This piece was originally published in Dime 70. Check national newsstands now to see the feature in its entirety…
The world of a Division I walk-on is simple: Pick up the towels, be the scout team and cheer on the players who matter. They come and go, and no one notices. But one walk-on was different. Mark Titus became one of the most famous players in America not because he was good at basketball, but because he could write.
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My instructions were simple: meet at 6 p.m. at the Chipotle in Upper Arlington, near Ohio State’s campus; look for the tall bearded guy wearing sweatpants and looking homeless.
“Homeless” was a little strong, but the narrative of characteristics Mark Titus applied to himself were pretty precise. They were also necessary. As is often the case with someone that garners recognition on the Internet, even Titus’s biggest fans probably wouldn’t notice him if he walked past them on the street. Or sitting across from them eating a burrito.
Titus rose to national prominence as the creator and voice behind Club Trillion, the blog he started as a walk-on member of the Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team in 2008. Relegated to the end of the pine for the majority of his four years (48 career minutes), Titus parlayed his bench-warming status on one of college basketball’s most visible teams into notoriety, writing about his inside experiences with teammates, coaches and the NCAA. His blog quickly caught the eye of many, whether they were rooting on the Scarlet & Grey in Columbus, Ohio, or simply following college basketball across the country.
Today, he’s coming off the March 6 release of his first book â€“ Don’t Put Me In, Coach. He’s wearing a red, Nike dri-fit pullover, black sweats and gym shoes. His dark brown hair is cropped close and hidden under a goofy Ohio State winter hat, complete with a fuzzy pom-pom on the very top, which he wears throughout our entire interview. His beard is full yet nicely trimmed, giving off more of a “refined homeless” look than he initially described. He’s lanky, skinny, and at 6-4, much taller than you would expect, largely a product of being constantly surrounded by future lottery picks during his playing days at OSU.
“I’ve read some pretty shitty books,” says Titus, discussing the thought process behind authoring his own work through bites of rice and beans. “I remember my English teacher in high school getting a book published, so I thought if she could do it, then I could do it.”
Looking up from his food, Titus’s permanent, sly grin is plastered across his face. This is the Mark Titus that most people know â€“ the funny, witty, sarcastic Mark Titus. The Mark Titus that gave teammates stupid nicknames and winked awkwardly at national TV cameras while his head coach was being interviewed post-game. The Mark Titus that enchanted and dazzled college basketball fans for years, without ever taking off his warm-up. But how did he get here? And why the hell is he writing a book about it?
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Titus grew up in Brownsburg, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis, the middle child of Bill and Laura. He excelled at sports early in life, reaching his current height by the time he was in eighth grade. He went on to be the starting quarterback at Brownsburg High School and led the basketball team in scoring for three straight seasons. But it was his skill as a long-range shooter that earned him his big break, landing him a spot on an AAU team alongside future NBA hoopers Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, Eric Gordon and Josh McRoberts.
“I was on an all-white AAU team. We were all white kids that just shot threes,” says Titus. “We played against Mike and Greg’s team, and they were like the best team in the country. I guess they didn’t have a lot of shooters, so I got recruited to play on their team.”
Mark joined the squad the summer before his freshman year of high school, quickly developing a close friendship with guys like Conley and Oden.
“I remember asking Greg if he was going to play on his high school varsity team that year,” recalls Titus. “By the end of the year he was like First Team All-State or whatever. I felt like an idiot.”
In four years, the team lost only three games, traveling across the country to play against guys like O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love and Brandon Jennings. Every player on the squad ended up going on to play at a Division I school, a decision Titus struggled with. He was recruited to play at a few mid-major colleges, but after his parents and brother all attended Big 10 programs, that was the only college experience Mark had ever known. He wanted the same thing, even if it meant giving up basketball.
So he applied to Ohio State because Oden kept joking he should come be in his entourage. When playing elsewhere didn’t workout, he found himself a Buckeye.
“Best mistake of my life,” he says.
