If you follow high school basketball in Philadelphia, you know who Mark Heimerdinger is.
You know he was the man who coached the Cardinal Dougherty High School basketball team for 29 years and led them to a lot of wins and Northern Division championships.
You also know him as the demonstrative coach who would expect a lot out of his players. And when they weren’t giving him everything, he would motivate them, sometimes by taking them out, sometimes by loudly giving them encouragement.
If you follow high school basketball, you know about Heimerdinger, the coach, and if you do, you probably have a lot of respect for the guy who had 546 wins over 38 years, sent two players to the NBA and countless more to college where many excelled at the Division I, II and III levels.
But you probably don’t know much about the man.
And now that he announced his retirement from teaching and coaching, his former players want you to.
They want you to know why he was successful at teaching them the right way to play basketball, but more importantly the right way to live.
“I was close with him when I was on the team, and I’ve stayed close with him because he’s such an important person in my life,” said Cuttino Mobley, a 1992 graduate of Cardinal Dougherty who went on to play 11 seasons in the NBA. “He’s not the lovey dovey guy, but when you grew up where we grew up, when your coach spazzes on you, it means he loves you. We definitely had fun.
“For me, learning basketball and having a coach that was so animated and driven, I think he, actually I know he molded me into the person I am. I don’t take things personally. Working hard is a must. I’m a black kid from North Philly, he’s a white guy who yelled at me, and it was nothing but love the entire time. I praise him on that part. He helped me develop the tough skin and helped make me who I am.”
Heimerdinger wasn’t a Dougherty guy.
He attended Archbishop Ryan and was a deep reserve on the Raiders basketball team. He actually scored seven career points for Ryan, but you can’t say he didn’t get a lot out of being on that team.
While at Ryan, he developed a love of basketball. He took that on to Slippery Rock University, and then returned home to teach and coach.
At first he bounced around as a coach. He served as an assistant. He had a job at Maple Point in Bucks County. And then he got the job at Dougherty.
It fit like a hand in a custom-made glove.
Dougherty played in the Northern Division, and it was different than the rest of the schools.
Players came from North Philadelphia, Olney, Lawncrest, Fox Chase and Oxford Circle.
There were kids from all different kinds of backgrounds.
“Dougherty is a special place, and not just because it was a great school, academically,” Heimerdinger said. “The kids at Dougherty were special. You got kids from all over the city, put them in one school, and did you ever see any problems? No. It was a special place. I loved my time at Cardinal Dougherty.”
Almost as much as his players did.
“I’m not going to pretend we had a great relationship when I was there, because I was a kid who had a temper, and I was tough to coach,” said Jay Pierce, also a 1992 graduate of Dougherty. “He would tell me that I had to change. He said if I don’t, I’m going to be a statistic. I had a temper. There were times he threw me out of practice. But he cared. He’d show it in so many ways. And after I graduated, I never lost touch with him. I came back and coached for him, I coached other places, and I would call him for advice. He would talk for a half an hour about boxing out. He cares about his guys.
“The best part for me was after I graduated, I stayed in touch, and then I was his friend. I was his friend. To me, that was the best part.”
Heimerdinger is a friendly guy.
You wouldn’t know it if you only saw him during the time he was coaching, either at Dougherty or at Fels, where he also taught and was the athletic director until earlier this school year.
It wasn’t an act.
He’s passionate about the sport and he loves to win.
But he’s far more passionate about helping his players succeed away from the court, and he used basketball to teach life lessons.
“Coach was always very honest with me and I always knew what was expected,” said Kyle Sample, who played on the 2004 team that went to the Catholic League championship. “I wasn’t out there to take over the games. We had four guys going Division I. What he needed from me was defense, hustle, all those things. That’s what I gave him. If I didn’t give that to him, I wouldn’t have played.
“Man, what coach did for me in holding me accountable, teaching me the sideline from the court, always giving me a chance, teaching me to do things. I remember before a playoff game against Archbishop Wood, he made me an honorary captain. I hit a three to win the game. He gave me the confidence to do that.”
The players give him all the credit in the world. But he shies away from any praise. He is quick to pass it out, though.
He will talk about his players. He fondly tells stories about his assistant coaches. He credits his family. But Heimerdinger likes talking about anything but himself.
“Joe Sette was a huge influence on me, I kind of followed in his footsteps,” Heimerdinger said. “When he left Maple Point, I took that job. Both of us had the goal of eventually becoming coaches in the Catholic League.
