Toughest Decision Of My Life

95% of the country will think I’m crazy. All of Vol Nation will definitely think I’m nuts. Shoot, even some of my best friends and family members think I am throwing away my dreams and giving up on years and years of hard work.

Coaching and teaching have always been in my blood. I’ve been blessed to be around some of the best. My mom, a Hall of Fame volleyball coach in Illinois. My dad, a standout player for Ray Meyer at DePaul University. He was the best basketball coach I have ever had, because he taught me at an early age how to compete, never say “can’t” and that if I wasn’t working on my game, somewhere, my competition was. If my dad wasn’t coaching me, my grade school and junior high coaches, Mrs. Streit, Mr. Lagan, Mr. Maestranzi, Mr. Rivera, Mr. Baird, Mr. Gallas and Coach Julio, were busy making a huge impact on me on the basketball court or on the baseball field. In high school there was my Hall of Fame coach, Bob Williams, who taught me so much about discipline and fighting through adversity. There was also Mark Steger, Tom Mueller, Adam Smith, Mark Stilling and Mr. Ivan Thomas, each of whom helped mold me into who I am today and increase my desire to be a coach. In college Coach Pearl, Jason Shay, KJ, Tony Jones, Rob Jeter, Duffy Conroy and Coach Bidlingmyer made a huge impact on me. They taught me a lot about the game. In fact, since Coach Pearl knew I wanted to coach someday, he had me sit in the first seat on the bench helping scout our opponents when I redshirted my freshman year (this would later become the same seat I occupied as a full time member of his staff at Tennessee). When I was done playing and ready to move into the “real world,” I knew I would like to coach, but I wasn’t sure at what level. I was all ready to take a sales/marketing job when Coach Pearl called me and offered me the Graduate Assistant job at Tennessee. I’ll never forget what he said, “Mark, are you sure you want to get into college coaching? This is not an easy business. You could have more stability and make a lot of money quicker if you did something else. Think about it another day and call me tomorrow and let me know what you decide.” Well, to me that sounded like he doubted me! Did he think I would be better off doing something else? I appreciated his honesty, but that kind of ticked me off. Of course I wanted to coach. He knew that! Needless to say, I called him the next day and accepted the position to come to Tennessee. Before I left for this great opportunity at Tennessee, I wrote down this goal: “Become a head coach by the age of 35.”

On my drive down from Schaumburg, Illinois to Knoxville in 2006 with all my belongings packed in my parents teal mini van (not a good first impression with the ladies, I know), I realized a few things about the South. They had a lot of churches, the people drove a bit slower than in the Chicago suburbs, college football recruiting and non-mainstream college sports were on the cover of the sports page and talked about on the radio, they loved this stuff called sweet tea, and there were mountains. I had never seen a mountain before, so I was pumped!  If that doesn’t sound crazy enough, I had never been to a college football game, let alone an SEC football game! Needless to say, I was in awe when I was walking recruits around campus before our opening football game vs. Cal in 2006. I’m supposed to be talking to the recruits about campus and where they’ll eat, sleep, study, etc, and I can’t talk because my jaw is down to my toes in amazement of the tailgate scene. People in orange were everywhere, and so much excitement was in the air! Then, basketball season came. I had played against and seen a lot of great players before I got here, but everyone down here talked about this Chris Lofton kid. To be honest, I hadn’t really heard of him before I got down here. In preseason open gyms, he seemed to be an “ok” player. In practice he was petty good. In the first few games, he would score 15 points one game, 16 in the next, but nothing special. I kept asking Jason Shay, “I thought C-Lo was supposed to be an All-American? What’s the deal?” and Shay used to always respond, “Wait till the big games. You’ll see.” Sure enough, in a packed house vs. Memphis, C-Lo had one of those legendary Chris Lofton games. Nobody could guard him. He was unstoppable! Since these experiences that first year, I have bled orange and have absolutely turned into a Vol For Life!

My motivation to help our basketball program be as successful as possible while trying to positively impact the lives of our players and reach my goal of becoming a head coach has made me literally “give my all for Tennessee” the last 7 years. I have given Coach Pearl, then Coach Martin, the assistant coaches, our players, this university and this community everything I have and then some during my time here. I have spent countless hours in the office. I am almost always the first one in the building around 5 a.m., and more times than not, I’ve been the last to leave at night. I have sacrificed so many family moments that I will never get back in order to help this program and pursue my dreams. I never saw my brothers or sister play a collegiate game in person, I’ve missed three of my best friends weddings that I was supposed to be a part of, and my almost 3-year-old daughter told me while we were at home about two months ago, “Daddy you need to go home.” When I responded with “Charli, I am at home.” She said, “No daddy, you live at your office. That’s your home.” She may or may not have known what she was saying, but that about broke my heart. I give these few examples not for sympathy but for no other reason than they are just the facts. Missing out on some of life’s important moments is a part of this business. And to be honest up, until the last few months, I’ve been okay with that. I am the type of person who likes work. If I don’t have any work to do, I still need to go to the office for a few hours to work ahead or brainstorm some new ideas because I feel like the competition would be getting ahead of us and I’d be letting the rest of the staff and our players down if I didn’t. That drive to be great wont ever change. I know I have made my share of mistakes and could improve in many areas, but I strongly believe that my efforts have been a small part of the success this program has had over the last seven years. This program and these efforts have enabled me to experience things many can only dream of and build relationships with people that will last me a lifetime.