Through his relationship with his AAU teammates and one of the assistant coaches, Titus earned a spot as one of the team managers for the Buckeyes. He quickly realized it was mainly grunt work instead of basketball. He quit, only to get asked back a few weeks later after some guys went down with injuries, earning a spot as a walk-on.
“He told me he could play,” says Kyle Madsen, a teammate at Ohio State. “He didn’t do a whole lot at first, was mainly just out there. But once he started playing, he hit three after three, so I figured out he could at least shoot.”
Practice constituted the vast majority of Titus’s playing time, though, amassing only 20 minutes of on-court action during his freshman and sophomore seasons. After wasting away in anonymity on the end of the bench for two years, Titus decided to take advantage of his situation. He created Club Trillion, a reference to how the stat sheet reads when a walk-on gets in for one minute at the end of the game and records no stats â€“ a 1, followed by rows of 0s. He then went public with his “Trillion Man March,” starting a blog so that his friends and family could follow along with his experiences.
“It was really a way for me to handle being a failure,” Titus chuckles. “I thought that if I make fun of myself first, then other people can’t make fun of me. No one really gave a shit, but that was just the allusion I had painted in my head.”
It was Titus’s creativity and sense of humor that started the blog, but it was the personality of head coach Thad Matta and Mark’s strong relationship with him that allowed the blog to hang around. Boals and Madsen both point to Matta’s sense of humor and the strong relationship he had with Titus as reason for letting the blog exist, mostly unfettered.
“I wasn’t playing, and I realized I was never going to play, so I just wanted to have fun,” says Titus. “It never even crossed my mind that it would be a problem. And honestly, I didn’t think that anyone would read it anyways.”
He was only half right.
“I remember him sitting next to me once and telling me that it’s already got five thousand hits or ten thousand hits,” says Madsen about the blog. “So I was like, ‘I guess I’ll check it out.'”
The story of the Club Trillion blog is well known. Once it caught on around Ohio State’s massive campus and infinite fanbase, word got out. Local papers and newscasts led to bigger and bigger media outlets mentioning the blog, and before long, Club Trillion was a part of the mainstream sports media.
“When he went on Bill Simmons‘ podcast, that’s when everything just took off in terms of views and everything else,” says Ryan.
In March of 2009, Mark received an email from Simmons, a popular writer/podcaster for ESPN.com at the time. Simmons invited Titus to come on as a guest on the B.S. Report, one of the top downloaded sports podcasts on iTunes. The interview sparked thousands of hits for the Club Trillion blog, leading to coverage on Yahoo! and the New York Times and helping launch Titus to viral fame.
“After two years of having to convince people I was on the team, now all the sudden people are asking for pictures with me and stuff,” says Titus, still in awe of how quickly things changed.
The evidence his popularity had hit ridiculous levels came when the OSU student section started booing anytime he recorded a stat, ruining his “trillion.” Opposing fans at road games actually began chanting his name at the end of contests. Titus had become a star, virtually overnight, but for different reasons than he had ever anticipated.
“He was notorious,” says Coach Boals. “Evan Turner was on the team and won the National Player of Year (in 2010), and Titus had more media requests than Evan did that year.”
The response resulted in what Titus considers the most meaningful moment of his life: Senior Night. The outpouring of support shown by his Buckeye family â€“ from Turner wearing a customized “Club Tril” t-shirt to the student section chanting his name and wearing his shirts â€“ showed just how big an impact Club Trillion truly had on college basketball. And it was Titus’s reaction that showed how much it meant to him personally.
“Everyone thought I was joking because I bawled my eyes out,” says Mark. “The reason I cried so hard was because I was just overwhelmed by how many people were chanting my name and wearing my shirt. My entire life I had dreamed of being a Big 10 basketball star, and it obviously didn’t work out as I had hoped, but the end result was the same. In a weird way, I had accomplished my dream.”
“When he came out and they had all of those “Club Tril” shirts…whew,” says Mark’s father Bill, getting chocked up just thinking about it. “Tough to talk about. Just so neat. It was incredible.”
