'Don't Put Me In, Coach': A Bench-Warmer's Saga
Mark Titus spent his college basketball career collecting splinters in his red shorts on the bench. He was a walk-on who won a spot on the roster of Ohio State University's vaunted Big Ten basketball team from 2006 to 2010. He set the record for most individual career wins in school history — while scoring just nine points in his four years.
Titus founded a blog to write about his experience on the team. He called it Club Trillion, because that's what all the numbers following your name look like when you play one minute per game but get no points or assists, or much else besides another cup of Gatorade.
But Titus' wit and spirit quickly won him his own fan base. He has continued to write funny, original and often profane sports pieces, most recently for ESPN's website Grantland, and he has just released an irreverent new memoir that gives an insider's look at NCAA basketball. It's called Don't Put Me In, Coach: My Incredible Journey from the End of the Bench to the End of the Bench.
Titus tells NPR's Scott Simon that landing on the Ohio State team was almost a fluke. He was an "above average" basketball player in high school, he says, and played on the same youth team as future NBA stars Greg Oden and Mike Conley. Harvard University initially recruited him, but the offer fell through after a couple of Harvard coaches came to one of his high school games.
Titus and his coach had gotten into "a little bit of a fight, and I was suspended for the first half of the game," he admits. "It was my understanding that they were more or less coming to just support me, rather than recruit. ... I came back out in the second half and they were gone, and I never heard from them again."
Laughing, he adds, "It's not really smart to put all your eggs in a Harvard basket, and that's kind of what I did."
So instead, he followed his good friend and teammate Greg Oden, who was the No. 1 recruit in the country at the time, to Ohio State. Thinking that high school was his athletic ceiling, he didn't intend to play basketball at Ohio. But he tried out as a walk-on and made the team. He held his spot for four years — not so much because he was so good but because the really good players kept getting drafted by the pros.
Nevertheless, Titus shared fully in the team's emotional highs and lows. In his freshman year, the Ohio State team made the Final Four and lost narrowly to Florida in the national championship game. Titus says that loss was particularly disappointing because he knew it was the last contest he would be in with his longtime friends and teammates Oden and Conley.
"I kind of knew that that was my last game I'd ever play with them, unless I somehow miraculously made it to the NBA and we all got on the same team," Titus says. "So for me, it was unfortunate that our time together had to end on a sour note."
Titus thinks that the passion of the players is what makes college basketball so appealing. "With college, especially end of term, when you get the seniors, and they know — especially at the smaller schools — they know that this is their last chance to play basketball, and so they, like, pull off the miracle upset against the team full of NBA guys. You know, that happens seemingly every year."
Although he hardly ever played, even Titus was lucky enough to experience a senior's passion in his last game at OSU. He was scheduled to have surgery the next day, so while some of his teammates would go on to play in the NCAA tournament, it was the last time he would ever wear an Ohio State jersey. A lot of fans knew this because he had written about it on his blog.
"So, I come out and there are, like, 3,000 students wearing T-shirts with my blog's logo on them," Titus recalls. "They introduced me, and I was just kind of overcome with emotion. I started crying, and it's still pretty embarrassing to talk about now, and I still get a lot of flak about it from my teammates. And we won big enough to where I got to get in, and I was out on the court as the horn sounded and we won the Big Ten."
So, despite the facetious title of his book and his insistence that he never wanted to be a "Rudy," Titus' college basketball career did end up following the traditional "walk on makes good" storyline, at least in this small way.
"I mean, I don't think I could've scripted it any better, how it ended up working out for me," he says.
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