“I was very fortunate to have so many great assistant coaches at Cardinal Dougherty, and they allowed me to focus on running practice and coaching at games, they handled the other things.”
Dave Distel, Billy Day, Mike Patterson, Rick Leonetti, Ed Costello, Dennis O’Neill, Al Mayo, Art Comas, John McBride, Tom Beck and Charles McErlane are all men who served as assistant coaches during his tenure with the Cardinals. He had a special relationship with each of them, and they all brought something different to the table.
But all had close relationships with the head coach.
“I tore my ACL, it was a bad injury, a broken leg and a torn ACL when I was playing in college (at Penn State Ogontz),” Distel said. “And back then, you didn’t come back from that. You just didn’t. I was a Division III player, that was the end of my career. He came to see me in the hospital and asked me to coach with him.
“For me it was great. I’m not sure he knew how much that was going to shape my life because I coached every year after that. I was at Dougherty, then I moved (to New Jersey) and I started coaching at Cherokee. It started because he visited me in the hospital.”
Pierce has a similar story. So does Sample.
John Przybylinski tried coaching, but he went a different route.
“I ref high school and college basketball,” said Przybylinski, who played three years on the Cardinals varsity team before graduating in 1986. “A lot of guys who played for him stuck around the game because he made it fun. And it was fun, but it was also a lot of work.”
Przybylinski got to see a different side of Heimerdinger when he became a referee.
It was like old times because when the coach wasn’t happy with a call, he let his old charge know.
“It was very different, he would fight for his guys,” Przybylinski said. “It was like I was playing for him again.”
Distel, who might be the closest coach to Heimerdinger because he stuck around for so long, learned a lot of X’s and O’s from him, but he also learned how to treat people.
“He’s one of the most honest people you’ll ever meet, and he will be straight up with you,” Distel said. “He wants to do things his way, but he’ll listen. He might still do it his way, but he will always hear you out.
“I would say the best way to describe him is passionate. Passionate and competitive. But he truly cares. He cares about his guys and he wants to see them do well. And he’ll help them any way he can.”
He was also fair.
At Dougherty, Heimerdinger got his fair share of talented players. Mobley and Kyle Lowry went on to star in the NBA.
Many others went on to play in college, some high-level, some mid-level and others junior college. But if you wore a Dougherty or Fels uniform under his tenure, you were going to get coached up.
“He didn’t treat us all the same, but he pushed every one of us, and he knew how to get the most out of us,” said Chris Williams, a 1989 graduate. “He pushed us. He wanted to see us get better. I loved him for that. Without him, I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did.”
It was tough love.
But the key was love.
“Him and Distel had the whole good cop, bad cop going,” Sample said. “If Distel was yelling at you, Heimerdinger would be there for you. Kind of say something to let you know it’s going to be OK. And if he was yelling at you, then it was really intense! But Distel would come over, pat you on the back and be there for you. That worked. It worked on me, I know that.”
As he proved in his final years of coaching, his style could work anywhere. But it was probably best suited for Dougherty.
“Dougherty was always different than the other teams in the Northern Division, and we played for him, he got the best out of us,” said Pierce, who coached the Dougherty freshmen team and eventually coached at Bishop McDevitt. “He’s a Ryan guy, that’s where he went, but he’s far more Garnet and Gold than Red and Black. Doesn’t matter where he went, he’s a Dougherty guy.”
That was Heimerdinger’s goal.
He wasn’t there just to win games. In fact, he wasn’t even sure how many career victories he had until he was told. He had no idea he ranked No. 5 all time on the city wins list. And when you consider all the great coaches who have been on the benches in Philadelphia over the years, that’s quite an accomplishment.
But he did have things he wanted to accomplish, and coaching at Dougherty allowed him that.
“To me, coaching at Cardinal Dougherty was my life,” Heimerdinger said. “The kids knew that I was 100 percent invested. Everything I did was to get the program one of the top programs in the city of Philadelphia. That was my focal point. I never thought about where I’ll end up. It was all about Cardinal Dougherty.
“When you look back, what is most satisfying is that I truly believe that all of the kids might not like me at the time, they understood my passion and my desire to make them better. But now when I see these kids who are now men, we relive the past, it gives me great satisfaction that these kids appreciated the effort and desire I had.”
Not only did they appreciate it, they share it.
