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Fan Fiction: A day with imaginary Duquesne head coach Mark Titus*

*This is the alternate timeline we need, if not the one we deserve

Mark Titus/YouTube

The Ringer staff writer Mark Titus announced on Twitter this past week that he was interested in the head coach opening at Duquesne after three different coaches declined to take the job. Duquesne then did a very bad thing and declined to even give Titus an interview. In that spirit, we imagine what life at Duquesne would be like under head coach Mark Titus, the future they deserve. It’s a beautiful picture.

It’s early morning on a cloudy Monday in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While the rest of the city groggily wakes up to begin its day, the faint echoes of leather pounding hardwood dimly sounding out from the Palumbo Center reverberate across the Duquesne University campus.

Enter inside and the floor is streaked with players running through drills at a brisk and steady pace. Standing on the sideline with the unmistakable laid-back cool of an athlete’s swagger stands Mark Titus, “Coach T,” to his players, the newly minted head coach of Duquesne University. A whistle resting on his neck, a backwards Duquesne snapback perched on his forehead, a beard looking perhaps a little more scraggly than normal, Titus looks over his team as shot after shot is hoisted to the rim.

It’s clear, watching the way Titus goes through the minutiae that builds teams from the ground up that he understands intrinsically what his players need. There’s the reassuring hand on the back to make sure one player is feeling alright after he clangs a few easy jump shots. There’s the big dap to another after he finishes off a fast-break with a fancy finish at the tin. There’s the gentle but stern rebuke of a player who failed to rotate correctly in the half-court defense. At every moment, Titus displays the enthusiasm and experience that belies his 29 years of age. Despite being the youngest head coach in college basketball, there can be no doubt: Mark Titus has been here before.

Titus understands the skepticism that his hire inspired in a number of Duquesne faithful and college basketball analysts, but he offers a stern rebuke.

“I’ve sat on the bench of a national championship game,” he said. “There are a lot of coaches who can’t say the same thing. I know what it takes to get to the Final Four.”

So much of Titus’s sell, his appeal, his confidence comes from his invaluable experience as a player at Ohio State under Thad Matta. He has become the latest branch of an ever-growing and prospering coaching tree of Matta’s, joining the likes of Brad Stevens, Jeff Boals, and Archie Miller.

Success drips off of every one of Titus’s words.

“You ask me, ‘hey, Mark, what was it like winning the Big Ten?’ I’ll respond ‘which time?’”

For a program that has gone decades without a winning culture, Titus represents a clear and obvious culture shift. Duquesne is getting a proven winner, someone who demands the respect of his players. Despite his inexperience, Titus clearly has command of his huddle. There are no signs of dissent or mutiny. The Dukes are ready for action, and they’re ready to win under their new coach.

Titus doesn’t domineer over practice as much as he orchestrates its flow.

“I want to model my coaching after Tom Izzo,” he said. “I want my players to wrap their arm around me when they’re talking to me.”

Titus is a player’s coach, through and through. He describes himself as “not a yeller,” noting that he needed to find someone to fill that role on his yet-to-be-finalized staff. He also declared that he needed someone who can “punt a basketball really well. Take it and just punt the shit out of that thing. That’s important. You’ve got to send a message that way.”

Titus is distinctly aware of the issues that are inherently present at Duquesne basketball.

“Duquesne, I don’t think it’s a secret, is an absolute mess,” he said. “One 20-win season in the last 35-plus years. It’s a toxic job, let’s be honest.”

But despite his bluntly aware description of the program that he will be taking over, his enthusiasm and bold-faced confidence is abundantly clear within the first moments of talking with him him.

“[We] will make the Final Four next year, and if we don’t, I will resign,” he said. “Show me another coach that’s willing to do that.”

That is more than just talk. Titus penned a 1-year, $350,000 contract with Duquesne, $250,000 of which he will donate to local Pittsburgh charities. He’s coaching without a safety net and without a harness. If he doesn’t make good on his promise of a Final Four, Titus will be out the door with little recourse to reestablish himself in the coaching world. He readily admits that he is “risking his career” to coach the Dukes this season. But strangely, he doesn’t shy away from it, rather, he questions why this isn’t the norm.

“Archie Miller signed a 7-year contract,” Titus said. “That tells me he doesn’t believe in himself.”

The swagger that put Titus on the computer screens in every American household in 2010 is plainly on display for everyone to see.

Big change takes big ideas. Titus is full of those big ideas.

With little time to fill his 2017 recruiting class, Titus knows where to focus his efforts. “I need a good network of bag men.”

No, Titus is not afraid to acknowledge publicly that the way you build up a program in the shortest amount of time is through the underhanded cash payments that we all know transpire. He doesn’t plan to be brazen in his “cheating.” He underscores the importance of keeping these payments under wraps.

“You gotta do it in a way you don’t get caught,” he said. “That’s the name of the game in college basketball.”

The NCAA declined to comment on this story because we didn’t ask, but make no mistake, the eyes and ears of the sport’s governing body will be zeroed in on Duquesne basketball.

Titus won’t limit himself in his recruiting tactics.

When Marcus Evans announced his transfer from Rice University on Twitter Monday afternoon, only one coach was there to scoop up the coveted prospect.

Titus is uniquely positioned to reach out to recruits in this digital media age. His 138,000 Twitter followers outpace virtually all of his rivals.

Says Titus, “If you take every coach in Duquesne history, and every coach they offered this job and multiply it by ten and combine all of their followers, they still don’t have as many followers as me...Not to brag.”

And he’s right.

Titus makes it clear that he intends to leverage both his personal brand and his connections in sports media to maximize the visibility of the Duquesne program and its players, and in a world where athletes are increasingly aware of the importance of their persona, it’s clear why Titus can make hay in recruiting. He promises to “wall off Pittsburgh,” saying that it produces “the toughest kids.” Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings and his mere 7,900 followers can’t help but be shook.

There is a new biggest game in town. And Titus isn’t afraid to stake his claim.

When Mark Titus laid out his vision of Duquesne basketball on Twitter, the gauntlet was immediately thrown at Stallings’ feet.

For a coach with no prior experience to immediately tell his biggest rival to “eat shit” is a huge departure from what is deemed defensible in the coaching world. But when offered a chance to recalibrate his statement, Titus reaffirmed his commitment:

“I’d like to double down on it. Kevin Stallings is a bad coach. He’s bad for college basketball.”

Titus has declared that he would play Pitt 16 times in the non-conference slate if he could. The possibility of Pitt using an injury or an inconvenient schedule as an excuse for a loss is unsatisfactory for him.

He wants to own the city.

“I understand Pittsburgh,” he said. “I put Heinz ketchup on my hotdog. Does Kevin Stallings do that? Probably not.”

He promises to fill the 4,406 seat Palumbo Center with the city’s finest. Penguins players, local celebrities, even, presumably, Primanti Brothers’ sandwiches will be welcomed and honored as Titus tries to chip away at the hegemony of the city that the Pitt Panthers currently enjoy. And there can be no doubt as to whether or not he will be successful.

As the practice winds down, Titus takes on challengers in a three-point shooting contest. As ball after ball tickles the twine, his smile gets bigger. He banks in the last shot in his set of 10 and struts off the court. Titus knows that he’s set a high bar for his team. Final Four or bust is no joke. But that’s not the end for Titus.

“We want to go to the Final Four again and again and again.”

Take five minutes to watch him work, and you’ll think that isn’t just a pipe dream.