Despite my efforts and the success of our program, my progression in this business hasn’t happened the way I thought it would. During Coach Pearl’s tenure, he gave me TONS of responsibility and we were having GREAT success. I had possibilities to move up the coaching ladder elsewhere but we were winning, I loved it here, and Coach Pearl had made me some promises that made me excited about the future. These promises didn’t materialize, and things didn’t end for Coach Pearl the way many people thought they would. However, I appreciate the opportunity Coach Pearl gave me here, and the things he taught me. After being fired along withthe rest of our staff, by the grace of God, Coach Martin came into the picture. He literally pulled me from the dead when he re-hired me in 2011. He is one of the greatest men I have ever met. I will always look up to him and forever be indebted to him for giving me another opportunity here at UT. I hope they both know that I came to work every day determined to make their job easier and to help them and their program be as successful as possible.

Although my progression up the coaching ladder here at UT or elsewhere hasn’t happened, this thing we all experience called “life” has. I have been blessed with the most loving, supportive wife in the world. I am confident that if I asked her to move to Alaska because a great coaching opportunity became available, she would. She has always been there for me. Then, there is my almost 3-year-old daughter, Charli, who has given me an entirely new perspective on life. She should be the poster child for “Daddy’s Little Girl,” because I would do anything for her. Lastly, after trying for more than a year, God has blessed my wife and I with another baby due in February. We are so excited! However, because of my current role on the basketball staff, what the future holds in this business and the addition of this secondchild to our family I have had to reevaluate my priorities and determine what is best for my family and our future. This second future Vol or Lady Vol has made me really stop and think: What does the future hold for me in this crazy uncertain world of coaching? Is committing so much time to this profession worth being away from my family so much? Is what Iearn now and what I probably will earn for the next five years or so as a mid-major assistant worth moving my family for a few years until the next job offer comes? Is telling my wife again that we need to keep renting a small two-bedroom condo because we can’t afford a bigger place and we don’t know if we’ll be here come April worth it? Is basically asking my wife to be a single parent of two kids from October to (hopefully) April, and then all of camp season in June, worth it? Is never being able to coach my kids or missing out on their school plays worth it? The coach in me says, “Ya, you sacrifice those great moments with your family, but think about all the cool places they get to travel and moments they get to experience and share with you.”  And “I’ll make it to the top someday.” The competitor inside of me says, “It doesn’t have to be that way. I can be a great husband, father, son, brother and friend while also being a great coach. I can have balance in my life.” Really though, can I? Is it really possible to have balance in this profession if you are going to win at the level necessary to reach the top of coaching and then keep your job in this social-media fueled, happy-today, fired-tomorrow world? I really don’t think you can. To be a great coach, you need to give almost all of your time to your team, your recruits, your boosters and your community. Not your family. So I started to think about getting out of coaching. But then my mind wandered back… I can’t get out. Basketball IS me. Every time I go home to Schaumburg or out around Knoxville nobody asks, “How are you doing?” Instead, they ask, “How’s Tennessee going to be this year?” or “How’s the new point guard going to be this year?” or “How’s Jeronne’s knee?” or “Do you think you’ll make the tournament this year?” I’m not sure anyone except maybe my wife and parents see me as Mark Pancratz. I’ve always been a basketball player or a basketball coach. To be giving up on coaching would be giving up a huge part of me.

I am not a “toot my own horn” type of person, so don’t misinterpret what I am saying. I am positive that I can become a great head coach, win tons of games and impact tons of kids lives if I decided to stay in it. What I am saying is, are those material accomplishments worth the sacrifices that I will have to make in order to get there? When an opportunity opened up at UT, and another one at a different university I was intrigued by this off-season, I was excited that I could finally be moving up. I felt God might finally be opening a door for me to move forward in the coaching world. But when those doors got slammed in my face, my future once again became cloudy. Another year in a non-coaching position in which my responsibilities were far greater than that of the typical “video guy” seemed inevitable.  I absolutely love my job, but being a 30-year-old in a non-coaching position really began to bother me. When Brooke told me a about eight weeks ago that she was pregnant, I began praying for wisdom and guidance. This thing called life is progressing! I have gone back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Do I stay in college coaching, or do I get out? The decision has been so hard. Through much prayer and countless tears, I have finally become completely at peace with my decision. I love what I do and have been so blessed to do it at a place like Tennessee. But, as a husband and a father, I have to make sure I do what is best for my family’s future. Therefore, I am excited about my decision to pursue other professional opportunities.

