Mark Isenhour, 31, is the new head girls basketball coach at Brookwood, where he graduated in 2000. He was an assistant coach at his alma mater, LaGrange College, as well as an assistant at Embry Riddle (Fla.) to start his coaching career, then was the head women’s basketball coach at LaGrange College from 2007-2013.
Isenhour and his wife Cheri have two daughters, 7-year-old Ashlyn and 5-year-old Alexis. In this installment of “Getting to Know…”, Isenhour talks with sports editor Will Hammock about his modest playing ability, the influence of Eddie Martin and his longtime friendship with Brookwood boys head coach Daniel Bowles.
WH: You were out of basketball briefly. How did it come about that you got back to basketball and to this job?
MI: I went and watched Buford play. Gene Durden is a good friend of mine. They were playing them right down the road. Watching them play reminded me again of what I’m passionate about, what I’m good at, what I enjoy doing. A couple of weeks later, I came and watched Daniel play. I left that game thinking I’d be a coach again in the immediate future. I didn’t know I’d be lucky enough to have this opportunity present itself. A few days later I called Daniel, he wanted to hear what I thought of the game, what I would have done differently. I told him, ‘I’m ready to get back in coaching.’ A few weeks later, Coach Terry announced that he was going to focus his efforts in the classroom. Daniel asked me for my resume to send to Mr. Ford. Mr. Ford called me that day and asked me to sit down and talk.
WH: So it wasn’t like you were in for a bunch of other jobs?
MI: This was the only one. I’ve been really lucky, really fortunate. I’ve actually never applied for a high school coaching job or college coaching job. At the end of my playing career, my coach at LaGrange asked me to stay on board and help him as an assistant. The head coach at Embry-Riddle had coached and worked with my previous college coach. He called me per my coach’s recommendation. The athletic director at LaGrange called me about coming back. And then of course, Mr. Ford called me. I wouldn’t know how to fill out an application so it’s good this keeps happening to me.
WH: Where do you live? Are you settling out this way?
MI: We live down in Brookhaven right now, but we’re looking at homes in this area. We’re looking at homes in the Brookwood area. It seems to be a really strong area. The experience I had growing up is what I want my kids to have.
WH: What do you remember Brookwood basketball being like when you were here?
MI: I’ll never forget, my junior year we were No. 1 in the state most of the year. We ended up losing to a Marietta team that had Ezra Williams and a couple of other college players, they had a pretty special team. That’s something that’s going to guide the way I interact with my players and the vision I lay forth for them, is the experience I had. At the time, I don’t know that we were a team that consistently had the most talent. But I think because of what we did, the way we went about our work, we were always able to be competitive. And competitive not just in the subregion or region level, but the state level. Those experiences helped me mold my work ethic, my integrity, the things I value most in my life were formed here at Brookwood High School.
WH: Are you going to tell them how good of a player you were?
MI: I wasn’t very good at all. And there’s nothing wrong with that. What I don’t want them to do is have them see those pictures of me weighing a buck 65. I don’t mind telling them that I didn’t make my eighth grade team. I didn’t really play as a ninth-grader. I really didn’t play as a 10th-grader. I think there is some real value to getting that message across. Especially at the high school level, it’s not always where you start it’s where you finish. That should speak volumes to the team. We’re not going to determine our success in October. We’ll determine it in February.
WH: Was (longtime Brookwood, former Norcross and current Greater Atlanta Christian) Coach (Eddie) Martin a major influence on you?
MI: He was. I got a really good compliment a couple of years ago when I was at LaGrange. One of my players’ uncles is a referee in this area. He told me, ‘Mark, you coach like Eddie. I can tell you played for him.’ I don’t know how that’s possible because we were pressing and running up and down the floor, which is vastly different from we did when I was here. But it was still a great compliment.
WH: Eddie didn’t have the guys here to run up and down the court.
MI: I don’t know if you remember those stall-ball games. We beat Clarke Central 32-28 one year. I think we probably only had 16 total possessions on offense, just slowing the game down as much as possible.
WH: Teams used to hold the ball all the time against you to get you out of the zone.
MI: Absolutely. And we’re just not doing it. We’re just not doing it. Yeah, Coach Martin has been a major And getting to work for an NAIA Hall of Famer down at Embry-Riddle. I’ve been very fortunate to be around coaches who have had a strong influence on me.
WH: How long have you known Daniel?
MI: I guess since my sophomore year of high school. He was a senior my sophomore year, that was the first year I played varsity. I use the term played very loosely. That’s the first year I got to wear a varsity uniform.
WH: What would you say if people ask you what kind of high school player Daniel was?
