Don’t Put Me In, Coach

Mark Titus on his “incredible NCAA journey from the end of the bench to the end of the bench.”

Don’t Put Me In, Coach

“I really didn’t accomplish anything,” says Mark Titus about his four years as a member of the Ohio State basketball team. Titus’s career stats (2006-2010) say he’s right. He rarely played in a game, never played while the outcome of a game was in doubt, and scored a mere nine points in four years. Yet that didn’t stop him from being a part of more wins than any other player in Ohio State basketball history, or from becoming one of the best-known and most beloved players in the Big Ten.

Titus made his mark by making the most of his irrelevance, writing a self-deprecating and irreverent blog about his experiences and (mostly) intangible contributions to the Ohio State program. Building on the success of Club Trillion, after graduation the former marketing major secured what he jokingly refers to as “a multimillion dollar book deal,” and got to work on “Don’t Put Me In, Coach” (Doubleday), a laugh-out-loud funny memoir about riding the bench and being teammates with future NBA millionaires like Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., and Evan Turner.

In the following conversation with Failure, Titus speaks candidly about his dreams and disappointments, how he’s been able to get so many people to celebrate irrelevance, and why it sometimes makes sense to embrace your personal limitations.

I understand that you started your career at Ohio State as a basketball manager. How did you make the leap from manager to walk-on?
I got the gig as a manager because I was friends with Greg Oden and Mike Conley. I also knew one of the assistant coaches, John Groce, who was the one who asked me to be a manager. He explained that I would do drills with the team and I would get to practice and run scout team. But they had me filling up water bottles and doing other stuff in which I wasn’t really interested. So I quit—telling them that being a manager wasn’t what I thought it would be.

Two weeks later a few guys got hurt in practice and the team was down to nine healthy guys, so they didn’t have enough players to play five-on-five. They told me they needed a body for practice and asked me to walk-on. I thought I was only going to be a walk-on for a week or so, but I must have done something right because I turned it into four years.

Did you believe you might develop into a player who would earn some time in the rotation?
Yeah, because I had played on an AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] team in which 12 of the 13 guys went on to play Division I basketball. I played a lot on that team and started a lot of games and had been a pretty good high school player too. So part of me was like, I may not play this year, but if I work hard, maybe by the time I’m a senior I will get some minutes. But Coach [Thad] Motta told me after I graduated that he would never have played me over a scholarship player. I was a little naïve, but at the time I thought there was a chance.

When did you come to the realization that it was never going to happen?
It was after my sophomore season. Before freshman year in college I spent all summer getting fat because I didn’t expect to play at Ohio State and stopped playing basketball. But the summer between my freshman and sophomore year I got in really good shape, and during my sophomore year I was really good in practice every day. I would scrimmage with the team and was assertive on offense and played decent defense. That team was also the worst team coach Motta has ever had, yet I still wasn’t getting any minutes. I realized that if I couldn’t play when I was doing well and the team sucked, then it was never going to happen. So after that year I decided that instead of worrying about playing time I was going to have fun and not let it bother me too much.

How did you start Club Trillion and where does the name come from?
Club Trill stated after my sophomore season when I had that self-reflection period where I realized I could either whine about not playing and let it kill me or I could recognize that I was living a dream and had a front-row seat to one of the best basketball teams in the country. That was when I launched the blog and started telling stories about how much fun I was having just being a member of a team as good as Ohio State.

The name came from me and a couple of teammates who also sat at the end of the bench. There were three of us in the club, and we called it Club Trillion because we would get in at the end of games when we were up by like 30 points. We would get in for one minute and not do anything while running out the clock. So our box score would read: “1 minute,” followed by 12 zeroes [representing points, rebounds, assists, etc.], which we referred to as a trillion.

Can you explain how you defined a perfect game?
A perfect game was when you would get the trillion without touching the ball. The trillion meant you were totally irrelevant because you didn’t do anything. There was one game where I literally stood in the corner the entire time I was out there, and I realized that you could take your irrelevancy to another level by not even touching the ball.

