CORRECTION: The print version of this story identified Mark Sanders by the wrong nickname.
MATTHEWS – If you’ve stepped foot on Butler High School’s campus at any point since it welcomed its first students in 1997, chances are you’ve come in contact with Mark Sanders.
This winter, he guided the Butler girls basketball team to the Final Four and earned the District 9 Coach of the Year honors.
But since the school opened, Sanders has served as school security during the day and he’s been a coach for a number of sports, including girls basketball, track and field, wrestling and football.
So, with that schedule, he’s literally always at the school or at an athletic event with his teams.
“We always say if he’s not at Butler, he’s either on his way there or on his way home from there,” football coach Brian Hales said. “The kids love him. He has that personality that people just flock to and kids love to play for him. Even the kids at the school that aren’t necessarily athletes feel real comfortable talking to him. He puts everybody at ease.”
A star athlete
Sanders had a majorly impressive sports career of his own.
Sanders said he remembers playing everything from baseball, wrestling, track, football and basketball to whatever else he could growing up playing in leagues around Plaza Road.
He played for a Garinger football team that had gone 5-35 before his junior season, when they went 4-6.
But by Sanders’ senior season in 1984, the Wildcats were really good under coach Steve Shaughnessy, and he was at the forefront.
“He was awesome,” Shaughnessy said with emphasis. “He was one of the best players on our team. He was 5-foot-2, but he ran a 4.5 (second) 40. He was our kick returner, our punt returner and wide receiver. He was our best receiver, and we were really good.”
Eighteen players were on that team that would go on to play college football. Quarterback Gene Brown was recently inducted into The Citadel’s Hall of Fame. Robert Massey spent 11 seasons in the NFL. Gerald Mack played in the NFL, but did most of his best work in the Canadian Football League. Dave Puckett starred at Clemson.
Sanders went on to play his college ball at Lenoir Rhyne, where he excelled in football and track and field.
“I probably shouldn’t say it,” Shaughnessy said, “But if he was 6-feet, he could have played in the NFL. He was that good. I remember many times he’d take an 80-yard slant and score against good teams.
“In track, he ran a 49-second 400 meters. He could fly. The thing was, you’d watch him out there on the track and all of those other kids were 6 feet or 6-1 and he had to take two steps to their every one. But he could fly. He was a three-sport athlete, and he was great.”
Sanders would have an esteemed college and is still seventh among Lenoir Rhyne all-time career receptions leaders (116) and ninth in receiving yards (1,694).
“I was on a pretty good high school football team,” Sanders said. “I ran on a pretty good track team in high school and that set me up for college. I went to college and ended up being up all-conference and all-district my senior year at Lenoir Rhyne. When I graduated, I was No. 2 on the all-time receivers list. I’m down to No. 8 or something now, but I was up there when I graduated.”
Coaching to give back
Growing up, Sanders said he can remember all of those coaches who helped him early on – seeing potential in him and giving him a chance. To Sanders, coaching is a way to give back to them for all they meant to his own athletic achievements.
“I had a bunch of great coaches even going back to Pop Warner,” he said. “Coaches back then took you in. One of the coach’s had a station wagon, and he would ride through the neighborhood. We’d all pile into that car and get to practice. Those coaches took care of you. They’d take you to practice and they’d ride through McDonald’s. That meant a whole lot to us back then.”
Moving on from Pop Warner, Sanders said each new coach that helped him achieve success gave him more of a reason to want to work harder and reward them for investing in him.
“So many people went out of their way when I was younger to help me, so I felt like I was obligated to help anybody else that needed something or needed a chance,” he said. “As far as giving back, that was something that was instilled in me when I was 7 or 8 years old playing Pop Warner football. Some of those coaches were so instrumental that I wanted to do good for the ones that had helped me.”
Getting his start
After college, Sanders got a job with Barry Shuford who was coaching at Garinger at the time.
Following that season, Shuford was leaving for newly opening Butler and he took Sanders with him 22 years ago. Sanders immediately coached football and was an assistant track coach that first season. He also started helping out with basketball and later wrestling, in which he drove the bus to away matches and sparred with some of the guys.
He was all in – coaching track, football and serving as a basketball assistant before taking over as the head coach prior to the 2010 season where the Bulldogs went 30-1.
Shaughnessy and Sanders would eventually cross paths again, as the former coach was now working side by side with his former star as Butler’s defensive coordinator of all of the state champion teams.
Hales said Sanders provides invaluable information from the booth, where for 14 years he sat next to Shaughnessy.
“There aren’t enough superlatives to describe what I think of Mark Sanders,” Shaughnessy said. “I was the defense coordinator and he was (working with the offense). We’d go up in the press box together all of those times. We had all of those great teams. He was so calm and cool, and he never lost his composure. That’s really how he was as an athlete.
“I don’t know how he does it coaching three sports like that. He had to go from football practice right to basketball practice for a month when we got in the playoffs. In those playoff runs, we had with those great teams, it would be six weeks.”
It’s the same with basketball season running into track, and especially so this year, when he guided the girls team to the Final Four.
Sanders said he does it for the kids, but he also has a great support system with his wife, Toni.
“My wife is a sports fanatic,” he said. “Sometimes when I come home, she will have the Hudl pulled up. She’s more into it sometimes and that goes a long way. You have to have a supportive spouse, and she’s very supportive.”
Sanders, 51, is the father of three women in their 30s, as well as a 15-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.
Of course, they’re athletes. His son is on the track team at Butler and his daughter is a basketball player and track runner.
In it to win it
Sanders said he never gets tired of coaching because of what it means to him.
“Anywhere I could help out I was willing to because to me it was about the kids,” he said. “I try to get the best out of kids that I can and try to push them harder than they think they can go. A lot of times they think they’ve tapped and have given all they can give, but I see more and try my best to push them to get the best out of them.”
And he succeeds at that, said Michaela Dixon, a star guard on this year’s Butler team.
“He knew how much potential we had as individuals and as a team,” she said. “He made sure he got everything out of us that he could and he’s a coach that makes you exceed your own expectations you have of yourself.
“He takes the time to get the know the girls. He knows about our own personality and knew how to deal with each of us individually in a different way but made that all work for the betterment of the team.”
Sanders said he may have gotten a little less stringent in his coaching days, but the joy he gets out of it will never waiver.
Of course, there is joy from winning, something Sanders has done a lot of as a state champion coach for track (2008), girls basketball (2009-10) and three football teams (2009, 2010 and 2012).
“When you get those state championships, they are all the ultimate feelings,” he said. “When you get one, it makes you hungry to get another one.
“But the biggest thing is the kids, and that’s what it’s all about for we. When kids come back from college and say thank you and tell me what I meant to them, they don’t realize they meant just as much to me. To me, having them go on to college, graduate and come back with a degree that says a lot to me.”