Mark Adams got cut from high school basketball team as a senior, played junior-college basketball and landed his first head coaching job at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont.
That resume doesn’t get a TV broadcaster courtside at Duke-North Carolina, which is exactly the point for Adams. His fit is in the Missouri Valley Conference, and others like it, the places where schools play good basketball and grow good stories away from the national spotlight.
“I get to tell the stories, usually first, that nobody else knows,” he said. “I love telling those stories. I love teaching the game.”
Adams, over the past five seasons, became the voice and chief lobbyist for the MVC. His style is unabashed admiration for the Valley, its coaches and players.
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“Mark’s one big thing is loyalty,” said Scott Carson, who joined Adams as an assistant coach in 1982 and now works as his researcher. “His loyalty is to the Missouri Valley Conference.”
Before a game, Adams chats with players on the court, passing the ball and rebounding for a shooter who comes out early for warm-ups. He works the crowd, taking selfies in the student section. When Wichita State finished its perfect regular season in 2014, he joined the celebration, with Kirstie Alley, at Chester’s Chophouse. Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson gave him a green tie, the color Adams wears to honor his deceased father, before a game this season.
“His dream was to play basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference,” broadcast partner Rich Hollenberg said. “He did the next best thing and stayed attached to it. He's so boyish and childlike with his love and passion for MVC basketball. He can't wait to tell someone about it.”
Adams doesn’t hold back when he tells the MVC story.
He calls Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet the best point guard in America and the Carson-Adams research team debuted a graphic comparing his playing style and stats to greats such as Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Gary Payton during Saturday’s game against Northern Iowa. Illinois State’s Reggie Lynch is one of the most intimidating shot-blockers in America. On Twitter, Adams compares stats compiled by Evansville’s Egidijus Mockevicius to Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein.
The Detroit Pistons fired Dick Vitale in 1979 and he became ESPN’s voice of the blueblood college basketball game. Central Connecticut State fired Adams in 1996 and he wanted to be the voice who called Dayton-Xavier and Wichita State-Northern Iowa instead of North Carolina-Duke and Syracuse-Georgetown.
“I have no interest in being Dick Vitale,” he said he told ESPN. “I don’t want to be Fran Fraschilla or Jay Bilas. What I want to be is, when you have a big mid-major game, I want to be on your radar screen. That has resonated.”
Is he an unapologetic booster of the Valley? He will proudly admit so. Does he say things he doesn’t believe to pump up the players and coaches? It is all genuine, he said.
He is proud that he called VanVleet the best point guard in the country last season, before most others.
“I came out and said it,” he said. “A lot of people thought I was crazy.”
On Jan. 18, he said on a broadcast that Northern Iowa’s Seth Tuttle belonged on the Wooden Award list for national Player of the Year and soon others agreed.
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“I get into situations where I see special players and special stories and I’m the first one to tell them,” he said. “Those teams, coaches, players need a voice. I take great pride in being that voice. But it’s what I believe.”
Adams and Carson love to dig up the obscure stat that adds weight to their points. Adams estimates he spends around eight hours in preparation for each game, digging into basketball websites such as bbstate.com, talking to coaches and players and looking for that one hidden angle.
“Does it sometimes border on hyperbole?,” Hollenberg said. “Yes. We give him more than a little good-natured ribbing. He backs up his opinion with facts. He really does feel passionate about it.”
That passion came naturally.
Adams, 58, grew up in Cincinnati, listening and watching MVC basketball in its “Valley of Death” days. After an aborted high school career at Forest Park, he played one season at Somerset (Ky.) Community College before graduating from the University of Cincinnati.
In 1979, he went to Idaho State as an assistant coach, starting a career that took him to Rocky Mountain, Western Oregon State and Washington State as an assistant.
No big-time college basketball there. Check the resumes of many an MVC coach for a similar path.
“I was a no-name guy, but I became a Division I head coach,” Adams said. “I found the right way to be relevant.”
Central Connecticut State, new to NCAA Division I, hired him in 1991 and fired him in 1996 after his most successful season, 13-15. The school hadn’t won more than 10 games since moving from NCAA Division II in 1986.
Adams took a year to regroup before then-Dayton coach Oliver Purnell recommended him to host “Flyer Feedback,” a post-game radio show on WHIO. It paid $50 a game and Adams hosted it alone. Every show for 10 years opened with a call from a Flyers fan named Rita, until she died at 91. Adams delivered her eulogy.
Once out of coaching, Adams says he never tried to return. He wanted more time with his family. He started a consulting business (EnthusiAdams, Inc.) that focuses on sales. He speaks as a leadership coach and motivational guide. Those jobs pay most of the bills; TV announcers, like referees, are independent contractors.
“There’s no way I can go back out there,” he said. “I had a great run. It was time to move on.”
He added Dayton games on TV to his jobs and then did Atlantic 10 games, which brought his style into New York and Boston. ESPN noticed and soon he became one of the go-to guys for the MVC, the Horizon League and the Ohio Valley Conference, among others. This season, he worked 30 regular-season games for ESPN and did studio work for 120 more on the American Sports Network.
This week, he will do five MVC Tournament games. There are stories to tell about the MVC, about the tournament’s 25th season as Arch Madness. Other tournaments are on national networks and will draw larger audiences and more NBA scouts.
That is fine with Adams. The stories he wants to tell are all in St. Louis this weekend.
Missouri Valley Conference Tournament schedule
At Scottrade Center, St. Louis
Thursday’s Play-In Games
No. 9 Southern Illinois (11-20) vs. No. 8 Missouri St. (11-19), 6 p.m.
No. 10 Bradley (8-23) vs. No. 7 Drake (9-21), 8:30
SIU-MSU winner vs. No. 1 Wichita St. (27-3), noon
No. 5 Evansville (19-11) vs. No. 4 Illinois St. (19-11), 2:30 p.m.
Bradley-Drake winner vs. No. 2 Northern Iowa (27-3), 6 p.m.
No. 6 Loyola (18-12) vs. No. 3 Indiana St. (15-15), 8:30
First two quarterfinal winners, 1:30 p.m.
Second two quarterfinal winners, 4
Semifinal winners, 1 p.m.