The hardest part was telling Coach Martin and the players. I love UT. I love the current players and the players I have been able to work with over the years even more. They were why I got into this business. The thought of not being able to be on the floor when D’Montre, Jordan and Jeronne play their last game in Thompson-Boling Arena makes me tear up (I would have definitely been like Dick Vermeil as a head coach, getting emotional all the time). Not being there for the guys when they have personal problems or questions, or celebrating when they achieve something on the court or in the classroom, is going to be tough. I love those guys and pray they have the greatest year in UT history. As I told them all when I called them to tell them about the decision, no matter where I am, I will always be a phone call away and willing to help. I just pray that the players, our staff and everyone else around the program know that I gave that basketball program all I had during my time at UT and can respect the fact that I needed to make this decision because I feel it is whats best for my family.

Many people will say I have failed at my goal of becoming a head coach by age 35. But you know what, I am okay with not becoming a head Division I coach, because I know I have given everything I can to this profession, and I am happy that instead of coaching at age 35 for some university in some different state on a Saturday afternoon, I will be able to be coaching my daughter’s team. The question I keep getting is “What are you going to do now?” My answer is, although I don’t know where I will be working in the future, I do know that whatever I am doing I will continue to work my butt off and help whatever company I am working for reach its goals. Sure, it’s kind of scary not knowing what is going to happen next, but I am excited. I know that no matter what I decide to do, there will be adversity and huge adjustments to make, but I’m eager for a new opportunity. As I search for a new career, I will continue to stay involved in basketball by conducting basketball skill workouts and basketball camps for kids. Who knows when the “big boy” job will happen? But I am confident that my relentless work ethic and experience working with so many aspects of our program will land me a great job somewhere.

Vol Nation, thank you so much for allowing me to be a part of the Vol Family for the last seven years! This community, university and athletic program are filled with some of the best people in the world. I look forward to seeing you at a football game this fall and a basketball game this winter cheering on the Vols. The only difference is, this time I will be sitting with my family.

GOD BLESS!!

Mark Pancratz

PS: At this point I can’t be shy so if you or your company has a job opening, and/or if you have a son or daughter who might be interested in some basketball skills training, please don’t hesitate to email me at MarkPancratz@yahoo.com

The loves of my life!

Jakes Wedding

The people in these pictures are what have made this decision so difficult. I will always love each and every one of the former players and coaches and will cherish my relationship with them forever. Thank you for letting me be a small part of your life during your time here. I pray that in some way, I made a positive difference in each of your lives. I am excited to see what the future holds for each of you. #VFLCoach Martin Era Coach Pearl Era

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About Mark Pancratz's Blog

A native of Schaumburg, Ill., Mark Pancratz played Division I basketball at UW-Milwaukee, earning his degree in marketing and finance. He joined Tennessee's staff in 2006 as a graduate assistant, earning his master's degree in sports management later that year. Serving as a G.A., director of video scouting and assistant to the head coach, Pancratz was an integral part of Tennessee's six-consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. At 26, Pancratz boasts an impressive 18 games of NCAA Tournament experience as a player and/or administrative staff member. He is a member of the Illinois High School Basketball Hall of Fame and voted one of the 100 Legends of Illinois High School Basketball. Pancratz resides in Knoxville and is married to the former Brooke Waddell.
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4 Responses to Toughest Decision Of My Life

  1. Reynolds, Janet says:

    Ok I really can’t stop crying now! I love you Mark Pancratz & your family & I will never ever stop letting you know how blessed you’ve made my life ever since you walked into it & don’t forget me & my southern twang that you’ve grown to love too!!! I have no doubt you WILL do big things!!!!

    Janet M. Reynolds Administrative Assistant TN Men’s Basketball 206 Thompson Boling Arena Knoxville, TN. 37996 (865)974-1206 Fax(865)974-0097

  2. Wesley Lee says:

    Good luck to you Mark….You are a credit to the UT program and I appreciate all you hard work. I know this must have been a very difficult decision, but hopefully with God’s guidance your future will be secure.

    Wesley Lee

  3. Pingback: Assigned Reading: It’s tough to ascend the coaching ‘ladder’ | CollegeBasketballTalk

  4. Justin Lettenberger says:

    Well put Mark. Having just recently become a dad to a little girl myself I understand and respect your decision as a father. From the minute I kiss Taytum good bye as I leave for work, my days are motivated by seeing her again the second I get home. No one will ever doubt your determination and hard work in becoming a head coach. Since Charlie was born you always were a head coach, maybe not on the court but in your household. Your film sessions are watching Cartoon Network or recording one of Charlie’s “firsts”, team meals always were the days wou were able to have a family breakfast or dinner, practices were those days when you would show her how to use a new toy, and the time you spent caring for an injured player were the diapers you changed over the years. You’ve excelled as a head coach at home as a father and a husband and God has recognized this by blessing you and Brooke with your first extension. Congrats on welcoming another baby in February!

    -Justin Lettenberger

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