Mark Mitchell stalks the women’s basketball practice gym at Value City Arena in the manner of an oversize Gulliver directing a squad of Lilliputians for Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff. A one-time offensive lineman at Eastern Kentucky with professional football dreams, Mitchell remains a massive man whose unlikely specialty these days is tutoring basketball guards.
Even more unlikely is that two of his freshman pupils in the upcoming season are his twin daughters, Kelsey and Chelsea Mitchell.
“I remember that he was always the coach for my brothers as far as basketball,” Kelsey said.
Chelsea nodded and added: “Yeah, he always said our basketball was boring.”
Laughter followed as the twins shared a thought.
“It took him awhile to become interested in girls basketball,” Kelsey said. “I always took it as a joke. You understood where he was coming from because of how fast boys basketball is.”
In those early days, Mark Mitchell coached twin sons, Cameron and Kevin, now senior guards at Indiana University Southeast.
“I was actually going to be the bearer of the bad news for the girls because I was going to be the one who shunned them away from the game,” he said. “Chelsea was a little different because she was into a lot of different things — cheerleading and gymnastics. Kelsey was more one-tracked on basketball. I tried to get her not to play.”
His plan fizzled quickly.
“At age 4, I put her in a fourth-grade boys basketball game my sons were playing in,” he said. “She had a jersey down to her ankles and was always asking me to put her in the game.
“So I said once, ‘OK, I’m going to put you in this one time.’ Her brother gets a steal, throws her the ball and she knocks down an 8-foot jumper. The rest is history.”
A lot happened since then. Cheryl Mitchell, Mark’s wife and the mother of the two sets of twins, was a star basketball player at Eastern Kentucky and the early mentor for her daughters.
“In AAU, he coached the guys and I coached the girls,” she said. “After the boys graduated, he came to the girls side. He started helping me with the girls. I think he is just a natural coach.”
The occupation wasn’t on his to-do list when he and Cheryl were at Eastern Kentucky, and afterward when he tried pro football.
“You just know,” Mark Mitchell said when that door closed. His mother, a high-school principal, ended the mourning period.
“She said, ‘You’ll be OK because you’ve got your degree. In fact, you’ve got two degrees. You’re going to be fine,’ ” he recalled.
He moved to teaching and coached seventh-grade football.
“Then I tried seventh-grade (boys) basketball,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is pretty cool. It’s indoors. It’s climate-controlled. All you need is five. If you can get five who want to play really, really hard, you’ll have a chance.’ ”
Nineteen interviews for a high-school coaching job occurred before he was hired as boys coach at Cincinnati Taft in 2003. He would coach his sons there, while his daughters would go to his alma mater, Cincinnati Princeton.
By this time, Kelsey had developed into the top point guard prospect in the 2014 recruiting class. Chelsea, a guard/wing, received Division I interest but not as much as her sister.
“When the whole recruiting process started, Kelsey was getting tons of mail and calls,” Mark Mitchell said. “Chelsea had just started developing.”
The possibility of playing together in college appealed to both girls. Ohio State was among their suitors.
“If we weren’t together, it was going to be really hard because we’ve never been apart,” Kelsey said.
At the end of their junior seasons at Princeton, Ohio State fired coach Jim Foster and hired McGuff. A few weeks later, McGuff hired Mark Mitchell as an assistant coach on his staff. Rival programs grumbled.
“There have been a lot of mean things said,” Mark Mitchell acknowledged. “But because of the relationship I have with people and the relationships my kids have with other people, we never let that bother us.”
At the beginning, his daughters didn’t view his new job as a recruiting edge for the Buckeyes.
“No, not at all,” Kelsey said. “We thought it was going to be a little difficult because he was going to be our father and our coach.”
Chelsea nodded and added, “especially because it was college. I personally was nervous about it.”
Mark Mitchell tried to stay out of the process.
“That is one of the quickest ways to kill your family,” he said. “The three coaches and my wife did a good job.”
Chelsea committed first, telling McGuff that she had no idea what Kelsey would do.
“It was close to home,” Chelsea said. “And the coaches were loyal and their personalities were real. They never changed.”
Kelsey followed a couple of weeks later.
“They were all driving back from Nike nationals,” Mark said. “Kelsey called coach McGuff. We heard him yell: ‘Kelsey just committed.’
“I called my wife and said, ‘You know Kelsey just committed?’ She said, ‘No, I’m sleeping. Let me call you back.’ Five minutes later, she called.”
Looking back this summer after team and individual workouts, Kelsey said the decision to play for their father is “not as big a deal as we made it seem like.”
On the topic of father/coach embarrassing a daughter on the court, Chelsea smiled.
“Her, maybe, but not me,” she said. “I don’t try to do too much. I just try to keep it simple.”
Kelsey raised her eyebrows: “I think I keep it simple, too,” she said.
The rest, of course, is a matter for history.