January 25, 2011

Mark's No-Nonsense Style Defies MCLA Model

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Charlie Mark's coaching style is described as "in your face" by his players, but he's just trying to get his kids ready for the real world and, perhaps, a national championship.
© Ryan McKee

It didn't take too long for Brian Eisenhardt to size up his new coach. A freshman goalie at Dayton in the spring of 2005, Eisenhardt liked the idea of consistent leadership for the university's once-tenuous men's lacrosse program.

"It was just a bunch of guys with a similar color shirt and a similar helmet," Eisenhardt said.

The new coach was a guy named Charlie Mark. Mark had come out to watch a fall ball tournament in Cincinnati and expressed both a willingness to help out and an excitement about the team's potential. An invitation was extended to be the team's leader.

What would be the big deal, right?

On the first day of practice, out walked Mark, his back ramrod straight – almost as if his vertebrae had been glued together – while his eyes met the gaze of each player standing in front of him. The blue hat covering his white hair had an "N" stitched onto its front.

"He had all of his Navy lacrosse gear on and he just blew his whistle," said Eisenhardt. "The first thing I thought to myself was 'Holy sh--.'"

Eisenhardt wasn't the only one who had this unwelcome epiphany. Most of the players, mouths agape, swiveled their heads back and forth, trying to figure out exactly what was happening.

As it turned out, Dayton had not just hired an energetic, Midwesterner looking for something to fill his afternoons. They had handed the keys to the program to a Long Island native, a former starting midfielder for the U.S. Naval Academy, a former Navy pilot, an intelligence expert, and a man bent on giving back to the sport in the wake of a national tragedy.

A man who, through the experiences of his journey, has come to view just about every facet of his life through a prism consisting of simply black and white. And a man who could be on the cusp of bringing the Flyers to an MCLA championship.

'What happened to me was a miracle'

"Very simply put, I'm a product of East Meadow, on Long Island," Mark said.

Lacrosse is more of a rite of passage than a choice in East Meadow, located just east of Hempstead, so when a childhood friend – a guy named John Danowski – first put a stick in Mark's hand, the then-redheaded firebrand took to it immediately. With a pit-bull-like pursuit of ground balls and superb conditioning, Mark starred at Holy Trinity High School and became one of the first players to be an All-Metropolitan selection for four years.

At the conclusion of his run at Holy Trinity, he was approved to enter the Naval Academy. Approved, but not accepted.

"I was too stupid to get into the Naval Academy," Mark said. "So I went to the Naval Academy Prep School to get my grades up."

While at Navy Prep, located in Newport, R.I., Mark busted his butt in the classroom while continuing his domination on the lacrosse field, officially opening the doors to Annapolis. The brash kid from East Meadow, however, was about to receive a life-changing lesson.

"I had a big head on my shoulders, and certainly going undefeated at the prep school didn't help that problem," Mark said. "When I got to the Naval Academy I realized, 'Oh, my God,' these guys are great athletes and they're smart. In fact, they are a lot smarter than me. I learned, thanks to the Naval Academy and the coaches, to care about somebody besides myself."

It was a challenge, as it is for most young men who enter the Academy, for Mark to put himself in a secondary role behind a unit or team, but he quickly understood the benefits. While he was known euphemistically as a "character" by his peers off the field, he happily took on the persona of the nameless, faceless cog in the Navy lacrosse machine.

"There's that dynamic with the Maryland kids who are the finesse players and the bull-in-the-china-shop players are from Long Island and Upstate New York. Charlie was the bull in the china shop," said Jeff Johnson, a standout goalie for Navy out of Towson. "He was quick, he could run all day, and was great defensively. He always went for the ground ball. He was just a good team player."

It was his transition from a standout to classic role player that made Mark a starter as a freshman, where he remained, helping the Midshipmen make four consecutive appearances in the national semifinals.

It also shaped his life.

