Part of the reason Mike Maker said he left Division III Williams to take the head coaching job at Marist, was he relished the role of being an underdog.
The Red Foxes have always faced long odds, being the only school – other than newcomers Monmouth and Quinnipiac – not to reach the MAAC championship game since their entrance into the conference in 1997.
After being one of the last head coaches hired during the 2014 coaching carousel, Maker arrived in June facing an uphill climb. Maker knew he would be facing long odds at times, but he never expected this.
After a tumultuous first season marred by injuries, the offseason was supposed to be a joyous time for Mike, his wife Erica and their son Jack. They were expecting to welcome their second son to the family, but his birth came with complications.
Declan was born May 2 in Vassar Brothers Medical Center, on the same day Mike’s oldest brother Bill was born. It gave special meaning to Mike, the youngest of three growing up in Salinas, Calif., to know that his newest son would share the birthday of his late brother who passed away eight years ago. However, Declan was born premature and, after days in the neonatal intensive-care unit, needed to be transported from Vassar to the Albany Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital.
“The percentage of making it was less than five percent when he was born, they told us that,” Maker said. “Our son was a fighter.”
They frequented the Capital Region’s Ronald McDonald house throughout the month of May, watching their son fight. Declan fought for 30 days until infections overwhelmed him. Maker said he was lucky enough to have the time that he did with his son, who passed on May 31.
“We try to cherish every day with Declan, you know looking back I was naive, you never let yourself think that he’s not going to make it,” Maker said. “We’re thankful that we had 30 days with him. They gave him five percent chance odds of making it. Looking back and the more we read, the more stories we hear, we feel very blessed to have had him for 30 days. Nobody thought he would survive the delivery. He was a tough kid.”
The job of a head coach could be overwhelming in and of itself at times, but the workouts and practice helped to provide a much needed distraction from what the coach called a “rough” summer.
“My players and Marist have been very supportive, but that pain doesn’t go away,” Maker said breaking down in tears on the phone when describing what it felt like to conduct summer workouts. “The gym is my sanctuary, I love what I do. I feel blessed to be the coach at Marist and I don’t wish it on any parent.”
The 12-month a year job of Division I head coach now serves as a distraction; summer workouts were the first event Maker had to latch onto and now his team is practicing every day in preparation for the 2015-16 season.
“I think there’s many more tears to come, but truthfully even Marist and the MAAC have been great to our family in tough circumstances,” Maker said in September, fighting back some more tears. “So the sooner practice starts, the better, so we can have some normalcy and do what I love to do.”
Maker has always had his basketball family. After being eliminated from the MAAC tournament to end his first season at Marist, Maker found his wife, son and players he used to coach at Williams made the trip to Albany to watch him. Maker, who said it meant a lot to him to see his former players cheering him on at the Times Union Center, has not wavered in building his team through a family-driven approach. Maker is still standing, even after facing this inordinate challenge, which could have quickly sunk his vitality and spirit.
Last year’s MAAC summer meetings in Orlando came the same week Jeff Bower resigned as Marist’s head coach to become the general manager of the Detroit Pistons. Mike Maker was not even involved with Marist until a few weeks later, when they finalized his five-year contract. Thus Marist was without a head coach, a representative for their interests at last season’s summer meetings. This year’s meetings came in the second week of June—less than two weeks after Maker’s son passed away—still the school did not pressure the 49-year old to go, but he insisted.
“I have a job to do, I have a school to represent,” Maker said. “I just didn’t want to leave my wife by herself.”
He, his wife and son Jack flew down to Orlando and then took time after the meetings to enjoy the area, with the encouragement of the conference.
“I haven’t personally written any thank you notes because I can’t, I’m not ready to,” Maker said. “I got a lot to write.”
He said he still talks to his wife about the trials they were put through in the early part of the summer. He said that the MAAC and the coaches in it “have been phenomenally supportive of what we’ve been through.”
It is clear that his basketball mind is solid. Maker remembers that when he was hired at Marist, his in-laws called and asked him about the program. He said it was relatable to his wife’s favorite team; the Cubs and how their newest regime under Theo Epstein has revitalized their approach. He wants to win in a way that will work with the school, a way he says is “different than everybody else.” Maker wants to emphasize finding the right offensive players and to, “make more three’s, because three is worth more than two.” Turn his mind towards basketball and it is easy to remember why Maker landed among the top eight hires from the 2014 offseason, according to a poll of coaches by CBS Sports.
Maker said he and his wife have thought about how they can help other people who have had similar situations, though they are not sure how to collectively focus those efforts just yet. The Red Foxes home season opener on Nov. 13 against Holy Cross lurks over the horizon to start the head coach’s second season. Nothing will erase the memories of the last few months, but basketball can provide a distraction.
“I’m a crier anyway,” Maker said, recovering from having shed tears. “I cry when I’m happy too.”
It is hard not to hope that those tears of sadness will soon enough turn to tears of joy, even if it is only be a temporary distraction.
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.