Intertwined Careers: Mike Neer and Mark Edwards

Intertwined Careers: Mike Neer and Mark Edwards

They competed against one another in the high jump in college. That was only the beginning of the high-level competition and friendship that has marked the careers of Mike Neer and Mark Edwards, who contributed to the formation of the UAA.

Edwards, who became only the 12th NCAA Division III men's basketball head coach to reach 650 career victories this past December, graduated from Washington University in 1969 and has been coaching his alma mater since it reinstated the sport for the 1981-82 season.

Photo: Washington University 2008 and 2009 NCAA Division III Men's Basketball Champions

Neer, who graduated from Washington & Lee University in 1970, retired with 629 wins in his 37-year head coaching career, including 563 in 34 years at the helm of the University of Rochester program. Edwards has led the Bears to three Final Four appearances with back-to-back NCAA championships in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Neer led the Yellowjackets to four Final Four trips and the national title in 1989-90.

Photo: Mike Neer with NCAA title and Final Four plaques

College and Assistant Coaching

The high jump competition came in the College Athletic Conference (CAC) Spring Festival. Both Washington University and Washington & Lee were part of the conference as were Southwestern (now Rhodes) College, Sewanee: The University of the South, and Centre College. “I broke the conference high jump record by jumping 6(feet)-6(inches),” Edwards recalled. “On the next jump, Mike broke my record." 

“There has always been a healthy competition between us,” Neer commented. “We knew the student-athlete model, lived it, and believe in it.”

Neer played his final collegiate basketball game at Washington University, never imagining how many trips he would make there over the course of his career. He fulfilled his military service obligation from 1971-76 as assistant coach as well as the plebe (freshman) coach at U.S. Naval Academy before taking over the Rochester program for the 1976-77 season.

Edwards began his undergraduate career with an interest in medical school. “As I evolved in my college curriculum, I stayed pre-med, but got more interested in academia and the behavioral part,” he said. His plans of getting a graduate degree in psychology were interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1970, right in the middle of his graduate program.

“I went into the army, but did not end up going to Vietnam,” Edwards stated. “I ended up coaching a team at the base. At that time, the Olympic team was not made up of NBA (National Basketball Association) players and had no training center. Players were consolidated at the bases and there was an All-Army tournament and All-Service tournament. (Hall of Fame basketball coach) Henry Iba would watch the teams and tournaments to recruit some of the players for the Olympic teams. There were also NBA players there and we had two of them on our base.”

Edwards relished the opportunity to continue his passion for basketball by coaching in the Army and jumped at the opportunity to be an assistant coach at NCAA Division I Washington State University. He spent one semester as a graduate assistant under former Bear coach Bob Greenwood before spending the next nine years (1972-81) assisting George Raveling.

“Washington State gave Mark a taste of the fast lane,” Neer said. “With exposure to Division I as we did, you find out of you have the stomach for that kind of thing. You have to sort out the balance of your career and the student-athletes you want to coach.”

“In Division III, I appreciated the education and the entire college atmosphere,” Edwards remarked. “In Division I, they were just there for basketball and did not appreciate it.”

Washington University Reinstates Basketball/Pre-UAA Days

“When I was a student at Wash U, the college and the students were looking for an identity,” Edwards said. “They had to drop sports to make cuts. It wasn’t until (Chancellor) Bill Danforth came in and re-established the vision of what the school was about that basketball started back up.”

When the school cut basketball in 1972, the CAC dropped their membership because they no longer sponsored basketball. “When we started basketball back up, they came back for us and even moved their headquarters to St. Louis,” Edwards remembered. “Danforth and (Athletic Director John) Schael were not around when we were in the CAC and were not interested." 

Although the Rochester program has played uninterrupted since 1901-02, the landscape around the country was changing in the 1970's, bringing its own set of challenges to Neer early in his career there. “Rochester had found a niche in the East with a lot of students who wanted a co-ed college experience,” he stated. “There were not many private, urban, co-ed universities from the 1950’s-1970’s. Rochester was co-ed when the Ivy’s and many other schools were not. Now the Ivy League was going co-ed and some of the “Seven Sisters” did as well.”

