John Mappas has been coaching basketball in Southern Maryland for so long that he can't tell you which job he held in a certain year without consulting the plaques hanging on the wall of his Waldorf home.
The plaques commemorate some of Mappas's bigger career accomplishments, such as guiding the Chopticon High boys team to the state finals in 1973 and leading Charles County Community College's men's team on an unlikely run to the national junior college title game in 1984.
There have been many challenges along the way, including 1988, when he took over a McDonough boys program that had won one game the previous two seasons combined. His latest test is rebuilding the boys basketball program at Lackey, where the varsity went 3-20 last season, and the enrollment is smaller than that of any other public school in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.
"There may not be as many kids here, but there has always been talent at Lackey," said Mappas, 53, now at his fifth different SMAC school. "You have enough talent at this school to be competitive--maybe not win the championship--but be competitive with the other schools in the conference. The problem here is keeping the kids eligible academically. That has been a real problem lately."
Mappas said he has just two players, senior guard Josh Howells and forward Garrett Freeman, who have been in the Chargers' basketball program for four years. The majority of the players, even the seniors, have a year or a half-year of varsity experience.
"In the past, Lackey has had kids who play the first half of the season, and then they become ineligible" at midseason, Mappas said. "And that's the time when you're supposed to be hitting your stride. You can't do that if you lose two or three of your starters because of poor grades."
To combat that problem, Mappas has implemented a study hall program for his players, just as he did at other schools. Any player whose grade-point average is below a 3.0--or any player who has any D's--has to attend a study hall for two hours every day, except for game days.
"He has brought a lot of discipline to our program, and we needed that," Howells said. "He also brings a lot of respect, and if you don't respect him, he'll get rid of you. He's really tough on us mentally and physically, makes us think as soon as we walk on the court for practice. It takes a lot out of me. When I get home, all I can do is sleep . . . but I love it."
Said Mappas: "If you're not going to work hard for me at practice and in the classroom, then I don't want you."
Mappas himself is finished with the classroom. After teaching mathematics for more than 30 years, he retired at the end of last year. He said he thought his coaching days in the SMAC were over, too, but after an unsuccessful search for a college coaching position, he decided to apply for the opening at Lackey. He now spends his days making game plans for the Chargers, doing yard work and jogging.
"The way I run looks more like a duck, so maybe you should call it 'waddling' instead of 'jogging,' " Mappas joked. "I was ready to retire, but I never wanted to get out of coaching. I just wanted to go back to colleges. My easiest years were with Charles County, where you could recruit. If you can't win as a college coach, it's your own fault. In high school, you have to work with what you're given."
That very ability--working with what he's been given--is what has made Mappas so successful. He began his coaching career at Thomas Stone, where he was the junior varsity head coach from 1969 to 1971. From there, he moved to the varsity job at Chopticon for two seasons (1971-73) and then to an 11-season stint as La Plata's head coach (1973-83).
Mappas took a four-season break from the SMAC to coach at Charles County Community College(1983-87) and then returned to high school coaching at McDonough, where he stayed until the end of last year.
In each case, Mappas built a winning program. McDonough's success took the longest--the Rams didn't break the .500 mark for three years. But Mappas said he has every intention--unless a college comes calling--to stay at Lackey long enough to get the Chargers back on the winning track.
"I don't think there is anyone who doubts how good he'll be for this school," said Lackey football and baseball coach Glenn Jones, a former roommate of Mappas's. "He makes the kids work hard, but they don't mind the work as long as they know they're doing it for a coach that will be there for them if things go wrong, too. And Mappas, he's all business on the court, but off the court he cares first and foremost about his players as individuals. That's what makes him so good."
CAPTION: Lackey Coach John Mappas, shown demonstrating a play, says bluntly, "If you're not going to work hard for me at practice and in the classroom, then I don't want you."
CAPTION: John Mappas has taken over a troubled basketball program at Lackey--the fifth SMAC school where Mappas has coached basketball over three decades.