is actually his favorite sport, “I was just a better basketball player than football player,” he said — and basketball.
Despite those accolades, Mason ended up playing at Lurleen B. Wallace Junior College in Andalusia, Ala. And that’s where his narrative begins to get interesting. It’s also what makes me feel like Mason’s dreaming AD, athletes and fans could be in for a great treat.
“I got the D-1 offers (in high school), but I didn’t get accepted because of academics,” Mason said. “And it was at that point when the lightbulb came on.”
The moment of illumination shifted Mason from entitled star high school athlete to a freshly focused college student.
“I realized when I didn’t get accepted that it was simply because I didn’t put in the work,” he said. “I didn’t make the sacrifices other players made. It was as simple as that. Later I tried out at another JUCO, and didn’t make it. I was a fool to do it, though, because I hadn’t worked out since high school. But those failures motivated me.”
Mason’s newfound push propelled him to get his grades together at Lurleen B. Wallace, even while he rounded back into form on the hardwood. More Division I squads came calling, but so did the tiny school from Franklin Springs, GA.
Despite the small size, which was something completely foreign to his earlier big-time aspirations, Mason found a home.
“I went on some of those D-1 visits, and I didn’t like the environment,” he said. “At that time I was two years away from graduating. I needed something solid. When I went to Emmanuel, it was rural and a perfect fit. There were no cars in the summer time, and I was like, ‘Wow, I can do this. I can focus here.’ Maybe not so much from the athletic standpoint, but spiritually it was the best decision I could’ve made.”
His journey sort of came full circle after a stint at Cingular Wireless and some time spent as an area director for Boys and Girls Club of America, when lo-and-behold, Emmanuel came calling again — this time for Mason to come on board the coaching staff under successful head coach T.J. Rosene.
Mason would spend the next seven years as an associate head coach, in charge of Emmanuel’s recruiting.
“That gave me the chance to travel all over the world looking for players,” he said. “I got a behind the scenes look. I know what college recruiters look for in a high school player to come to the next level. I know why some players and coaches hear back from recruiters and why others don’t.”
And it’s that fusion — the hard headed, uber talented high school baller and classroom slacker combining with the matured, Christ-centered recruiting coordinator turned high school coach — that has people like Queen both daydreaming and reminiscing.
Queen desperately wants to see the boys basketball program mimic some of the success that football has enjoyed under coach Jonathan Gess, who after multiple winning seasons, two state titles and a host of Division I caliber athletes, seems to be an old, grizzled veteran who has always been a known coaching commodity.
But we interrupt that assumption with this reminder: Gess was once the football equivalent of Mason — a young, hungry, inexperienced coach who had never run his own program before. Queen took a chance on Gess, which obviously has worked out pretty well. He’s hoping lightening can strike twice for the Chargers with Mason.
“People nowadays look at our football program and think it’s always been good,” Queen said. “But I’ve been here since 1997. I remember the days where we would spend 16 or 17 years practically begging people to come out for football. It kind of changed around 2009, 2010 when Coach Gess came on board. But he came to us with no experience either. Just a young guy who was energetic and you could tell wants to do it.
“We would love to be in the same place with (Mason) in basketball that we’re at now with Coach Gess in football.”
And if it’s going to be done, it will take a coach like Mason. A guy who’s been there and done that, having been on both sides of success. Mason said his experiences as a talented high school student-athlete that couldn’t quite put it all together, and his time identifying high school guys who can cut it at the next level create an optimal environment wherein a basketball renaissance can happen.
“I call it the perfect storm,” Mason said. “My life experiences are the perfect storm for a young high school kid to be coached under. I would want my kid to be coached by me, and I say that in all humility. The things I’ve been through have prepared and equipped me. Kids can relate to those who’ve been through those struggles. I can tell them, ‘Hey, don’t be that guy that messes things up in the classroom, because I was that guy.’”
It’s been a long time since ELCA’s been good in boys basketball. Mason, on the other hand, is coming off a seven-year stretch that saw Emmanuel make four NAIA national tournaments, 2 NCCAA National tournaments, two national championship game appearance with one national title.
He’s been around winning teams and squads. He’s been responsible for luring championship level talent to a college campus. He’s had a hand in developing that talent, helping tutor an NAIA All-American and several all-conference athletes. And as Queen said, “basketball is basketball.” The fundamentals don’t change, regardless of the level of competition.
I like the move because it shows ELCA is serious about making a winner out of boys basketball. I’m also a fan of the fact that Queen is not going to put Mason on the clock. He knows the climb is uphill and the success may be delayed. He’s content to give the new coach time to build the program.
But moreover, Mason seems like a home-run hire, despite the absence of a few gold nuggets on the resume, because he’s very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of players coach.
He’s a guy willing to help his players learn by his both his example and his experiences.
Case in point, while talking to his new players, Mason broke the coach-speak rule when it comes to talking about coach’s favorites.
“I know what people say, but I’m telling you coaches do have favorites,” Mason told his new squad. “The coach’s favorites are kids he can trust to do the right thing academically, kids who have character and the kids who come to practice every day and give it everything you’ve got. Those are a coach’s favorites.”
In other words, many of the things Mason himself wishes he would have paid more attention to during his high school years. But now he as another chance on the opposite side of the clipboard. And he made it clear he wants to give his guys every chance to succeed.
“I gave them a cheat sheet,” he said. “If they wanna be a coach’s favorite, here you go. I told them how. I didn’t wanna come out too stern today, but I did want to lay a firm foundation.”
Good for Mason and good for ELCA, it turns out that’s exactly what today’s high school athletes need most.
Gabriel Stovall is the founding editor of the Southern Crescent Buzz. You can follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1, or follow thecrescentbuzz.com on @crescent_buzz.