MI: Same as me, not great. He had to get through with his intelligence, his ability to fit into a role the coach gave him just like I did. I think there’s some real value in having guys who maybe weren’t the most impactful player on the court at all times. They can understand not only the kid with the pressure on their shoulders to hit the big shot, but also the plight of the other kids on the team.
WH: How neat is it to work with Daniel, another Brookwood guy?
MI: It’s really neat. I’m fortunate. The men’s coach at LaGrange became one of my closest friends. Daniel was in my wedding, I was in his. Daniel introduced my wife and I to each other. Daniel introduced me to this opportunity and he’s obviously one of my best friends. It’s going to be special to learn and grow beside him.
WH: Was it more important that he introduced you to your wife or to the Brookwood job?
MI: (Laughs). Listen, my wife reads the paper so it’s absolutely more important that he introduced me to my wife.
WH: How did that come about?
MI: We were in college together at a small college. He and my wife Cheri had classes together and he just said, ‘I want to introduce you to one of my big, goofy friends.’ It worked out well.
WH: What was your first date like?
MI: We actually watched a movie in Daniel’s dorm room. He was instrumental until I said OK, get away now.
WH: Daniel’s hooked you up pretty good.
MI: Absolutely, I owe him.
WH: You and Daniel played together at LaGrange, too?
MI: We played together the first two years I was there. He was a graduate assistant coach my junior year. So he stayed around and coached my junior year.
WH: He was a college basketball coach, too. What’s the lure of coming back to high school basketball for you guys?
MI: I can’t speak for him. With me, I had opportunities last summer. I got contacted by a couple of people in Dallas, in the state of Washington. With a wife and two small kids, I’m from this area, my wife’s from this area, we both have parents in this area. I just couldn’t make my living for the next 30 years moving my kids to all these small college towns across the country. I wanted them to have a similar experience that Brookwood provided for me. I just didn’t feel like that would lend itself to giving them the experience I wanted them to have. So for me, it was a no-brainer. At the end of the day, I get to spend more time with my players, develop them more and watch them grow more. The ability to be somewhere, be consistent and know that I’m here to build a long-term program was enticing.
WH: What are you going to miss most about college coaching?
MI: Recruiting. The competition involved in recruiting. The fact that honestly it came down to who outworked who. At LaGrange, I had the lowest budget in our entire conference. I was the only coach in the conference without a full-time assistant. And I drove my own bus. None of those three things ever kept us from winning. It came down to us being able to get up earlier, drive farther, make more calls and work harder than our competitors. That’s something that I’ll really miss, the competition of recruiting. Hopefully there will be more of a challenge and greater emphasis on skill development in high school. That’s something I’m really looking forward to.
WH: How much different is Brookwood than when you were here?
MI: All I’ve seen is the buildings. There’s a new wing in here, which is mind-blowing because they built a new wing while I was here, too. I walked down the hall and saw some of the same custodial staff, some of the same administrators. Teachers like Malinda Martin are still here. She was as impactful on my four years at Brookwood High School as anybody. So far, it’s really neat. I’m sure being here in a student role vs. a faculty role will be uniquely different. But so far it brings back a lot of positive memories.
WH: People still remember your brother Michael (who played at Georgia Tech and died of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2002) well even these days. What does that mean to you?
MI: It means more to me than you know. Georgia Tech still does a toy drive in his name. … It’s allowed my two daughters to understand Uncle Michael through those things. Right after Michael passed away, I made a joke to (then Tech head coach) Paul Hewitt about Michael not being very good and his highlight being punching Shane Battier instead of scoring on Shane Battier. Coach Hewitt just said, ‘But you know basketball introduced a lot of people to Michael and his gifts.’ We still go to a Tech game every year. That toy drive and everything has been really neat, if only because my kids can get to know him through those channels.
WH: How old were you when he was going through everything?
MI: I was a sophomore. We lost our mom my freshman year of college to breast cancer and he got sick right after that. Daniel was there for me the entire way. People don’t always know what you’re going through. But he was always great about understanding when I wasn’t myself at practice or if I was pulling myself away. It’s those things that make a lifelong friendship.
WH: Do you see yourself doing this in the long term?
MI: I see myself doing this as long as they give me the opportunity. I’ve wanted to be a basketball coach when I was 14. I think I was a freshman when I decided I wanted to be a high school basketball coach one day. When I graduated college, the opportunity to coach at the collegiate level presented itself. I liked it and I thought I was good at it. The things I wanted to get out of coaching were there. I never really necessarily so myself doing anything else. Hearing Daniel, Gene Durden and some other friends talk about the difference in high school and what it allows for, I think it’s going to be great.