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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Mark Vershaw- He Played in the Final Four!!!

In case you are not aware, I am a big Wisconsin fan. My father was born and raised in Barneveld, Wisconsin. The first 18 years of my life, we spent every June, July, and August in a farmhouse near Hollandale, Wisconsin. Both my parents received their Masters Degrees from University of Wisconsin. I remember how great it was in junior high to go to school after the Badgers had beaten Illinois in football or basketball. And how horrible it was to go to school on the days after the Badgers had lost to Illinois. And in the 1960’s, I more often than not went to school sad. But Barry Alvarez, Dick Bennett, and Bo Ryan all changed those dynamics. My son has grown up thinking it is a bad year if the Badgers don’t win the Big Ten.

In the spring of 2000, my life and my son’s life was wrapped up in one thing- the Badgers marched through the NCAA tourney and made it to the Final Four. Allen saw this as something that was predictable and certain to happen. For me, it was a miracle I never thought I would see.

In the fall of 1999, I had the opportunity to go up and watch the Badgers in their early season practice. I have had an opportunity to watch practices with other college coaches, including Bob Knight. My observation is that no one runs a more intense and demanding practice session than Dick Bennett. In order to play for Coach Bennett, you had to have a real toughness about you. Not just a physical toughness but Coach Bennett’s approach certainly also demanded a mental toughness.

One of the stars of that team was Mark Vershaw. Mark played at East Peoria, went to Wisconsin, and now is the coach of Monmouth College. This is an interview my son is absolutely dying to read. Go Badgers!!

What were the options out of East Peoria as far as colleges that you seriously considered?
The schools that I took my official visits to were Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Bradley, and Notre Dame.  I was seriously considering all five schools.      

Eric said you were recruited by Bob Knight, what was that experience like?
It was surreal to have an opportunity to spend time with Coach Knight.  I felt very fortunate to listen to Coach Knight talk about basketball and life in general.  He is a larger than life individual that talked about the game of basketball in a way that you knew was on a different level.  The basketball education his players received was second to none.  One of the best recruiting moments was when Coach Knight came to our house for a home visit, our family will never forget having Coach Knight in our living room. 

Everyone talks about the negative side of DI recruiting process. As you look back, what was fun about the process? and not fun about it?
There are positive and negative parts to every situation, and I believe it is how you handle the process determines if you enjoy it or not.  Every player has different experiences based on a number of different factors.  For me, the recruiting process was overall enjoyable experience.  How many times in your life do you get to be recruited and treated so well?  Through the recruiting process we had the opportunity to meet great coaches, great people, go to free football and basketball games.  My brother was a big Notre Dame football fan and through the recruiting process we had the opportunity to go to a Notre Dame football game together.  The negative side to recruiting that I found was the constant communication that recruiters attempted to have.  Luckily, cell phones and emails were not a part of our daily lives during my recruiting experience.  I am in favor of limits to communication between coaches and recruits.  The other part that is not enjoyable is learning to say no to people.  Whether it is saying no to a school, or saying no to a phone call it is not an easy thing for a teenager to do. 

What convinced you to go to Wisconsin?
The biggest reason was Coach Bennett.  The style of play, the closeness to home, and playing in the Big Ten were also strong factors into choosing Wisconsin. 

You obviously had a good recruiting class with yourself and Kelley as the cornerstones. How tough was it as freshmen going into the Big Ten and the raised expectations? Were there times as freshmen that you wondered what you had gotten yourself into?
Our freshman year we were thrown into the fire quicker than expected when Ty Calderwood sat out the season with a knee injury and Sam Okey left the program right after Christmas.  We had expectations of helping the program succeed, but the court time that we saw as freshman really helped our recruiting class develop quicker.  Not just the court time, but having to deal with a 3-13 conference record and the growing pains that come from losing.  I feel that was not the ideal situation for a freshman class, but it did make us better in the long run.  I remember one particular time as a freshman where I wondered what I had gotten myself into and that was our first conference game at home in the old Field House versus Michigan.  Not long after I entered the game, I ran into a backscreen from Tractor Trailer and just crumpled.  He laughed at me as we were running down the floor, I tried to play it off but I have never ran into a screen like that before or since. 

