Douglas Rodriguez’s plans for Miami Central Senior High extend far beyond the classroom. The award-winning principal took over the failing school last year and has injected the 95th street landmark with a renewed dose of enthusiasm that is paying dividends on the school’s writing scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

Rodriguez’s hiring of the school’s new basketball coach, Mark H. Wilder, extends that philosophy to the court. While Wilder brings a winning reputation from his previous experience, it doesn’t include the high school level – a minor blip that Rodriguez said does not concern him because of the coach’s focus on academics and character.

“What we were looking for was not just a basketball coach, we were looking for someone who would be a character builder,” Rodriguez said of his decision to hire the former Horace Mann Middle School activities director and basketball coach.

“I also believe that his success in middle school could be translated to high school,” said Florida’s 2008 Principal of the Year.

Wilder has hit the ground running. Although he doesn’t officially take over as head coach until the end of the school year next month, he has already created a buzz at the home of the Rockets.

The community’s excitement about Central’s new coach has already landed Wilder with another gig.  He is now the resident coach on “Talking Sports,” a talk show that airs each Saturday at 6 p.m. on AM 1490 WMBM.  The show’s hosts are Rickey Norris and J.T. Wilcox.

The Miami native is at Central every afternoon, setting up his program and connecting with the athletes. He knew his approach was quickly taking root when one player brought his younger brother and sister to practice (a no-no, since practices are closed) instead of missing the session.

“He was responsible for looking after them until his parents got home from work. He came and asked permission for them to stay in the practice so he wouldn’t have to miss it,” said Wilder, who set up space for the youngsters to have a snack and do their homework while their older brother ran drills.

Vincent McKinney has nothing but praise for Wilder. McKinney told the South Florida Times that his son, Eduardo Clements, now a star running back at Booker T. Washington Senior High, played on Wilder’s middle school basketball team that went undefeated for three years straight.

“I was hoping he’d follow [Eduardo] to high school. He’s a good coach and a good family man. He’s going to win at the next level,” McKinney said.

The timing for Wilder’s selection was mutually beneficial. Last fall, Wilder shared with a close friend that because his youngest child was now old enough to attend public school, he was ready for a high school coaching position. (The prospect of leaving his son at a day care center at 6 a.m. each morning to accommodate high schools’ earlier hours was unacceptable to Wilder, and his wife, Brenda.)

Around the same time, Rodriguez voluntarily took over the leadership position at the school – which had earned five straight Fs on the FCAT – after serving as principal at the A-rated Ronald Reagan High School for several years. Central’s tenth graders increased their score this year by nine points over last year’s. Math scores have not been released.

Alonzo Boykins is the school’s assistant athletic director and Wilder’s former coaching opponent. Boykins’ awareness of Wilder’s coaching style made the Miami Jackson graduate a top contender for the position that was pursued by several candidates, some with high school coaching experience.

Douglas said he knew Wilder was right for his school during the interview. And the principal’s interest in Wilder was matched by Wilder’s interest in him.

“After meeting with Douglas Rodriguez and doing some research, I said, I like this guy.  I like what he’s trying to do.  There’s just a very calm disposition that he exudes,” Wilder told the South Florida Times during an interview at Horace Mann.

Wilder said his boss’ focus on academics was reassuring because it would free him to focus on basketball, although his plans for the team that hasn’t won a state championship in 31 years include far more than basketball. 

“The program is all encompassing. It’s about grades and athletes being accountable to the basketball team and being accountable to themselves. It is a network of integrated strategies that will develop the complete athlete,” Wilder said of the program that focuses on academics, leadership, career goals and character development.

Wilder has assembled a team of community heavy hitters to help support his vision. H. Leigh Toney is the executive director of the Carrie P. Meek Entrepreneurial Center in Liberty City and a former classmate of Wilder.

Wilder said Toney has a laser-like, myopic focus that is all about the academics. To that end, she will ensure that any basketball player in need of tutoring receives it, and will help guide their career development plans.

Joining the Rockets Booster Club as first vice president is John Harris, a former NFL player, former head football coach at cross town rival, Miami Jackson and the 1974 Silver Knight winner in the athletic category, a distinction that will help Wilder with another one of his goals. 

“At the academy, we want to create a template for Silver Knight winners, not just nominees, winners. We’ve gotten some of the intricacies of our blue print from [the Knight Foundation],”  Wilder said of the program that requires 1000 hours of community service instead of the 40 that the district requires for graduation.

Attempting to satisfy the criteria necessary for a Silver Knight honor will place stringent demands on athletes unaccustomed to such academic rigors. To help them to adjust, Wilder said that he is putting together support teams for each athlete that will meet monthly to chart each student’s progress.

Wilder’s expectations for his team are admittedly high. His confidence that they can accomplish the goals is even higher.

“He’s on the kids all of the time.  He helps to set that standard along with our teachers. Not only are great things going to happen in the classroom, but they’re going to see great things in sports like basketball at Central,” Rodriguez said.

Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Mark Wilder