Mark continued his team-based ethos as a Navy pilot for 20 years before getting into the intelligence business. In broad terms, his current job is to teach others how to embrace the all-for-one concept.

"My job is to teach military people how to be a team within intelligence," Mark said. "I teach them how to operate as a team, survive as a team, and to kill bad guys."

Mark is well aware of his transformation from a hard-scrabble kid from East Meadow to a specialized consultant who is helping his country.

"What happened to me was a miracle," Mark said. "I was able to leave a blue-collar environment on Long Island where my dad was a carpenter and go to a place like the Naval Academy, all because of this sport."

While he had brief jobs in lacrosse after he left the Academy, including a two-year stint as an assistant at Bowdoin College while he was stationed at Brunswick (Maine) Naval Air Station, it would be nearly 25 years until he decided to reconnect himself with lacrosse.

It was a decision motivated by tragedy. That cloudless day on Sept. 11, 2001, shook the lives of everyone, including Mark.

"One of the guys on Flight 11, Ken Waldie, was a close personal friend of mine who was in the 10th Company with me at the Naval Academy," Mark said. "It affected me. One of my classmates was in the Pentagon when the plane went in. The only thing they found, the only thing his wife got out of that whole event, was a Naval Academy ring."

There was plenty of anger, and maybe even a tear or two, when Mark mourned the dozen friends he lost that day. But when a veteran official in Ohio suggested that Mark help out a ragtag club lacrosse team over at Dayton, the Navy man decided the best way to honor his friends was to foster the game in others -- the hope being the players would use the sport to shape their lives like he did.

"I said to myself, 'I'm going to help these kids out at Dayton if they want my help,'" Mark said. "I'm in this to give back to the sport, and I have an opportunity to shape 50 lives."

'If they want to be special, we ask them to leave'

The initial result of the interaction between an unwavering military man and a group of players more than happy to roll out of bed and play some ball on the weekend was predictable. The varying shades of gray on the palette of most teenagers was blotted out by the black-white, right-wrong, yes-no world of Charlie Mark.

"Some people didn't react well, washed out and left," Eisenhardt said of Mark's first year. "They said, 'I don't want to deal with this; it's what I dealt with in high school.'"

"Half the kids here at Dayton have parents who are wealthy, and the other half are on some form of a scholarship," Mark said. "There's a mix of kids, and they haven't had that kind of discipline, and they'll get that from me."

Mark's definition of discipline goes way beyond what most coaches claim. It's not about being on time to practice or running certain plays. It's everything.

"If you have the wrong kind of socks on and you show up at our bus, we're going to leave you in Dayton," Mark said. "If I say the kids have to have blue sweats on with a knapsack, and you have to check on the bus with at least two books to do assignments for the trip, we will inspect your knapsack before you get on the bus, or you are not going to make the trip. That's it. Period. If you show up late for practice without a good, viable reason, you will not play in the next game. It is pure discipline."

"The way he runs things is different than anything we saw with our competitors," Eisenhardt said. "He's very professional on and off the field. His style is very in your face."

Mark's draconian ways were not whims. Rather, he meant to create an atmosphere where there are no stars, just a cohesive unit completely dedicated to one goal.

"You can't have anyone who is special to be a good team," Mark said. "That's what I do in my job, and it's the same is in lacrosse. They look the same. They wear the same socks. They are all in a white shirt. They practice the same way and execute the same way. You are playing 35 to 40 guys every game, so everybody has a stake in the results. My big thing at Dayton is to keep everybody operating as a team and functioning as a team so that you are executing the plays for your teammates, not for yourself."

How do Mark's concepts work at a player level? Take the case of Christian Furbay, a junior attackman on this year's Dayton team.

The dominant player at Turpin High School in Cincinnati along with his twin brother, Furbay was expected to almost single-handedly win games for his prep team that was created when he was a junior. Most of Furbay's success came on his patented power move to the goal.

