BY AARON PATTERSON
Of all the road trips made in his Hall of Fame coaching career, Mott Community College coach Steve Schmidt’s favorite is the nearly 400-mile trek from Flint, Mich. to Danville. He recently declared Danville his home away from home, and with good reason. He’s beginning to run out of fingers to count the number of trips he’s made to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament.
The most important drive of his career, though, didn’t take as long. It lasted roughly one hour, and was a considerably shorter 50 miles from Lansing to Flint.
In 1991, the Mott Community College men’s basketball program had no coach and was in such bad shape that the school had threatened to shut down the program completely. The only thing that would save it was a patient coach with a will to win.
A roster of recent high school graduates that simply wanted to play basketball was left with no coach, and possibly no basketball future at Mott.
So, the position was offered to Schmidt, who at the time was a relatively young and raw student of the game with no head coaching experience, but plenty of desire to win.
He turned it down.
“I just didn’t have a gut feeling that it was the right move for me,” Schmidt said. “But then three or four weeks later, I went back on my own. I had some questions in my own heart and in my own mind.
“What happened was, I went into the lobby of the field house. There were two kids sitting on a bench. They looked at me. They didn’t know who I was, and they said, ‘Would you be our coach? We just want a coach.’ It broke my heart. I found the AD and said, ‘If you haven’t hired anybody, I’ll take the job.’”
The rest, as they say, is history. The interaction was one he will never forget, and one that spawned a journey worthy of a Hollywood script.
It’s also one that might have never been told without patience, perseverance, and resilience.
Schmidt didn’t have time to recruit for his first season, and the athletics director even warned him that he might go winless.
Schmidt recalls that the players he inherited couldn’t even run a basic three-man weave. But because of his determination, and the slight naivety of a rookie coach, the team finished with a .500 record. Ten years later, the Bears made history by making their first trip to the national tournament.
Mott has since made a total of nine trips to Danville, including this year, and has won four national titles. Schmidt is hoping to get one for the thumb on this trip, and even more important, add to the tradition he helped build.
“The ironic part of the story was, one of the kids that was sitting there is now my assistant coach, Yusef Harris,” Schmidt said. “He played for me for two years and moved on to Wayne State. He’s been coaching with me for 16 years.
“That really tugged at my heart that they just wanted a coach. They didn’t care who. They didn’t know who I was. Something in my heart told me to go, drive the 50 miles to go back, and when I saw them and they asked me to be (their) coach, I made my decision right there.”
Harris recalls that day in 1991 vividly. Even he wasn’t sure what to expect, but he quickly found out on the first day of practice when Schmidt amped up the intensity and, regardless of the skill level, demanded a degree of effort that inspired greatness.
“He was an intense guy from Day One,” Harris said. “We thought, ‘OK, we’ve got the right guy.’ I was a hard-working guy, and my best friend was as well. To win 17 games with that team was a pretty shocking thing because we had tryouts and it was like the Bad News Bears of basketball.”
Schmidt admits that he carried a rather naïve mindset that he could win any game — even one against a Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics squad.
The mentality has since gone from one of naivety, to a much more mature push for excellence. It’s one that he says extends from his own college playing days.
“It’s an attitude,” Schmidt said. “You want to compete. People kind of laugh at this; when I played at Central Michigan University, I wasn’t a Division I athlete, but I became kind of a favorite because I hustled. I was on the floor for loose balls. I made the most out of what athletic ability I had. You find that most of the great players aren’t great coaches. I just learned the value of a work ethic as a player, earning a Division I scholarship.
“We have this mindset that if we work hard and really stress defense — your shot’s going to be off some days, you’re going to make mistakes. But the one thing you can always control — this is my philosophy — you can control how hard you play. You can control your effort, you can control your attitude regardless if you’re missing shots or not.”
That is Schmidt’s philosophy on the court, and is something he requires of every player he recruits. Demanding? He admits as much. And he realizes he has built a reputation of a coach that has high expectations for his program. In return, the players that choose to sign at Mott enter the program determined to continue building the tradition that has been 22 years in the making.
“I was talking to one of the players yesterday,” Harris said. “I said, ‘This is why people sign at Mott. To come to Danville. To get to this point. They know that if they’re in our program, they stand a great chance of getting seen at the national tournament by other coaches.’ There are 70-80 (Division I) coaches here every tournament. It’s mind boggling. The guys know that from Day One, the first day of practice, if we work hard and play as a team, we will be in Danville.”
The Bears went through their share of struggles early in Schmidt’s coaching career including falling just short in five region championship games in the 10 years leading up to their 2001 appearance. He recently recorded win No. 600, and the program has lost a total of only 11 games in the last four seasons. But he has made one thing transparent.
“At the end of the day, I’ve never lost perspective of one thing,” Schmidt said. “This is a game for the players. I’ve had some great players that have bought in to our system, they’ve bought into our discipline and our structure, and they’ve made me look like a pretty good coach. I’ve never lost perspective. I coach to make an impact on the players that I coach.”
But he might have never had the opportunity to make that impact had Harris never asked Schmidt to save Mott’s program and give the team a chance to compete.