Nearly three years later, Greg Mitchell gets emotional talking about it.
After a 25-year run, he never thought he would leave Laingsburg High School. There was a time when he wouldn’t even have entertained the idea, although the offers popped up from time to time.
When he arrived there at the age of 23, the Class C high school northeast of Lansing was in major need of rebuilding. It was a reclamation job for anyone, let alone a first-time head coach straight out of college.
But Mitchell did it with loyalty, dedication and sticking to the plan. It didn’t happen quickly, but he took the program from an afterthought, toiling in mediocrity, to the state’s biggest stage.
He thought he would stay for 2 or 3 years and then explore his options. He didn’t leave until he was 48.
That is still something Mitchell ponders, even today sitting in his office inside DeVos Fieldhouse high above the newly checker-patterned court at his alma mater, Hope College.
Mitchell was a point guard for the Flying Dutchmen in the 1980s and led the team to the Great Lakes Regional final. When his old head coach, Glenn VanWieren, retired in 2010, he asked Mitchell to apply for the job. He demurred. But four years later, Hope came calling again.
“I had to do some soul searching, because I was comfortable where I was,” he said. “But Hope is like a second home to me. It was a good opportunity for my kids to go here, and for me to become a college coach.”
His task at Hope has been different than Laingsburg in many ways, but the same standards he has set for himself and his team remain the same.
The winning culture was already in Holland. His task is to keep it going.
So far, so good.
Mitchell helped to lead Okemos High School to back-to-back state championships in 1981 and 1982. VanWieren, Hope College’s head coach, tried to recruit him in 1984.
Mitchell liked the Holland campus and VanWieren, but had “big school dreams.” He went to Central Michigan University where he spent a year practicing and going through the motions. He never even got to don a Chippewa uniform.
He missed the competitiveness and game atmosphere. After a phone call, VanWieren gave Mitchell another chance.
“Coach was real. He was like a father figure,” he said of VanWieren. “Hope gave me another chance.”
Mitchell repaid his coach by helping lead the Flying Dutchmen to a pair of MIAA championships and three national tournament appearances in his four years in Holland.
Mitchell’s teams posted a 40-8 mark in league play during his career. He still holds the school record for 3-point shooting: 46 percent. He was also the team’s leading scorer during his senior campaign, averaging 10.3 points per game.
“He was a mentor to me,” Mitchell said of VanWieren as he grabbed a toy from his desk. “I mean, he has his own bobblehead. That’s how big he was.”
Mitchell and Andy Hatt both arrived in Laingsburg in 1989, Mitchell as the varsity basketball coach, Hatt as a student in Mrs. Morley’s first-grade class.
Hatt didn’t care about records when he was in elementary school. He just couldn’t wait to wear that black and red uniform. He grew up going to Mitchell’s summer camps and even served as a team manager when he was in middle school. He fell in love with Wolfpack hoops. Mitchell was the main reason.
“He taught me how to play and shoot,” Hatt said. “My whole focus as a young player was how I couldn’t wait to play for coach Mitchell.”
Mitchell amassed an overall record of 362-201 in his quarter-century at the helm, highlighted by a trip to the state finals in 2013. Flint Beecher’s Monte Morris scored a game-high 16 points to help edge the Wolfpack 40-39 in the championship game inside the Breslin Center.
“He was on fire that night,” Mitchell recalled, shaking his head. “Morris had a huge game against us.”
Morris would be named Michigan’s Mr. Basketball and has gone on to an excellent college career at Iowa State, where he’s now a senior and an NBA prospect.
In all, Mitchell led the Wolfpack to three Michigan High School Athletic Association regional championships, six district championships and six conference championships. He was also named Coach of the Year seven times.
“The support we built was incredible,” he said of his time in Laingsburg. “We built a tradition of stability and pride. I got to see kids grow up and develop. I was invested in the students. It was special.”
Being a friend first was Mitchell’s greatest attribute, Hatt said. Now, he tries to follow suit at Sturgis High School near the Indiana border, where he too is an English teacher and basketball coach.
“It was such a cool experience for me to progress through the program and see how he did things,” Hatt said. “After I graduated, I finally realized that not everyone has a coach Mitchell.”
Returning to Hope
Laingsburg Superintendent Matt Shastel was a principal and athletic director when Mitchell was at the high school. He knew the decision to leave weighed heavy on Mitchell’s heart.
It was an emotional time for Laingsburg school officials, too. They loved Mitchell but didn’t want to hold him back.
“It was difficult,” Shastel said. “Obviously we didn’t want to influence his decision at all. It was hard enough on him.”
Laingsburg is now a “basketball town,” he said proudly. A majority of that credit goes to Mitchell.
The team made it to the regional finals the year after Mitchell left and has maintained a winning standard ever since. The goal now, Shastel said, is to keep trending upward.
“I hope he realizes what an impact he made and how appreciated he was here,” he said. “He was a tremendous asset to us. Great to see him go on and do great things.”
As it happened, Mitchell was exactly what Hope College Co-Athletic Director Tim Schoonveld had been looking for.
Schoonveld and Mitchell used to coach summer camps together on the Holland campus, and he watched from afar as Laingsburg reached new heights.
The night of the 2013 state championship game, Schoonveld tuned in on television to watch Mitchell’s team. During player introductions, Laingsburg players stated their names and their biggest influence in life. Most of their answers started with Mitchell.
“As I was watching, I thought, that is what it’s all about,” said Schoonveld, who is in his eighth year at Hope. “We talk a lot here about competitive excellence. We really want to change kids’ lives forever and make them better people. That’s the kind of stuff I see over and over from him.”
In the summer of 2014, Schoonveld and Co. got their man. Mitchell became the 11th head coach in Flying Dutchmen history that July.
“It’s a blessing,” Mitchell said. “It has been the perfect storm.”
Wins and humility
Mitchell doesn’t have his own bobblehead yet, but he’s working on it.
The Flying Dutchmen have compiled a record of 55-17 in two-and-a-half seasons under his watch and are 13-4 overall this season and 6-0 in conference. They’ve already won a conference title and have made the national tournament twice. Mitchell refuses to take credit for the wins. After all, he didn’t recruit half the roster.
Senior Harrison Blackledge said Mitchell made a seamless transition. It wasn’t “his way or the highway,” Blackledge said.
“He is always growing and learning with us,” said Blackledge, who is the son of former NFL first-round draft pick Todd Blackledge. “His maturation from year one to three has been awesome. He trusts us and comes to us with things, whether it’s hoops or life. He’s very humble. I look at him as a friend as much as a coach.”
His humility and passion are among the reasons why he got the job in the first place, Schoonveld said.
“We knew how good he was with X’s and O’s,” he said, “but when you hear how guys feel about him that speaks right to the mission of what we are trying to do here.”
Mitchell’s son, Bryson, and wife, Dina, still reside in the Lansing area while Bryson finishes his senior season at Laingsburg. His three daughters, Aleah, Quincie and Jalynn, are with him in Holland. Luckily, he likes to cook and work 70-hour weeks, he laughed.
Although he misses his wife and son, he has plenty to keep him busy. He is fully invested in Hope and getting the Flying Dutchmen that elusive national championship. The program made it to the Division III finals in 1996 and 1998. Mitchell thinks the next banner in the rafters will come sooner rather than later. Mitchell’s bunch is 6-0 in the MIAA standings.
The locals are taking notice of the product on the court.
Mitchell knows most fans have deep ties to powerhouses Michigan and Michigan State. He even had MSU season tickets growing up. But he was quick to point out that, in 2015, Hope had the third-highest attendance of any other college basketball team in the state.
“We average 2,500 a night and had three sellouts last season. We have led D-III in attendance for the past 13 seasons.” Mitchell said with a smile as he looked out over the 3,600-seat blue and orange clad arena below. “This is a pretty special place.”
‘The Hope way’
With 44.1 seconds remaining on the clock the night of Jan. 11, Blackledge was all alone behind the defense.
His team had a double-digit lead. The stage was set for the senior captain to bring the house down with a slam dunk and put an exclamation mark on an 88-77 win over rival Alma.
Instead, Blackledge took the pass, and he held up, allowing precious seconds to tick off the clock.
He was fouled and hit both free throws. It wasn’t the most exciting option, but it was the right one.
“He understands the game situation. The clock is our friend right there,” Mitchell said with a smile outside of the Flying Dutchmen’ locker room post game. “He embodies the ‘Hope way.'”
Blackledge is the leading scorer for Hope this season, averaging 22.5 points per game. He is a catalyst for the offense, but on this night he took a backseat to Dante Hawkins, a Holland native, who scored a career-high 29 points.
Chomping on gum, Mitchell stood in front of the Hope bench calm and collected like he was all night long with his arms resting behind his back and his right hand clinching his left wrist.
When Blackledge decided not to dunk the ball, Mitchell simply shook his head in approval as a smile broke on his face.
Mitchell took extra time with every Alma player in the handshake line. Although they are rivals, Mitchell wanted to greet each player and coach and tell them how well they did. It showed his humility, but also lent a glimpse into the man he is.
Mitchell shyly smiled as he spoke about his passion for his players and the game outside of a raucous Hope locker room.
“I love this team,” he said. “I truly do.”
No motion offense or man-to-man scheme will get Hope basketball where it wants to go, Mitchell said.
It’s all about the people.
“It’s a life-changing place,” he said. “This is a traditional place, and we have been blessed with great players and coaches. I am a very lucky man.”