Following his graduation from Ohio State, Mark’s only immediate goal was to write a book about all that he hadn’t covered on the blog. His relationship with Simmons allowed him to secure an agent and subsequent book deal, and he has since begun writing full-time for Simmons’ new ESPN website, Grantland.com, covering college basketball.
“I decided to write a book after the first year of writing my blog,” says Titus. “I kind of realized that was the end game, partly because I had two years on the team that I didn’t write the blog, so there were a lot of stories. I knew when I graduated I would have the freedom to write what I want.”
Titus contends that despite no longer being handcuffed by the school or the NCAA, there is nothing in the book he feels is damning toward the university or college basketball. After allowing a few Ohio State coaches and officials to get a look at an early edition, there was one story that he was asked to remove, regarding a teammate and marijuana. Titus felt the story wasn’t necessary to the book, so he agreed to take it out.
“Sometimes he would try to stretch it, but I think Mark knew that line,” says Coach Boals. “I think Mark has great admiration for Coach Matta and The Ohio State University.”
Titus made it clear on numerous occasions that he has no intentions of embarrassing Ohio State or the sport. Rather, he wants to use his unique position to tell stories and give insights that people generally wouldn’t get when following a college basketball team. And as is evident with Titus, both in his writing and over the course of our conversation, telling stories is what he is best at. In discussing everything from his favorite teammate (Will Buford) to his least favorite (Kosta Koufas), his sincerity is somewhat shocking. It’s almost as if it never crosses his mind to simply give a politically correct response, whether he’s talking about head coach Thad Matta…
“Greg (Oden) was the most prized thing Coach Matta ever had in his life. (He) threw a party at his house after Greg committed to Ohio State. Had all the coaches over and everything.”
…Club Trillion groupies…
“Real groupies want you to do them in the tour bus or bring them back to the dorm room or whatever. But my groupies weren’t like that. They would just ask for pictures and they were really shy.”
“He’s just your stereotypical basketball player. If you were to ask your grandma what she thinks of the guys in the NBA, that would be Daequan Cook that she’s talking about.”
…playing with Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward in high school…
“He was 5-11, 150 pounds when I was there. He was like a mama’s boy and a nerd and kind of puny.”
…or inviting Evan Turner to his wedding…
“It was a controversial decision in my household because we saw how he behaved at (former Buckeye) Jon Diebler‘s wedding. He walked into the ceremony late, comes in the back as they’re saying their vows and starts dapping up everybody in the back row.”
Ultimately, the book is really just an extension of the blog â€“ Titus being himself. And those close to him are expecting similar results.
“Pretty much the reason he came to Ohio State was because of Michael Conley, Greg Oden and Daquean Cook, and all of those guys are millionaires playing in the NBA,” says Coach Boals. “Mark’s gonna end up being just as successful as those guy, just in a different career path.”
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The book deal, the ESPN job, the fame and notoriety â€“ these are not normal outcomes for a college walk-on. But Mark Titus is trying to change that.
“I like to think that somewhere along the line, I earned some respect for walk-ons,” Titus says, slowly scratching the scruff on his cheek. “That those who knew my story, now they won’t immediately dismiss them. A lot of them have cool stories or some weird skill. They have personality. They’re cool guys.”
After all he’s been through and all that he has accomplished on a personal level, that’s Mark’s response when I ask what he is most proud of. Not the money, not the recognition, not the chants of “Mark the Shark” reverberating throughout Big 10 arenas. In the end, Mark Titus is still a walk-on at heart, still the same quirky, introverted kid quietly cracking jokes on the end of the bench.
“Really, I am just every other bench warmer personified. You bring them all together and I’m just the voice of all these people that sit the bench. There’s really nothing that special about me except that I had the idea to start writing about it,” says Titus, deep in thought. “But certainly the whole thing is kind of nuts to look back on. It’s not supposed to happen this way.”
And with that, he gathered up his garbage, wiped off the table, and took for the door, holding it open for a few guys walking in the opposite direction. Head down, he waved sheepishly before quietly drifting away, surrounded by the dark night air, never making a sound.
Just like a walk-on would.
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