Everyone sees the glamorous side of DI basketball. How demanding was it of your time to be a DI player?
It is a full time job with great benefits.  Between classes, weights, film, practice, study table, a student-athlete has a full plate.  The benefits come from not having student loans, getting to play basketball in a great environment and the memories that you get to walk away with.   I feel the benefits far outweigh the demands.

I am not an University of Illinois fan, did you find you got more fired up to play them or any other teams?
I grew up an Illinois fan, both my parents went there.  I was motivated each time we played Illinois, especially when we played in Champaign.  The last two times we played there, we lost and the fans rushed the court after the game.   It felt a little strange to chuck Illini fans on my way back to the locker room, since that would have been me dressed in orange and blue as a kid.  With my parents, my wife, and her parents all Illinois alumni I love to remind them that it is great to enjoy both basketball and football seasons.  Hard to do as an Illini fan. 

What was the neatest place to play in the Big Ten?
My favorite place to play was Minnesota in the Barn.  Raised floor and a huge picture of Kevin McHale on the wall made for a great environment.  I loved the older buildings, although Michigan State’s arena was different because the students were so close to the court.  What I loved about the Big Ten was how well attended the games were throughout the conference.  Each stop with the exception of Penn State and Northwestern, when I played, you had the opportunity to play in front a full arenas and great college basketball environments.  Some conferences have a few places that are like this, but the Big Ten has great attendance for their games. 

What made Dick Bennett so successful?
Coach Bennett found ways for his teams to either reach their potential or overachieve.  You would say that he got the most out of his teams and players.  I do not feel that there is a better defensive coach that has coached college basketball and that Coach Bennett was one of the best rebuilders of a program.  What he accomplished at Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Washington State is amazing. Coach Bennett won doing it the right way, and coached his teams to play the game the right way.  Take care of the basketball, take good shots, and work your tail off defensively.   

When did you and your teammates first say to each other, "We could make to the Final Four."?
We joked about it when we beat Arizona in the second round, but it wasn’t until our Elite Eight game vs. Purdue that it was seriously discussed.  We were an eight seed that snuck into the tournament with a strong finish to the season.  With six games left that year, we were a lock for the NIT.  With our backs against the wall we started to play at a high level and only lost to Michigan State the rest of the way.  I only wished Michigan State would have lost to Iowa State in the Elite Eight.  Losing to them four times in one season was tough, but left any doubt who was a better team. 

When you were making the NCAA run and advanced to the Final Four, what was life like on campus?
Wisconsin had a great year in sports in 2000.  Football won the Rose Bowl behind Ron Dayne, Hockey was ranked #1 for most of the regular season, Women’s basketball won the NIT title, and our trip to the Final Four.  It was a great year to be a Wisconsin fan.  Anytime you have both your football and basketball programs winning, the atmosphere on a college campus is special. 

How crazy was it when you got to the Final Four?
It was special because of how unexpected us being there was for Wisconsin fans.  Wisconsin has such loyal and passionate fans, that was evident during the recruiting process when we went to a Wisconsin basketball game and the team was right at .500 and the old Fieldhouse was packed.  Not just packed, but packed with fans that were invested into the game.  It made an impression on me as a recruit and it was great to see our fans getting the opportunity to experience a Final Four.  Being a part of the Final Four carried a lot of memories, one of the best memories was in our return from the Elite Eight there were around 35,000 fans at Camp Randall to welcome us home.  Great fans. 

 I love Madison, what are three places you would say are must stops for a visitor in Madison?
Madison is such a great town, my wife and I loved our time there.  I would have to say the three stops would be:  1) Mickey’s Dairy Bar and whatever you order have a pancake on the side.  You won’t go away hungry.  2) Walk up and down State Street then find a place such as State Street Brats to eat and people watch.  3) Get ice cream at the Union and enjoy the atmosphere by the lake.   If you happen to be in Madison on your birthday, celebrate it at the Nitty Gritty.  Great cheese curds. 

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