By Jim Steele
At the end of the 1998-99 season, legendary Union University women’s basketball coach David Blackstock announced he was stepping down.
When the 1999 season began, Blackstock eventually passed the bright torch to Mark Campbell. Campbell knew he had big shoes to fill, after all, Blackstock had won an NAIA national title and had 509 coaching victories.
Since climbing into to the big kicks left by Blackstock, the torch has gotten even brighter. Wednesday night, in Carrollton, Ga., Union defeated the University of West Georgia 82-64. The Lady Bulldogs vaulted to a 14-3 record overall, 12-3 in the Gulf South Conference. More than that, Campbell earned his 700th career victory.
His ascent to that plateau is the fastest in college history, doing so in just 811 games. That’s faster than Pat Summitt or Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma.
Campbell is a man of faith and says that God has placed him in a place where he can be successful.
“When I think about 700 wins, I think that God has allowed me to coach at a place and this is a mission I want to be on,” he said. “From all the coaches, the high school coaches in this area. It just makes me grateful early on not to put my hope in things that aren’t sustainable. I am just grateful for the day. I enjoy the journey. I don’t think about the numbers, but I’m glad to get that over with.”
Campbell was quick to give credit not only to the Almighty, but to the players, assistants, student assistants who blended together to allow Campbell to have this kind of success. In his 24 years at Union, Campbell has won five national crowns, played for a few more, helped usher the Lady Bulldogs into the Division 2 ranks and will soon take over for another legend, Union athletics director Tommy Sadler, who will retire at the end of the year.
“I’m really grateful for these opportunities,” he said.
Campbell played for another legend, Don Meyer, at Lipscomb, where former Union men’s coach Ralph Turner was an assistant. Campbell said he worked weeks and weeks worth of camps. He learned, from working those camps, how important attention to detail is.
“Those details were our habits,” he said. “When I was in high school, I loved doing what my coach asked me to do. For coaches to provide me with why we are doing thins affected me not just in basketball, but in all aspects of life. If we do the little details in life, we don’t have to worry about the big stuff.”
And taking over for Blackstock was a big deal, but a deal he was prepared for, thanks in large part to the former coach.
“When you follow somebody, there’s an expectation and that’s a big hill I didn’t have to climb. Our girls and our fans expected us to win,” Campbell said. “There was some burden, but we didn’t have to work on having a winning attitude. We could focus on fundamentals.”
And the results are evident.
“The great thing about women’s basketball is that a group of girls who care about each other is worth 15 points a game,” he said. “That’s the fun part for me. I love the whole process of becoming a team, even on the hardest days, when people make bad decisions. It’s also a great time to show us who Jesus is.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Campbell said he struggled with the notion of leaving the NAIA and moving to NCAA Division 2. Even though Union played in a tough league with local rivals Lambuth, Bethel, Freed-Hardeman and, to some extent Martin Methodist, which was murderer’s row, playing in D-2 presents different challenges.
“In NAIA, we had five to six teams we had to be ready for and we’d really struggle with them,” he said. “In D-2, we could lose to the worst team in the league if we weren’t ready. We play more athletic teams and we play against teams who have players who can beat you single-handedly.”
Campbell had to change tack on recruiting.
“We were smaller in the beginning and recruiting changed a little bit,” he said. Figuring out Division 2, every team has a different style. I didn’t enjoy the move at first, but now, it’s been really fun because I had to become a better coach.
“My favorite days of coaching were in the NAIA because I loved the family atmosphere and the championship at Oman Arena, but I don’t thing going Division 2 was a mistake,” Campbell said.
Campbell says he doesn’t really dwell on the successes or failures of the past because everything is so fluid. He hasn’t even really thought about 700 victories.
“I don’t really have those moments. When we won our first championship in 2005, I remember the exhilaration the day after. Then I said, ‘oh, we have to do this again,'” he said. “I love coaching. The Lord taught me from 2005 to 2009 this is what you thought would be the ultimate, but you know it’s not now. You have to try to rewrite what success is.”