"To maintain its highly-selective applicant pool given the appeal of the Ivy's going co-ed in the 70s, the University needed some time to embrace marketing or find new ponds to fish," Neer added. "The UAA played a role in increasing the visibility of University of Rochester to high school guidance counselors and students nationally."

Neer found success quickly at Rochester. By his fourth season, the team won 15 games, one more than the two previous seasons combined. In his fifth season, the first with only his recruits, the Yellowjackets won 20 games and earned their first trip to the NCAA Division III Basketball Championship. Neer’s sixth season at Rochester was Edwards’ first with the revived Washington program. 

Shortly after that, the concept was being set for the formation of the UAA, but Edwards already had the mindset of playing opponents with similar academic standards. Stanley Lopata, a Washington University alumnus and trustee, wanted to put money into changing the image of athletics at the school. There was an application process for how the money should be used and Edwards applied to host a tournament. 

“I think I may have been the only coach to submit anything,” Edwards laughed. “I wanted to have a tournament where teams were based on academic status as much as athletics.” The first Lopata Classic was played in 1984 with Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and California Institute of Technology. “We thought perhaps Cal Tech and MIT had only met in swimming before that. There was even an article in Sports Illustrated about the ‘Brain Bowl.’”

The first few years of the tournament included other top institutions such as Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and Pomona-Pitzer Colleges. “I think that showed that this kind of thinking could work,” Edwards remarked. “Chancellor Danforth liked it. The students interacted well, which really was the purpose of it.”

The UAA Begins

Initial discussions about the concept of the UAA began at the presidential level with Danforth and Rochester president Dennis O’Brien, paralleling the conversations basketball coaches were also having.

“We had exploratory basketball tournaments,” Neer said. “I remember we played in the Koch Classic around 1985 with Wash U, MIT, and Chicago. The next year we met in Chicago for a tournament.”

“We all had trouble finding like opponents,” Edwards recalled. “The idea was to have tip-off tournaments for men and women. We did it for two years and then the UAA happened.”

Photo: Mark Edwards coaching in an exhibition game at University of Illinois in November 2016

The concept of competing against like-minded institutions was what Washington University had been seeking. “It was really hard to find a conference philosophy we fit into,” Edwards stated. “We didn’t want to be a Vanderbilt or Northwestern. We wanted all the teams to be like that.” 

One of the many reasons both Neer and Edwards were optimistic about the success of this new association as a whole and not just for basketball was that it began with the presidents.

“I was interested that it started at ‘The Ivory Tower’ and not with athletics,” Neer said. “It was the right time for this philosophical discussion about athletics and academics,” Edwards added. “Philosophically, it is so solid. As long as it has the support of the presidents, it will work. There was a lot of cynicism that it would never last and that we would be asking some conference to join.”

“Of course there were concerns with the increased costs,” Neer said. “However, it helped Rochester go from independent to having an identity with a league and flights. We were paying for the advantage of being in multiple regions with every airline ticket. The association was going to be a combination of Ivy (academics) and ACC (flying) and we knew we could compete.”

“My only concern was how committed the other presidents were,” Edwards stated. “It was not going to be dependent upon the coaches. Presidents change and they needed to respect the culture for us to continue. It has been amazing that all eight institutions for 30 years have had a succession of administrators who have appreciated this approach.”

When the UAA began play in 1987-88, teams played between six and 13 Association contests as some still had to complete contracts with regional opponents. “A number of our counterparts in the East had to be dropped from our schedule or we went from playing them twice per year to playing once,” Neer remarked. “The UAA teams had to find common ground because programs were in different places. Emory was just four years into intercollegiate athletics. NYU, like WashU, had been a Division I program at one time before being cut (in 1971) and recently starting back as a Division III team (in 1983). (UAA Executive Director) Dick (Rasmussen) had to facilitate based on where everyone was in the process.”

Photo: Mark Edwards at the 1988 NCAA Division III South Regional

Emory was a newcomer to intercollegiate athletics, but Neer vividly remembers their early teams. Though the Yellowjackets won the 1990 NCAA title, they finished second in the UAA behind the Eagles. “(Then Athletic Director) Gerry (Lowrey) and Emory had a huge learning curve being so new,” he said. “I remember getting beat by Emory with student-athletes recruited by the admissions office because Gerry was wearing so many different hats at the time.”