Is it true you got booed during games for grabbing a rebound or scoring?
Yeah, I started my blog right before my junior year, which was when I started writing about the trillions. In our first game I got in for the last two minutes, and at one point the ball bounced off the rim and went straight to me so I had no choice but to grab it. Then I heard our student section start booing. It confused me at first, but I soon realized they were booing me because I grabbed a rebound and ruined my trillion. It was a cool moment because that’s when I realized the fans actually knew who I was.

Did that serve as a deterrent for doing anything of note in a game?
Yeah, it did. Fans would start a “We want Titus” chant when there were two or three minutes left in games, and when I would peel off my warm-ups and check into a game they would start chanting, “Trillions! Trillions! Trillions!” They didn’t want me to do anything, and anytime I got the ball they would start booing. So it was a fun subplot.

One game during my senior year I played for five minutes and shot the ball two or three times. The fans were okay with that, because it’s hard to not do anything for five minutes.

There’s a bit in the book about the time you refused to go into a game. Can you talk about that?
We were playing an exhibition game in Canada against the University of Windsor. I had been having stomach problems all day and during the first half I actually had to leave the bench and go into the locker room. I wasn’t feeling well, and the last thing I wanted to do was to run and jump around. We were up by fifty points and with three minutes left Coach Matta walked down to the end of the bench and said, “You ready to go in?” I looked up at him and said, “No, I’m good right here.” He had already started walking away and then stopped in his tracks and turned around and said, “What? You’re good? You don’t want to play?” That’s where the title of the book comes from.

Has Coach Matta read the book?
From what I understand, he hasn’t. I gave him a copy a few weeks before it came out. He looked at me like, “You know I’m not going to read this, right?” He’s always had the attitude that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. And I obviously write about a lot of things that I’m sure he has no idea happened under his watch. I’m sure there will be a point after he retires when he’ll crack it open, but I don’t think he’s going to read it anytime soon.

Normally being irrelevant equates with being ignored. How did you manage to get so many people to celebrate irrelevance?
I don’t know. I had settled into the role of being the anonymous face on the end of the bench and had gotten used to it. There were times during my first couple years when I would try to park in the player lot and the security guard wouldn’t let me in.

I can’t explain how it happened but my best guess is that people can relate to my stories. You hear from the superstars all the time because that’s who the media wants to talk to, but you never hear from the walk-ons. I also think people identify with my stories of being disrespected, and that’s why my blog became popular.

By the time I was a senior I had the best of both worlds. I got a lot of attention, but I didn’t have any pressure to perform on the court.

Would you encourage other people to embrace their limitations?
My book is certainly not an inspirational book. But if there is a point to take away from it, it’s that it’s okay to not be the best at something. It’s okay to be average. It doesn’t mean your life is worthless. It seems like kids today get participation awards for everything and are told how great they are, but the truth is that you are just not that great. I’m a realist and I realized that my dream of being an NBA superstar wasn’t going to happen. Instead of whining about it I decided to make lemonade out of lemons.

How has the book been received at Michigan?
The best compliments I’ve received have been from people who say they hate Ohio State but they love the book. Those are always my favorites, from the guys who want to hate me but they can’t.

Are you surprised the way Greg Oden’s NBA career has unfolded?
I actually had dinner with him two nights ago and talked to him at length about it. It’s not like he’s a bust in the sense that he isn’t good. He just hasn’t had an opportunity to prove himself, and that’s frustrating for me as a personal friend and as a fan. It’s easy to forget that the one year he played in college he was unbelievable. Even though we lost the national title game against Florida, he dominated Joakim Noah and Al Horford, who are pretty good NBA players now.

But he seems to be in good spirits. Now that he’s been released by Portland I think he’s going to take next season off to get his body right and then he’ll try to get back at it in 2013-14. He looks like he’s a hundred years old but he’s still only 24. As a personal friend it sucks to see him not be able to do what he loves, and as a fan I selfishly want to see him play basketball because he’s so exciting to watch.