I can understand what drew James Blackmon to return to Marion High School as boys basketball coach.
In the minds of many – especially those who were raised on Indiana high school basketball, as Blackmon was, in the 1970s and 1980s – he walks into one of the most tradition-rich jobs in the state. Only Muncie Central and Anderson have been to more state championship games. Only Muncie Central has won more state titles. You enter the coaching office in Marion, and Bill Green's legacy hovers.
Throw in the fact Blackmon graduated from Marion as a star player in 1983, and it all makes sense.
That doesn't mean this new gig will be easy. On the contrary, Blackmon faces the biggest challenge of his relatively young coaching career as he takes over at Marion.
Is it a good move? I can't say that. Blackmon had a great thing going at Bishop Luers, a school with an enviable balance of academic and athletic excellence. The leadership at Luers, with Principal Mary Keefer and athletic director Matt Lindsay, is stellar. Its programs, from football to basketball to show choir and others, thrive on high standards. There may be shinier schools, fancier gymnasiums and plusher football stadiums in Indiana. But at the heart of the matter – turning students into productive adults – no school succeeds at its mission better than Luers.
I don't know enough about Marion to know the strengths or weaknesses of its leadership. But judging from some of the comments at the school board meeting confirming Blackmon's hire, it sounds like there's a lot of work ahead. One school board member who voted against hiring Blackmon pointed out that the school is in its fifth year of academic probation and perhaps places too much emphasis on sports.
Another board member complained that Blackmon's hiring was a “railroading” job. This sounds more like infighting among conflicting factions than a judgment of Blackmon's qualifications, but it hints at uneasiness on campus.
There's also the issue of atmosphere. Marion has weathered some tough times in terms of businesses leaving and unemployment issues. The struggling economy that has hit every community has been especially harsh in Marion. High school sports teams tend to be a community rallying point for place like Marion, bringing added pressure.
On the court, Marion's boys team is coming off back-to-back losing seasons and the embarrassment of its former coach Todd Grace being charged with driving while intoxicated, suspended and ultimately fired.
Blackmon will have the benefit of bringing his son, James Jr., into the program as one of the best sophomores (and best players) in the state. On the other hand, while the Blackmons were established and known at Luers, helping that father-son coaching dynamic, this could be some tricky terrain in Marion. It's always a hot topic when fathers coach their sons in high school, no matter how talented the son. Make it a new coach and new player at a new school and that challenge escalates.
James Blackmon is a strong enough man and coach to handle the added pressure. His son, a veteran on the AAU circuit, understands playing under stress. In my observations, Blackmon has been quite fair in coaching his son, as well as his nephew. With two state titles coaching Deshaun Thomas and friends, Blackmon proved he knows how to handle a winner. He's not perfect but he has a passion for coaching and a wealth of knowledge.
I understand why Blackmon decided to go “home” to Marion. He can make it work, but it is going to be just that: work.
Blackmon leaves behind a great job. It'll be up to him to turn Marion back into the great job it used to be.