UAA Equality: Women and Men

“Back then, the UAA really was on the cusp of women’s sports. Title IX was only 15 years old then,” Edwards commented. “The idea that men’s and women’s programs were together was refreshing. We didn’t have to battle one another. I don’t think there was any other conference where men and women were meeting at the same time.”

“It was very refreshing for the UAA to have the women and men part of the same discussions, discussing the pros and cons of all the particular issues," Neer said.

Though the men’s coaches were new to the co-ed meetings, they valued them quickly. “In a novel environment, you are very cautious,” Edwards said. “We measure what we have to say and after a while, the two groups become close.”

“We got to know one another in so many ways,” Neer added. “We gained an appreciation of the person behind the coach. On road trips, I would seek out the women’s coach to talk to. The environment on a yearly basis gave you greater understanding of those you were coaching against. We found out that we had far more in common than any differences we may have had.”

Currently, a social event is scheduled the evening before the annual coaches meeting in June, but Edwards remembers the coaches getting together one day prior to the meeting in the first years of the UAA. “We (the men and women) would get a meeting room at a hotel, get refreshments and a chalkboard and have a clinic,” he stated. “We would talk about team building, program development, basketball issues and drills. (Then University of Chicago head coach) Pat Cunningham was a major force in that. We would come in early or stay late for social reasons. Barriers were broken down and that was healthy.” 

“It was a great and novel idea to have the men and women at the table together,” Neer said. “We talked about everything from what time are we going to play to who is playing which game. We all had a vote and our observations were taken into account. We appreciated that we had a chance to help form the UAA. You could weigh in and express your opinions.”

Social Aspect of the UAA

One thing that Neer and Edwards appreciated most, and modeled, was the camaraderie between coaches and student-athletes in the UAA.

“Our players would never get to interact with one another because the schools are so far apart,” Edwards remarked. “We voted in the social event after the game. What better way to get to talk to others than to eat with the other team? Mike and I were both big proponents. We had some great games - multiple overtimes, buzzer-beaters, a stretch of games that came down to the end. After every one of those games, our teams sat there and ate together.”

Photo: Mike Neer with Tony Wingen of Carnegie Mellon 

The two coaches still get together each year when Edwards and his team travel to Rochester.

“The men’s and women’s coaches have generally supported the social event all along,” Edwards went on to say. “For the two teams to see Mike and I eating together and interacting like regular people was critical. Your opponent is a competitor, not an enemy. That is an element of the UAA that can be promoted. The social aspect is unique.”

What the UAA Means to Them

“I met so many good people and have terrific memories,” Neer commented. “It is like a wonderful show that has a great run on Broadway and the star goes to Hollywood. Now there are new people and the show goes on.”

“One of the things I am most proud of in the UAA is introducing the dignity of being a competitor,” Edwards said. “There is a big difference between combat and competition. Sometimes we cross that line and don’t realize that. Our number one job is to teach the nature of competition. That can be defined in a lot of different ways.”

“I really value the UAA experience. Being there when it was conceptual and being part of it as it grew meant a lot,” Neer added. “In the 42 years of my coaching career, it is one of the things I hold most dear. We were able to prove the inverse correlation of college boards and backboards. You can be a successful student and a successful athlete.”

Photo: Connie and Mike Neer with University of Rochester President Joel Seligman

“In the UAA, athletes are going to class. They create friendships with non-athletes,” Edwards stated. “It is significant in the UAA to see an athlete in your calculus class. The faculty has come to appreciate the academic success of our athletes.”

Both men found their calling by coaching student-athletes like themselves. “I wouldn’t have enjoyed coaching at a place I wouldn’t have been interested in as a student,” Neer said.

Edwards relayed a story that summed up the student-athlete aspect of the UAA. “We played a game at Johns Hopkins and lost. Later that night, I hear guys running around and doors slamming,” he said. “I thought they were up partying. I went to check it out and it turns out they were running back and forth into each other’s rooms trying to solve a calculus problem.”