Baldwin moves from assistant to become Hornets’ head man

Stephanie Backus/FULTON SUN photo: First-year Fulton head coach Marques Baldwin directs the Hornets during Monday’s practice at Roger D. Davis Gymnasium.

Stephanie Backus/FULTON SUN photo: First-year Fulton head coach Marques Baldwin directs the Hornets during Monday’s practice at Roger D. Davis Gymnasium.

Coaching basketball was never the long-term goal for Marques Baldwin.

Like anyone on the hardwood, Baldwin saw himself playing the game for as long as possible. But running a team from the sideline, and not from his guard’s position between the lines? That was never in the cards.

But when a seemingly harmless high-ankle sprain put him on the shelf longer than Baldwin expected, coaching seemed like something that could pass the time until he was healed and ready to go.

“I figured I’d do that for a year and then try and get back to it,” Baldwin said. “But it just didn’t work out that way.”

Now the 26-year-old Baldwin mans the bench and calls the shot from off the floor for the Fulton Hornets basketball team. He is preparing for his head coaching debut when top-seeded Fulton opens the 2010-11 season in the semifinals of the Montgomery County Tournament at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

Again, it might not be where he saw his life going, but a change of course wasn’t something that was going to throw the Waynesboro native off track.

That attitude likely started at home. Baldwin was brought up in the military — his mother retired as a captain and his father retired as a first sergeant in the United States Army. It was a looser family environment than one might imagine, but structured nonetheless.

“They both worked their way up the ranks of the Army and I don’t want to say it was one of those ‘yes sir, no sir’ Army upbringings, but it was disciplined,” Baldwin said. “I had rules and I’m thankful for the Army providing me with those opportunities that a lot of people don’t have.”

Chances like honing a craft. The Baldwins moved to Missouri from Alabama when Marques was only 10 years old. He excelled on the court, playing first at Mineral Area College and then at Lubbock Christian University. The chance to play professionally in countries like Portugal and Greece came once his eligibility lapsed.

But the aforementioned ankle sprain came and being on the less-active side of the inbound line for a time longer than temporary became more and more plausible. Typically, professional players are signed to a team in one of two signing periods. Baldwin’s ankle wasn’t healed well enough to get a look in either one.

“Once I was out for a while, the options never came back the way I wanted them to,” Baldwin said. “So I just moved on to coaching.”

So he came back home, so to speak, settling in Overland Park, Kan., as an assistant coach for a season at Blue Valley North High School. Moving on, for Baldwin, meant not being able to control what was happening on the court in the manner he was used to.

“I wanted my players to play the way that I played and I was having a problem distinguishing that it wasn’t that they weren’t trying hard, but that they weren’t athletically capable of doing the things that I could do as a player,” Baldwin said. “They weren’t able to make the reads and things like that, so I struggled with that in my first year as an assistant.”

Frustration mounted and Baldwin was, in his mind, done with coaching. Not happy at all with the gig, the newlywed packed up and moved to Fulton with his wife. Enough time had passed that his ankle was well enough for pick-up basketball at the YMCA, which is where he met then-Fulton High School assistant principal Dave Jones.

Jones encouraged Baldwin to get back into coaching and introduced him to Darrell Davis, Fulton’s long-time basketball coach and athletic director. Coaching might not have been something Baldwin wanted to go back to, but the game of basketball was.

“When I stopped coaching and came back to Missouri, basketball was gone for a while and I realized that I really missed basketball,” Baldwin said. “It wasn’t just the playing I missed, but I just really missed being a part of a basketball team.

“Right away, I realized that basketball was what I was meant to do.”

So he joined Davis’ staff. As an assistant he stayed back, getting to know the players and picking up pointers from Davis. When Davis retired this past spring, Baldwin found himself in charge of more than just game strategy.

The whole ship was under his direction. A year of coaching under Davis showed all that went into the head job. Scheduling, personnel decisions and other factors were just part of the job description.

When you are in charge of young people, you’re a coach and a teacher in almost everything you do.

“He (Davis) showed me about being a coach on the floor and a respectable person in the school and the community, the kind of respect that people want to have for their coaches in the community” Baldwin said. “People want to be able to say that this is a guy that is stable in the community and in the classroom.”

But there was still a job to do on the court. So Baldwin opened up the season with a week of two-a-day practices — one at 5:30 in the morning and the other after school at 6 p.m. For Baldwin, if he was going to put his all into the job, a practice schedule of this nature would leave him with the kind of players that would match that effort on the floor.

“We wanted to distinguish really quickly who wanted to be there because you have to really want to get up for practice at 5:30 in the morning and run and condition, and come back at 6 (at night),” Baldwin figured. “It really teaches the kids about work ethic and sets that tone right off the bat.”

The process got Baldwin the players he wanted. And those who worked with him as an assistant coach can see the difference now that Baldwin is the head man.

“He’s a lot more animated and a lot more into it,” senior guard Rob Pittman said. “He wants you to work hard and if you aren’t doing that, then he’ll be on you.”

Baldwin knows the line he has to toe with his players. Being not that much older than his most veteran contributors, he is able to relate to them on most subjects. From music to fashion (he is trying to get some of his players out of the saggy pants wardrobe), the small age gap between coach and team is something that is clearly working for both parties.

“Believe it or not, he can relate to the kids because he’s a player,” assistant coach Tom Arms said. “And since he’s a player, he can relate to the kids and the kids believe in him.

“But there’s a special relationship with them because it’s his first coaching job with these kids, so I really think that’s important.”

It might not have been so easy had he not established a rapport as an assistant before.

“It makes it easier to relate, but at the same time it would have been tough walking in here this year and having to earn their respect right off the bat if I hadn’t been here for a year,” Baldwin said. “They wouldn’t have been able to ease into things and know I do things from a coaching standpoint, so they got that from me last year as an assistant.”

Baldwin has the task of building on last year’s 20-7 team that lost to Helias for a district championship. Gone are guard Verdis Lee, who averaged 20 points a game, and Wilson Christensen — who averaged 13 points in the post.

Looking up and down his team’s schedule, there’s not a game that he doesn’t think his guys can’t pull out. His goal, like any coach, is a state title, but more than anything he’d like his squad to win, or lose, on its own terms.

“The kids know that if we go out there and play the right way and get beat down the road, that’s OK because you can’t win them all,” Baldwin said. “The only thing I can’t take is letting someone dictate what we do and how we play.”

Coaching might not be where Baldwin saw himself, but he’s in it for the long haul now.

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