CASSTOWN — To celebrate his 400th win as head coach of the Miami East boys basketball team, Allen Mack went to a place where the neon lights are bright, the drinks never stop flowing and the doors stay open all night — and he got a little wild.
Two scoops of wild, in fact.
“After the gym had cleared, my wife and daughter and I went to Steak and Shake and got some ice cream,” said Mack, who picked up win No. 400 with a grind-it-out 36-30 victory over Graham recently. “I got a sandwich and some fries, and of course we finished it off with an ice cream treat. The next morning we went to church and my pastor had some very nice things to say about the win. Then we went back to work in practice on Monday.”
Of course he did.
Because he’s Allen Mack, who has spent his entire adult life running a four-corners offense that consists almost entirely of his faith, his family, his students and his basketball teams. It’s a lifestyle — spend 10 seconds with him and you’ll know it’s definitely not an act — that’s played well at Miami East, the rural community where the players wear blue collars on their jerseys and most of their ardent fans wear the same color collars to work through the week.
Mack — a math teacher at Miami East High School before taking over as principal at the junior high school 15 years ago — is as straight and narrow as a line of crops in a Casstown cornfield, and folks within the tight-knit community love him for it. Without the benefit of a single Division I college player in his 24 years as coach, Mack has taken the small-town program to the biggest stage three times, making three trips to state and winning a state championship in 1996 with perhaps the most unlikely of teams.
“I’ve just been very fortunate to have so many hard-working, blue-collar kids over the years,” Mack said. “We’ve had kids who were quick, solid and aggressive on defense and skilled on offense. You know, it’s still a kids’ game — I always try to keep that in mind. You still want them to have fun. Ultimately, you have to trust them, because they are the ones who have to make the plays. That’s tough, especially for an experienced coach, because you want to control all of the things. I’ve been very blessed to have some great assistant coaches and some great kids over the years.”
Mack may relate so well to kids because he practically was one when he took over the program and made it one of the most successful in the area. The Covington High School and Manchester University graduate arrived at Miami East in 1987 and spent one year coaching junior varsity before taking over the varsity program the following year at the tender age of 23. He was just a few years older than some of his players.
He was so young and baby-faced that first year as head coach that his players had no qualms about physically hoisting him over their heads, throwing him in the showers once to celebrate a big win (thankfully for Mack, that hasn’t happened since).
“I was just 23 at the time and, I know this sounds like a cliche, but I think I was lucky that I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Mack said. “The players and I kind of worked through things together. I remember we won our first four games of the season and we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Then we went 3-14 the rest of the way and finished the season 7-14. We were able to turn things around the next year, and things kind of started rolling from there.”
Which, in true Mack fashion, is an absolute understatement.
That first year would be one of only two losing seasons Mack has had in his 24 years of coaching. The Vikings would go 18-5 the next season and reach the Division III district title game, something they’ve done 11 times since he took over the program. In 1992, they would make the first of three trips to the state final four. Four years later, he took a team that finished the regular season 13-7 on a magical tournament run that included an incredible buzzer-beating shot in the state semifinals and ended in an improbable state championship win against the top-ranked team in the state.
Five years removed from that state championship, he led another team in the state finals, where the only thing that stopped the Vikings from winning a second state title was an Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary team that was led by a sophomore named LeBron James.
Since 1988, Mack — who did step away from the game in 2002 when he was named principal at the junior high school to focus on his duties in that capacity, but returned in 2007 — practically has been Miami East basketball. In the past 30 years, few high school coaches in the area have been as synonymous with their programs as Mack has been with his.
Consider this: Going into last night’s game with Milton-Union, Mack had won 401 basketball games. Since 1958, when the program was founded, the 11 Miami East coaches not named Mack won a total of 276 games and made just one district finals appearance.
True to form, Mack is quick to give credit to everyone else he’s worked with over the years for all of his success.
“I had three coaches who were instrumental in teaching me the game of basketball,” Mack said. “Jim Meyer, my eighth grade coach, who is back coaching the girls team at Covington, Steve Fisher, my JV coach, who has spent a lifetime coaching the game of basketball and Bob Huelsman, the highly successful varsity coach at Covington, all gave me a solid foundation.
“At Miami East, I’ve been so blessed to have incredible kids and assistant coaches over the years. While it’s a great honor and nice that we’ve been able to do some of the things we’ve been able to do out here at East, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the players and assistant coaches I’ve had over the years.”
Eventually, there’s going to come a day when Mack — Casstown’s Mr. Basketball — will no longer be on the sidelines at Miami East, leading his team to another stunning win against a bigger, faster, more athletic team. He’ll no longer be in practices on cold winter nights, preaching the virtue of the 1-2-2 zone defense. It’s going to leave a massive void in a small community that lives and breathes its hoop dreams every year.
“My first year, I remember I just wanted to take things one year at a time,” Mack said. “I’m still doing that. Everything is one year at a time. I’m not going to do this forever, but for right now, I’m going to give it everything I have. I owe that to our kids and our seniors. I know I’ve talked to a lot of coaches who said they knew when they were taking their last bus ride.”
Some day, Mack — who still doesn’t look much different than the kid who took over the program three decades ago and made it great — also will take his final bus ride with the kids he loves.
But what a wild ride it’s been.
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong