Coaching Is in the Blood for Mark Bless
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Amy Payne
Nothing molds a young boy like spending quality time with his dad. That’s precisely what Mark Bless did, and the experience shaped him for the better.
“I grew up loving sports because my dad was a college coach at Indiana Central University [now the University of Indianapolis],” Bless says. “My earliest memories involve being out on the football field watching him coach.”
In high school Bless went on to play football, wrestle, and participate in track and field, throwing the shot put and discus. During his senior year in 1980, the wrestling team won state. At Indiana Central University, Bless was a Division II All-American and Heartland Conference Player of the Year in 1983.
“My brothers and I all played football for my father at Indiana Central,” Bless says. “Ironically, dad was an offensive coach and we all played defense.”
As early as high school, Bless started realizing that he would like to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a football coach. He followed through with that dream, landing his first coaching job at Terre Haute North Vigo High School as the assistant varsity football coach and head wrestling coach. He later took a job at North Vermillion High School as head football coach and head wrestling coach, from 1990 to 1994. He was at both schools for five years before moving closer to home and taking the position of head football coach at Mooresville High School, where he remained for 15 years from 1995 to 2010. While at Mooresville, Bless got to coach his son Tyler. His dad also coached with Bless for 13 of the 15 years he was there, making it a three-generation family affair.
“That was enjoyable,” says Bless, who calls his father his favorite coach and mentor.
“He was a tremendous role model for me, my brothers and my teammates in college,” Bless says. “When I see those guys now, they have all sorts of stories to share about my father. He was a good man and good football coach.”
Both of Bless’s brothers, Tim and Scott, have been longtime high school head coaches as well.
In 2010 Bless heard there was an opening for Avon High School’s head football coach. Bless spoke with David Ballou, the school’s head strength and conditioning coach at the time. He also talked to others in the Hendricks County community and loved everything he heard. What sealed the deal was meeting Ballou at a basketball game between Mooresville and Avon.
“Things were going well when I was at Mooresville,” Bless says. “We were winning games. It’s not like I was looking to leave, but Avon seemed like a great opportunity with more resources. At that basketball game it was like a green light went on for me. I knew that this was something I wanted to pursue and I fell in love with it.”
He accepted the position 12 years ago and has never looked back. One of the things he’s most proud of when it comes to being an Orioles coach is the way Avon values education above all else.
“[The focus on academics is] much stronger than any school I’ve ever been at,” Bless says. “That was really gratifying to me.”
While coaching lights a fire within him, Bless’s favorite part of the job has nothing to do with competition. He’s all about helping his athletes learn, grow and mature in different ways.
“Watching young boys grow into young men is the most gratifying aspect of my job,” he says. “Yes, it’s great to win games and championships, but to see freshmen come in needing guidance, and then four years later to see them graduate and possibly move on and earn a college degree, is a wonderful feeling.”
A typical day on the job starts with Bless greeting students in the commons area as they enter the building.
“I’m not assigned to do that, but I enjoy doing that for all students, not just my football players,” says Bless, who teaches four classes in the weight room with the strength coach as well as one physical fitness class. Usually, in the fall semester, his last period is his prep period so that he can open up the football building and get ready for practice. During football season, he’s typically at school until 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m.
“It kind of goes with the territory,” he says. “During the season it’s nonstop.”
Not that he’s complaining. He loves his job and his colleagues. He and his coaching staff of 20 work seven days a week during the season, scheduling Saturday-morning workouts and early Sunday-morning planning sessions. Though the number varies each season, the team usually consists of between 88 and 114 players (sophomores through seniors) with an additional 50 freshmen. Athletes take a weightlifting class as part of their curriculum, so that’s one hour each day that they spend with Bless in addition to practice from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Outside of the season, the coaches still spend a lot of time with their players in order to build relationships and create a tight-knit group.
Safety precautions in football have evolved, particularly in the last 10 to 12 years, as concerns have arisen specifically about concussions. Now, every two years coaches take courses on safe tackling practices, concussion acknowledgment, student cardiac arrest, and heat-illness prevention. In addition, the Indiana Football Coaches Association (IFCA) mandates how much physical contact athletes can have during the week.
“We can have two full-contact practices, and others are not full contact,” Bless says. “That has brought a lot more safety to the game because every day we are not running into each other and knocking one another down.”
Plus, for two months in the summer, they are restricted in how often athletes can wear helmets and shoulder pads. The IFCA has enforced restrictions to ensure that football is played safely. If humidity is high and the heat index is oppressive, they may restrict what’s worn at practice and limit drills to those that are minimally taxing.
Through the years Bless has had the opportunity to coach many talented athletes. He says the most fun he’s had coaching was during championship games in the 2015 season.
“We won a regional championship on our field against Cathedral in overtime, which was pretty electrifying,” he says. “We went to Center Grove and played them extremely well but lost in double overtime. Even though we fell short, that was so much fun to be a part of.”