A Relentless Legacy
Doug Mitchell Reflects On 25 Years As North Central High School’s Basketball Coach
Writer / Jon Shoulders
Photographer / Brian Brosmer
When asked about the key to his successes as a high school basketball coach over three decades, Doug Mitchell comes back to a certain word repeatedly – relentless.
“I’m a rather relentless person when it comes to competition,” says Mitchell, 61. “You have to be determined in everything you do, especially when it comes to having a successful basketball program – there’s no way around it.”
“I remember shooting it over the backboard and thinking, ‘That’s not too easy,’” he says with a laugh. “I started working hard at it.”
Mitchell began organized basketball in the fourth grade, and by the time he was hooping it up at Hamilton Heights High School, he saw the sport as both a source of true enjoyment and a means to a college education and a fulfilling career.
“I always wanted to play and possibly coach, and I figured the way off the farm was to get a scholarship – that was the motivation,” he recalls.
Former Butler University head coach George Theofanis recruited Mitchell to his program, where he progressed into a starter and team captain as a junior and senior. After Mitchell’s sophomore year, Theofanis was replaced Joe Sexson, with whom Mitchell would work in a coaching capacity later on at Butler.
Mitchell jokes that he’s always been able to commiserate with players of his own who don’t see much time on the court, drawing on his own experience during his first two collegiate years.
“My players could never say I don’t know how they feel sitting on the bench, because I definitely do,” he says. “I’m grateful to both my coaches at Butler though, and to Joe Sexson for giving me a chance to play.”
After graduating with a degree in education in 1979, Mitchell served as junior varsity coach at Lawrence Central and Hamilton Heights high schools, followed by six years as a full-time assistant with Butler. All the while, the desire for a head coaching position at the high school varsity level grew stronger and stronger.
“Towards the end of my time at Butler, I didn’t like the time away from home and being away from my kids,” says Mitchell, who has three daughters, Taylor, 34, Morgan, 27 and Payton, 22, with his wife Deborah. “I was getting into my late 30s and I was ready to stay in one place and be a head coach.”
A Legacy Left
Prior to Mitchell’s first season at North Central in 1993, the Panthers, while competitive, were not revered as a year-in, year-out powerhouse boys basketball program. He was determined to change the program’s status, and within a few years had begun to make a distinctive mark on Hoosier high school hoops, eventually winning 11 sectional titles, four regional titles and Class 4A state championships in 1999 and 2010.
“I had seen North Central enough to know that they had enough talent to win state championships,” Mitchell says. “I was extremely excited to start.”
And he certainly made the most of his time at the school, compiling a 428-176 overall record. Mitchell coached nine Indiana all-stars and four Mr. Basketball winners including Eric Gordon, who currently plays for the Houston Rockets, and IUPUI men’s basketball coach Jason Gardner.
“Doug cares about the kids on and off the floor,” says Walt Morris, Mitchell’s assistant coach at North Central for the last 20 years. “There were times when he gave up some wins from sitting kids down or suspending them, because he wanted to do what was best. He cared more about the outcome of their lives than just winning.”
In 2008 Mitchell won a gold medal as head coach for the USA Basketball Junior National Select Team at the 11th Annual Nike Hoop Summit, after coaching as an assistant the previous year, and also served as assistant coach of the 2003 McDonald’s High School All-American East team, which included current NBA stars LeBron James, Chris Paul and Luol Deng.
“Doug got the best out of his kids and they always played as hard as they could for him – that was always non-negotiable,” Morris says. “He knew how to play to his players’ strengths and knew also how to get out of their way, which is not something many coaches or teachers really know how to do.”
Mitchell credits Morris and the rest of his Panthers coaching staff throughout the years, as well as the example set by his elementary, high school and college coaches, as key factors in his long-term success.
“You just have to be relentless,” Mitchell reiterates. “If there’s a problem, 95 percent of people start to complain about it and don’t fix it. What I learned from my own coaches is to identify the problem and come up with a plan and a solution for it – and get to work. That was our formula through the years.”
When tragedy struck in 2002 and Mitchell lost his son Bryce, 16 at the time, in a car accident, he says it was his passion for coaching and the life lessons that came with it, in addition to crucial support from family and friends, that helped to see him through such a difficult time.
“I don’t think I could’ve gotten through some of the hard times in my life if it weren’t for athletics, because you learn that when you don’t think you can take another step, you can take another step,” he says.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
“It’s just time,” he says of his decision. “I don’t feel I have anything else to prove. Once you get over chasing all the wins, you ask yourself what you’re really doing it for, and that’s to help kids. Those are my fondest memories – helping kids to get scholarships and now seeing them as successful people in society. So my heart’s full there.”
While Mitchell’s post-coaching plans are still up in the air, he says they’re certain to include more time with his wife, daughters and grandsons – Eli, 9, and Izaak, 8 – as well as plenty of golf, one of his other passions.
“I’d also like to be able to speak to groups and help people as far as what we went through when we lost our son,” he adds. “I lost a brother when he was 28 and I was going into my senior year at Butler. Recovering from those things and moving on is a tough trick, and I think I can help people with that.”
Whatever Mitchell chooses to do with his post-retirement time, he’ll surely be doing it the only way he knows how.