When Mark Christner took over as Waynesburg University head men’s basketball coach in 2010, the team was coming off an 0-12 season in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference.
Less than five years later, Christner guided the Yellow Jackets to the conference championship game, where they fell seven points short of an appearance in the NCAA Division III Tournament.
Wednesday morning, Christner’s tenure at Waynesburg—which was highlighted by that conference title game appearance—came to an end after nine seasons as he accepted the head women’s basketball coaching job at his alma mater, Calvin College.
The decision to leave Waynesburg, where he is also the assistant athletic director, was one of the most difficult Christner has ever had to make. He said he received the offer from Calvin this past Monday, and spent the night pondering the decision with his wife Sara. Then, late Tuesday evening, he accepted the job.
As difficult as the decision itself was, Christner said the hardest part of the process was informing his players that he would no longer be their basketball coach.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do professionally was look our guys in the eyes and tell them I was leaving… very, very hard,” he said. “To their credit, they’ve been awesome. They’ve been really taking it well. I think they understand. They know that I’ll support them from afar.”
Athletic director Larry Marshall said that he understands the urge for Christner to return home.
“I know it’s tough for him to leave here,” said Marshall. “He really enjoyed being here, but yet, the chance to return to your alma mater makes it worthwhile to do it.”
Christner, a Michigan native, is from about an hour north of Calvin, where he graduated in 1999 and coached at from 2002 until taking the Waynesburg job at the turn of the decade. The man who he played for and coached under, Kevin Vande Streek, retired in late February, and with the head women’s job being vacant as well, Christner said, Vande Streek advised Christner to think about the opening. While on Vande Streek’s staff, the Knights made four NCAA Division III Tournaments.
Christner has had success coaching at the men’s level for the better part of two decades, and he’s now entering new territory heading to the women’s game.
“It might be an old thought process to think that [women’s basketball is] an easier deal. It’s not,” he said. “It’s different.”
For Christner, the key to a successful switch will be continuing to have the right mentality in connecting with players.
“I think the transition comes from having the right temperament,” Christner said. “Being able to connect with your players, and then inspiring them to do the great work together.”
From a Waynesburg standpoint, Marshall is interesting in seeing how the university will go about finding its next head basketball coach.
I’m curious now to see how the administration handles what they want to do,” Marshall said. “Whether they go with a search, wait to see what’s available. Usually with the head coaches they put out and then have a search committee. We know some people will be [interested] in doing it, but we have to follow proper procedures. It’s going to be how the administration decides to handle it.”
Christner hopes that his near-decade at Waynesburg is remembered not by wins and losses, but by what his players got from their time with the program— and where they went in the “real world” after graduation.
“I think they value their experience here,” he said. “That’s certainly what we want… you laugh about great stories, and you forget about how hard it was to lose, but you remember the great wins, all those things. It’s kind of the shared journey together.”
Christner built his family in Waynesburg, and now will be taking that family to the place where he and his now-wife met, while at the same time continuing to grow in coaching.
“I love our guys, and I think they know that,” he said. “It’s been a good thing. I think [Calvin] will be a good thing too, but it’s a little bittersweet for sure.”