Bearden coach Mark Blevins doesn’t remember the first time we met, which is fair. It wasn’t a monumental moment, just a brief conversation in the hospitality room at the district tournament that Bearden was hosting.
It was before I came over to Maryville, not long after moving back to the area from Washington, D.C., and when Sevier County was still in the district. It was mostly idle hoops talk over a bowl of chili between tournament games but it doesn’t take long to get the measure of Blevins.
That initial impression proved fairly accurate as I saw his teams play more and more over the last decade or so as the Bulldogs came to Blount County three times a year to play Heritage, Maryville and William Blount. His teams were prepared and showed they had done the offseason work to his standard, and they generally won because of it. In fact his record, 588-156, over the last 22 years at Bearden is in a class of its own.
But I wasn’t surprised when a copy of his retirement letter arrived in my inbox after Bearden’s season came to an end last week. Weird things tend to happen in West Knoxville and the version of the story told up on Ricky Hill might be completely different than the version heard out on Cedar Bluff and retold down on Carr Street. The detail that matters at this point is that coach and wife B.A. are going to be dedicating a lot more time to their church life without a schedule dictated by practice schedules, games and the demands of the classroom.
“I am very appreciative for all of the well wishes, encouragements, thanks and kind words that have been extended to me and B.A. at this time,” Blevins wrote.
I’m bias in my regards for Blevins’ retirement. He fit that mold of coach I generally like, one who is a demanding teacher and makes the kids work for it, the ones you sometimes hate as a student but nearly always bless having had as an adult. I never knew his inspiration to be that kind of instructor until I read his letter.
“I’m a coach that tries to instill toughness, discipline, loyalty, grit, and accountability in all my players,” Blevins writes. “I was taught long ago by a little crippled lady who raised two sons by herself with no car and no TV while working minimum wage her whole life to always work harder than anybody else. My mom was my hero.”
That work ethic and mentality produced impressive numbers, 840 career victories between the college and high school ranks, a winning record against every team in the district, an unblemished 27-0 mark against the state’s private schools and a long list of college players from Bearden that was about to top 40 the last time I counted.
But I always liked that his teams did take the extra steps off the court. He was among that fraternity of coaches — of which Blount County has more than its own fair share — that wanted his players to see that the greatest challenge they will face is not on the basketball court but in the game of life and it showed one last time in the thanks he offered in his farewell.
“... our teams are connected as Bulldogs. We are committed by loyalty and love. We are an elite membership; it is not for everybody. We have our own greeting and we never finish our conversation without expressing the love we have for one another. That’s been the essence of Bearden basketball,” Blevins wrote. “We have been fortunate to have worked right here in Knoxville with the greatest official association and leadership on this planet led by Kenny Coulter. While in the Tri Cities, I had the opportunity to be groomed as a young coach by the greatest basketball official to ever walk the face of the earth, Ralph Stout.”
Bearden basketball isn’t done in the wake of his absence. It will most likely still be an elite program. It just won’t be the same.
The truth is truly great coaches don’t fade away, they leave a stamp on their players that lives on in the way those players live their lives long after their final game was played.
Best wishes Mark, Bearden’s lost a great one.