For Mark Sanders, sports is a way of life and having the opportunity to work and coach in his home town was a dream come true. But then a family life got in the way and Sanders let the coaching take a backseat.
“All my life while I was single, the basketball team became my family,” Sanders said. “At 3 o’clock or whenever I would see them in the hallways, I would talk to them. Those kids became my sense of relief, my love, my - you become so unified with these kids. You talk to them and see them everyday for one, two, three and maybe four years. So through that time period I got married and had a children.”
Sanders never lost the desire to coach and because of that, with no opportunities available in the Hannibal area, he is taking his basketball and heading to Louisiana. Sanders is taking a job teaching physical education and coaching basketball at Central Lafourche High School in Raceland, La.
“I still want to win state championships,” Sanders said. “I told the kids the first time I met them, if you want to do anything other than winning the state championship, then you need to leave right now. That’s my goal. It might not happen next year, but by the time I am through with this program, my focus is for this school to have a state championship.”
Sanders has a long coaching history dating back to the early 1980’s.
Sanders got his start at Vandebilt Catholic High School in 1983 where he taught and coached for two years. Then came an opportunity to move to the college ranks with Louisiana Tech.
While with the Bulldogs, Sanders worked with head coach Tommy Joe Eagles and got to coach future NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone for one season. Those two yaers were successful seasons for the Bulldogs.
In 1985, Sanders’ first season and Malone’s last, the Bulldogs made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA March Madness Tournament where Louisiana fell to Oklahoma. One year later, with Malone gone, the Bulldogs were invited to the NIT.
The NIT has been around since 1938 and the 1986 season was the first time Louisiana Tech ever made the tourney field. The Bulldogs beat Northern Arizona and then McNeese State before falling to Ohio State in the semifinals. But the Bulldogs bounced back and beat Florida to take third place.
“We beat Florida for third place in the NIT at Madison Squadre Gardens,” Sanders said. “That was our highlight.”
After leaving Louisiana Tech, Sanders went to the University of Southwest Louisiana (USL) which became the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1999. Sanders coached at USL from 1988 through 1990.
At that point he went back to the high school ranks were he coached and taught at St. Louis Catholic High School and then Plaqueman High School.
“We made it to the final four of the state championship in 1994,” Sanders said. “It was a 3A high school and we won 20 games that year and we won our league.”
After 12 years of teaching and coaching in Louisiana, Sanders wanted to come home.
“This (Hannibal) is where I grew up,” Sanders said. “I was at Culver-Stockton College as an assistant coach and went to the final four in 1982 in New Orleans in the Super Dome. I got to the Final Four and ended up getting a job at a high school in south Louisiana and I ended up staying there for 12 years.
“But, this is where I am from,” the coach continued. “My parents were not doing very well and I kind of wanted to come back and be around them. They both passed away in the late 1990s.”
Sanders is once again ready for the challenge of leading the team.
“The principal’s conversation with me was ‘Mark, I don’t want just a basketball coach,’” Sanders said. “I want a young man here that has moral principles and that has a family, that is not looking just to win, but wants to develop our young men to be responsible. When we had that conversation, I said ‘that’s me.’”
He earned his bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in physical education with a minor in drivers education from Northeast Missouri State. As a 1975 Hannibal High School graduate, Sanders took over as head coach for his former high school in 1994. He coached the Pirates for two seasons before being recruited to take over the head coaching job at Hannibal-LaGrange. Sanders remained with the Trojans from 1996 through 2002.
“From there I got out of coaching,” Sanders said. “But it seems like I am working 70 hours a week.”
That’s when his family life kicked in and he took a job with Titan Wheel in Quincy. The job lasted six years when again, the desire to be at home with the family led to a job with the Hannibal Cavemen in their inaugural season. However, after one year with the Cavemen, Sanders was not brought back.
“I was traveling with Titan,” Sanders said. “I was in New York and Las Vegas and Florida. They kept buying companies and that is when things were booming. They needed me to cover Missouri and Illinois, then Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas, then Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana. Then across the nation. ... I have got three little kids and it was a great job and great pay. Of all the jobs I look back at getting out of - but the Cavemen were coming to town and they were looking for somebody to get them up and running. Somebody local that they could trust and somebody that knew everybody in town. So I took that job in 2008 and got it up and running.”
The last two years Sanders has worked for Bear Creak Sports Park while at the same time he has been helping to coach his young children.
“But I am ready to get back into what I love,” Sanders said. “The only consolation I had while I was away from it was that all three of my children played and I coached their teams.”
That love is coaching and it has never left him. While Sanders tried to find some kind of work as a coach in the Hannibal area, he has been unsuccesful and hurt at the same time. He is not sure if it stems from the fact that he left the teaching/coaching route so many years ago.
“I hate leaving this area,” Sanders said. “But, I exhausted myself in applying for every job in this school system. ... I tried everything I could to get back in.”
Sanders is not worried about having such a lengthy gap between his last coaching assignment and his up coming one.
“I am concered with it, but I don’t worry about it,” Sanders said. “I think the thing that has changed the most are the parents. When I was in school, whatever the teacher said was the law and parents backed that 100 percent even if it wasn’t completely agreeable. Then you got in trouble at home as well. Now, they don’t have that. (The scene) has completely changed.”
While it was a desire to be closer to home that brought him back to Hannibal, it will be family that brings him back to Louisiana.
“My family is down there,” Sanders said. “My brother Jerry coached at Nichols State University. He is the one who got me down there to go see this job. My nephew Scott, who pitched for the San Diego Padres, has a 10,000 square foot sports academy in Thibodaux. His wife (Linda) was an All American at Cal State Fullerton in softball and she is going to be our daughter Avery’s coach. Her daughter Lindsay plays first base and my daughter will pitch. ... So it’s not like we are going somewhere where we don’t know anybody.”