“What I cherish and what I really love, we don’t know the individual’s journey,” Mobley said. “Nobody in high school thought I was gonna make it to the pros. People didn’t think Division I. Nobody thought I’d go to prep school. So I didn’t have those ‘yes’ men in my corner. I had guys like Ding who were pushing me, not praising me. I had people who said keep working hard.
“Having a coach like him is the reason I was successful at this game. He didn’t worry about benching me. If he did, my dad wouldn’t take me to another school. I learned to stay humble and appreciate it. We needed a guy like Ding.
“He was there, he was a father figure. And I had a father. I had a stepfather. They were both in my life. But Heimerdinger was a father figure to me. He taught me lessons. My dad never picked up a basketball in his life. He taught me those lessons, and without him, I don’t go on to do what I did. No way.”
Most of this story focuses on basketball, but Heimerdinger is far more than just a basketball coach.
He was a teacher, but his biggest job is being a family man. And that job is what he’s excelling at these days now that he’s retired.
Along with his wife, Fran, he has four children, Ron, 40, Vincent, 38, Kimberly, 38 and Mark, 23. They were willing to share him with his teams when he was coaching, but now he’s happy to be able to focus on spending time with him and his five grandchildren.
“My wife is my favorite person in the world, she means everything,” Heimerdinger said. “And being retired, it’s great to have 24 hours a day that are all mine. No schedule to do anything. If I want to go out, then spend time with the kids and the grandkids, I can do that. I’ve really gotten used to retirement.”
It will also give him more time to visit with the friends he made along the way.
He would often run into his former players along the way. Williams is a motivational speaker, and he would often visit Heimerdinger’s teams to share a few words. Sample coached other teams, and whenever he would run into his former coach at a game, it was a great reunion.
The other guys, he would see either at outings, trips down the shore or other functions, like when Heimerdinger received a lifetime achievement award from the Markward Club and four tables of Cardinals showed up to cheer on their guy.
“I was coaching Washington, and we got to a summer league game and he was playing before we were,” Sample said. “Usually I’m around the team the whole time, but it’s summer league, so I stop to watch him. The players were like, ‘Where were you?’ I said, ‘I don’t get a lot of chances to watch Coach coach, so I had to watch.’ I had to watch because I wasn’t just having fun, I was learning.
“I use a lot of what I learned from him. He kept coaching simple. Thumbs up, thumbs down, he made it very easy for us to understand so we didn’t have to think, we could just play. I try to do the same for my players because I know it works. He did it!”
He kept the same style at Fels, but Heimerdinger admits to mellowing out over the years, and that certainly changed his coaching style.
“It’s the same with my kids, the older ones tell Mark that he has it easy,” Heimerdinger said. “I think when I first started coaching, I was more of a Bobby Knight coach, but as the years went on, I’d say I was more of a player’s coach. You can get more flies with honey than vinegar.”
But even when he was the tyrant-type of coach, he was doing it out of love. And the players know that.
“I loved playing for him. Just his practices, I enjoyed it,” Przybylinski said. “So competitive. All out diving for loose balls, offensive foul drills. You only stopped to drink for a minute, then it was constant running. We became close. I love the game. I love being around it. And he was a big reason for that.
“Mark was special because he was there for these kids and he wanted them to get better,” Pierce said. “These kids are going to go home, they might not have dinner, but they show up and give it their all. He appreciated that. He’s all about making kids work and hopes the way he does it makes them better in life. That’s Mark in a nutshell.”
“When I came in, I was pretty good, but he made sure I worked,” Williams recalled. “It didn’t matter what you did before, when you played for him, you worked. And he expected everyone to work, didn’t matter who you were. Everyone was expected to work hard, and if you didn’t, he would let you know.”
Heimerdinger is proud of what they accomplished during his time at both Dougherty and Fels. But he stresses it was what they accomplished. He made it his mission to coach the team he had, and if they gave him an honest effort, it didn’t matter if they won the Northern Division or only won a few games.
“You don’t win games without the players, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have some very good players,” Heimerdinger said. “And Cardinal Dougherty was the right spot for me. It was a very unique place with great people. We had a lot of good times.”
Heimerdinger is happily retired, but as he proved last year, he can still coach and get a lot out of his players. There’s a chance, down the line, someone will ask him to come back to the bench to do what he does best. And while he won’t say never, he doesn’t foresee it happening.
For now, he’s on grandpop duties. The only substitutions he’s making these days is picking up a different Barbie to play with.
“It’s time for me to go,” he said.