"Because he's such a strong kid – he's like oak, you hit him and nothing happens – he'd score five to eight goals a game in high school," Mark said. "Everyone else depended on him. First thing I did was I said, 'You're not a scorer anymore. If you drive to the cage, you'll sit the bench.'"

"He would always make fun of me and say, 'Hey, it's Furbay's high school dodge!' It always came out when I lowered my head and went to the cage, especially when I didn't make it," Furbay said.

Not used to such treatment, Furbay gritted his teeth as a freshman and held back the urge to talk back to the curmudgeonly coach who wouldn't let him use his best asset. He didn't realize it right away, but his game started to improve.

"What's wonderful is now he gets it," Mark said. "He's so much more dangerous now. If you're not going to cover him, he's going to score. But guess what? If you over-cover him, he's going find the cutter for a goal. He's gotten so much better because of it."

"The past two years I've learned to keep my head up, and he's emphasized that every day," said Furbay, who was a first team MCLA All-American last spring and a captain this year. "It has really helped out."

Not everyone gets it like Furbay. Some don't want to conform to a coaching style Mark described as "anal." Those players get shown the exit. But even for them, the light occasionally goes on.

"If they want to be special, we ask them to leave," Mark said. "Four years ago we had a first team All-American, and I said, 'We're done. We don't need your talent. If you don't do X, Y and Z, and follow the process, good luck.' Know what's nice? He left the team and now when we have our alumni games he shows up and is happy. It's pretty cool. He learned his lesson. He grew up."

'It's not about you; it's about the team'

Ultimately, that is Mark's mission: to help these lacrosse players grow up and be ready for life after college. For some, keeping a kid on the sideline because he has the wrong socks or didn't follow an obscure team rule is anathema to the boundless world of higher education. Charlie Mark is not out to show kids a good time.

He's trying to prepare them for a time in their lives when a lacrosse stick won't matter.

"He has a very specific look and a very specific ideal of what he wants the team to represent, and that's just a part of being prepared," said Eisenhardt, who now works for the Department of Justice in Los Angeles. "It's that attention to detail that really manifests itself as you move on to your professional life. His attention to detail in his job trickles down to attention to detail with the teams. Socks are just as important for him because it shows you're prepared and actually took the time the day before to be ready."

"We get a lot of stories on the future of our job market," Furbay said. "He'll throw a Navy story out there, but it's a lot about how we need to respect our bosses. Look him in the eye, listen when he talks, and it will help you out in the real world."

"The message is, in lacrosse, learning to work together and learning about other people is the same way it operates in a company," Mark said. "It's learning to care about shareholders, or other coworkers. The good news about a company is when everyone works together, you make more money and you're successful. Same thing in lacrosse. I try to parallel a business atmosphere with our students, so that what they're learning with Dayton lacrosse is the same thing they are going to learn at a good company. It's not about you; it's about the team; it's about the firm."

Mark swims upstream, to say the least, when it comes to coaching in the MCLA. Because the set-up of most non-varsity programs has the players acting as the employer and the coach as the employee, MCLA coaches operate under the constant threat of dismissal. There have been a rash of firings over the past two years, and Mark has been up front with his team on the issue.

"I let the kids know, 'Look guys, the day you want me to step away, I will gladly step away if that's what you want,'" he said. "We're a team, and that includes the coaching staff."

Mark doesn't need lacrosse anymore. The sport has already given him all he could want. He coaches because he still owes lacrosse.

He owes lacrosse for starting his happy life, for allowing him to realize all of his successes. He owes it for introducing him to concepts like teamwork, selflessness and leadership. He owes lacrosse because there are those no longer with us who can't repay the sport.

It's why he doesn't take a penny in payment, opting instead to give his stipend to his assistant coaches. And it's why, even though this year he has his most talented and cohesive Dayton team that will contend for a national championship, he's unwilling to waiver on his principles.

"Sometimes it gets frustrating, because it's not always convenient to do things the way he wants to do them," Eisenhardt said. "But the easy way isn't always the right way, and he has the right way in mind."

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