By Jeff Goodman
I’ll admit. I was regretting my decision for a while there.
I was the new guy at CBSSports.com, needing to prove my worth -- so I wanted to come up with innovative new ideas to the best bosses in America, Mark Swanson and Craig Stanke (kissing you-know-what can never hurt).
So, on my first official day with the company, I proposed a unique idea for beginning the summer recruiting period. One of us traveling with a high-major coach, living the life, flying on private planes -- while the other slums it for a few days in July on the recruiting trail with an anonymous low-major guy.
I opted to take one for the team -- and handed Parrish a plum opportunity, one that every writer in America would yearn to experience. Follow a guy like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo for 96 hours or so, everywhere he went.
My choice was UT-Pan American’s Ryan Marks, who had won a half-dozen games in each of his two seasons as the head man in the Division 1 ranks. A chubby (I’m sorry, Ryan) 40-year-old single man who coaches about 10 minutes from the Mexico border.
As the days drew near to the start of the July recruiting period, I started to wonder whether I’d made a mistake. Parrish would be sitting watching the elite high school players, schmoozing all the high-major coaches and even seeing many of the best returning college basketball players at the LeBron James Skills Academy.
On the flip side, I’d be watching a bunch of fringe Division 1 players and hanging with a variety of Division 2, junior college and low-major coaches.
Maybe I’d made a mistake. I mean, I’d get a lot more done talking to heavy hitters like Coach K, Roy and kids like Jared Sullinger in Akron.
But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
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I saw the “other” side of college basketball, without the glitz and the glamour -- the guys who truly do it for the love of the game and the kids who play for the right reasons.
I’m not saying that Izzo, Coach K and Roy Williams don’t love what they're doing, but this is different.
Many of these guys struggle to make ends meet, move from spot to spot in an effort to remain in college basketball coaching.
It was fun -- and enlightening.
They accepted me as if I was one of their own.
Lamar coach Pat Knight wasn’t the only one to jab me for finally “roughing it” when he saw me at the junior college event on Friday. That was a common theme among the low and mid-major guys.
I also heard plenty of “What the hell were you thinkings?” throughout the three-day trek that took Marks and me from Indianapolis to Chicago to Milwaukee, then back to Chicago and finally to St. Louis.
I spent two nights on the pull-out couch of Marks’ mother in her downtown Chicago condo, where she honestly treated me like her son. She spoke glowingly about her 95-year-old husband, who passed away months ago, and it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
She showed me picture of her son, who I barely knew before the trip -- and now can say with conviction is one of the best human beings I’ve ever been around.
This is a guy who reaches into his own pocket and pays for his assistant coaches flights the entire month of July. The $10 a day for food doesn’t quite cut it, so Marks helps on that end as well.
When he got the job two years ago, the interim athletic director told him he’d get to put a decent percentage of the money the team earned playing “money games” against big-time teams back into the basketball program.
However, current AD Chris King, who Marks raved about for a good portion of the trip, told him that after doing more research on the financial situation of the athletic department, that wouldn’t be possible.
Marks never complained once.
"That’s life," he said. "I understand."
"You won’t find a better guy," UT-Pan American assistant Nick Bennett told me while we were sitting in Milwaukee on Thursday.
If I had a nickel for each time I heard that line, well, Marks wouldn’t have been sharing a room on Friday night at the Drury Inn with Andre Cook -- the guy who replaced him at Division II St. Edward’s.
We talked about just about everything on our trip, from family to work to relationships. We even shared string cheese, a snack preference of a guy who somehow maintains his physique despite only putting down one meal per day.
Now I can say I’ve stayed in a Drury Inn, a place where I saw two guys come down the elevator at 8 a.m. with open beers in each hand.
That I’ve ridden in a Sol, one of the most hideous-looking vehicles I’ve ever laid eyes on.
And that I’ve lived the life of one of the best coaches in America.