While rummaging through some old photos, Fife High School boys basketball coach Mark Schelbert stumbled upon one that caught his attention.
It was one of his son, Cooper, and his basketball team playing in a tournament while he was in sixth grade. Several of those included in the photo have grown up and now play for Schelbert and the No. 6 Fife Trojans.
“They’re all so tiny — almost cute at that age,” Mark reminisced. “To see how far they’ve grown as basketball players and as young men is pretty impressive.”
Mark, in his 19th season as Fife’s coach, has been coaching Cooper since the fourth grade. But Cooper is a bit taller now, 6-foot-2, and is now a senior leader and a key starter for the Trojans.
But just because his dad is the coach, that hasn’t made things any easier at home or on the court.
Mark carries an intense demeanor, while Cooper is more relaxed and imperturbable. Mark said he struggles because he sees so much potential in his son, and the difficulty is knowing when to turn the coaching switch off and parent switch on — something he’s constantly reminding himself.
“I have a harder time turning it off than he does,” Mark said. “Once he’s out of the gym he kind of checks out and goes on to do other things and I’m still thinking about the last play, or that game.”
“It has its ups and downs because when it’s bad here and then at home it carries over,” Cooper said with a smile. “But it’s nice sometimes because he’s a little easier to talk to, because he’s my dad.”
Cooper said he’ll typically hitch a separate ride home with his mom or a neighbor after games. Molly Schelbert has become pretty used to acting as the mediator between her husband and son.
“I think it’s hardest on his mom,” Mark said. “Because she’s got constant access to me as a coach, and as a parent she’s concerned about him.”
But when things are going good, they’re going really good.
Like on Friday, when Fife rolled to a 35-point win over rival White River, with Cooper sinking seven of Fife’s team-record 13 3-pointers. Cooper scored a game-high 23 points, one game after Fife’s second loss of the season to defending 2A state champion Foss.
“His game — oh, when he’s hot, there’s no stopping him,” Fife senior Eli Graham said. “There’s really nothing you can do. And when he’s not, he gets other people the ball. He just knows how to be a good teammate.”
Fife is off to a 14-3 start, with its only losses being to Foss and 3A Spanaway Lake.
But when Cooper was in middle school, Mark thought that their relationship wouldn’t work on the court. Mark was harping constantly and Cooper was unresponsive to his off-the-court comments and criticism.
“I was truly wondering if this was going to see itself through until his senior year, because he didn’t want to hear it from me and I didn’t want to let it go,” Mark said. “He wasn’t aggressive and his intensity wasn’t there, and looking back I was probably a little overzealous. But I thought he needed more fire and more passion.”
Fife players notice that their coach does not hold back on his son.
“Schelbert is really not afraid to get into Cooper at all,” Graham said. “We all know that and that’s kind of just one of the downsides of having your dad as a coach. But he does a great job of handling it.”
Mark said he has learned when to drop it, and Cooper has learned better how to take it.
The delicate balance that needs to be struck while coaching your son — in terms of not providing preferential treatment or being too critical or harsh — is always in the back of Mark’s mind.
“That’s something I always think about,” Mark said. “Am I pushing him too hard, am I being too hard? Would I do this with any other kid? And for the most part I think I’ve done a pretty good job with that.”
Mark has often turned to his assistant coach, Al Darnielle, who was on the coaching staff when his son, Thomas Darneille, came through the program from 2008-2010.
So when Mark’s being too hard on Cooper, Darnielle lets him know. Not challenging Cooper enough? Darnielle is there.
“I bounce a lot of stuff off of Al because he’s been through it,” Mark said.
While he was a player at Bethel High, Mark received a tiny taste of what Cooper deals with every day. Mark was a junior when he began dating Molly Mullen, the daughter of 18-year Bethel boys basketball coach Mike Mullen, who is now in the Washington State Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.
So think coaching Cooper is tough? Try being the boyfriend of the coach’s daughter.
Though, Molly Mullen is now Molly Schelbert, and she’s now Cooper’s mom. So that worked out pretty well.
But nothing quite compares to having your father as the coach. And Mark wouldn’t have it any differently.
“It’s something looking back that I’ve enjoyed more now that it’s almost near the end than I did at the beginning,” he said.
Even Cooper reluctantly agreed with that sentiment. Would he trade it?
“No,” Cooper said. “Just because as a coach he knows what he’s talking about. Sometimes we don’t always agree, but he knows what he’s doing … he’s a good coach. I like it.”
When basketball season ends, the coach-player dynamic doesn’t technically end for Mark and Cooper. The younger Schelbelt plays tennis for Fife and his dad is an assistant coach, something Cooper enjoys.
“The good thing about tennis is I can’t coach during a match. And he loves the fact that I can’t get to him at all,” Mark said. “He enjoys when other people are coaching him because it’s a break from me and it’s a different voice.”