SCOTTSDALE, Ariz – It’s a dusty football Friday, and out of the locker room walk the Desert Edge Scorpions. On the other sideline is the Saguaro Sabercats, the reigning Open Division State Champions.
Mark Carter leads out his Scorpions as they look to stun the Sabercats. Being on Saguaro’s schedule, which is cluttered with out-of-state opponents and great non-region teams, is validation that the Scorpions are among the best football programs in the state.
Players lock arms as they walk in pairs to the field. “Can I get two thuds, two claps, and an ‘Ooo ahh?’” Carter yells.
Thud-thud. Clap-clap. “Ooo ahh!” scream the Scorpions in unison. Carter knows that his players are ready to play together, like a family. For Carter, Desert Edge football and family are intertwined.
Marcus Carter watches his brother walk his players out from the press box.
They are not just brothers, but Desert Edge’s co-head coaches and twins. During games is really the only time the twin brothers are separated, connected just by their headsets.
After playing football in high school together, they played basketball in college, took coaching jobs together, and have raised their families side by side.
The duo has risen the coaching ladder through several years as assistants in multiple states. Desert Edge is their second head coaching job together, after four years at South Mountain, a program that consistently lost prior to their arrival. The brothers quickly turned South Mountain into a win factory.
Now at Desert Edge, as coaches of a top program, the Carters have left no doubt that they are among the best coaches in a state where Friday nights are king, and good coaches are plentiful. Black head coaches, not so much.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association does not keep track of coaching diversity statistics, but the Carters believe there are less than a dozen black head coaches in the state with over 200 programs.
That is less than the national average of a staggeringly low nine percent, according to data from Zippia, a database of jobs that tracks employment diversity.
The Carters jumped through a ton of hoops to get to the position to lead a program. As a tandem and as minorities, hurdles were more frequent and higher than other current head coaches.
In fact, the Carters were leapfrogged by fellow assistants multiple times when higher positions on their staff opened up. For several years, they served as assistants and were underpaid, making an impact on the younger generation, waiting for their turn to guide the ship.
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Their road to becoming head coaches started at the bottom, Pop Warner football. Before Mark and Marcus landed the Desert Edge job, before South Mountain took a flier on two coaches who had not previously been head coaches, and even before the Carters moved to Arizona, Georgia, and then back to Arizona to coach, they were the ones to take a flier.
The town of Winton, the Carters say, is “the armpit of California.”
Winton is slightly north of Merced and about halfway between Fresno and Modesto. Its population, just over 11,000. In 2003, Marcus and Mark walked Winton’s streets, looking for an answer after their basketball careers came to a close at Butte College.
Little did they know that an advertisement on a light pole would shape their future. The Carters found an ad looking for Pop Warner football coaches to lead local kids on the gridiron and groom them into young men.
After getting approval from their first youth coach, their mother, they inquired about the Pop Warner job. The position did not pay, but Marcus and Mark did not care.
“Practice starts Monday,” the duo were told as they left the interview.
With zero coaching experience, the Carters began what ultimately would be their profession for the next 20 years. Using some of the drills they learned as players in high school, they went to work and began to train their players in the sweltering summers in the valley of California.
The only differences between those practices and the ones they run now is there was no speaker blaring Jay-Z’s best hits and players weren’t getting dapped up after having a good rep.
Growing up in northern California, they sometimes did not know where their next meal would come from. Seeing kids who lived at or below the poverty line reminded them of their childhood.
Teaching them football and life lessons became addicting, and “better than any drug, any alcohol, or any whatever,” Mark said.
In 2004, Mark left California for an assistant job at Cactus high school in Glendale, without Marcus. It was the first time since birth the brothers became separated.
After a year apart, they wanted to coach together again, but neither wanted to move. Ahead of the 2005 season, they settled on a brotherly wager that the coach with the better season got to stay put, while the loser packed up and moved.
Cactus went 14-0 that season and won the Arizona 4A title. Mark got his first championship ring, but more importantly, he got his brother Marcus back.
Marcus only found room on Cactus’ staff as a volunteer coach, but coaching for free was nothing new to him.
“I just wanted to be a part of something great,” Marcus said.
They felt God had guided them to their coaching opportunities in California and in Arizona. God must have also guided them to former Cactus head coach Larry Fetkenhier.
After their fourth year on staff, Fetkenhier made a decision that changed the Carters’ life. Mark and Marcus were able to get to that point despite not completing college. Fetkenhier told them that they could no longer coach on his staff without finishing school.
“He wasn’t doing that to be mean,” Marcus said. “He saw potential.” If the Carters ever had aspirations to be head coaches, they would need a degree. Marcus and Mark continued to coach while working on campus and studying online at the University of Phoenix.
Fetkenhier opened up a new avenue for the Carters, but the Carters felt becoming head coaches at Cactus would be impossible.
The coordinators above them solidified their spots and were surely at the front of the line to be head honcho when Fetkenhier eventually stepped down in 2018.
Waiting nine years at Cactus was not an option.
Unlike before, the twins packed up together and moved across the country to begin coaching in Georgia, starting over, ready to rise the coaching ranks in a state dominated by its high school football.
For the first time, Marcus and Mark were on the hunt for paid positions together. There was no option to coach at separate schools, they were in it as twins.
“We’re a package deal, bro,” Mark emphasized.
There were openings on the staff at Kennesaw Mountain High School, where they could coach one of their nephews and strengthen their family ties in football.
This time, they got the opportunity to lead the junior varsity team, and run the team themselves and focus on relationships.
Those relationships weren’t enough to land them the head coaching spot when it opened up. The first, but certainly not the last missed head coaching job.
The new athletic director, whom they coached with, cited lack of experience. That’s a pet peeve of the Carters, being told about their lack of experience.
They spent the next year on staff at Banneker High School before interviewing for several head coach openings, some which were back in the Valley of the Sun. Coronado High School in Scottsdale was one with an opening in 2014, which enticed the twins.
A successful interview landed them the job as co-head coaches. Now for the third time, the Carters crossed state lines and moved for a new coaching position.
When they got to State 48, the Carters received devastating news. The Coronado head coaching position was no longer theirs.
A clerical error stripped the twins of their big opportunity, but they needed to rebound and find another job now that they had moved to Arizona.
They landed at Central High School in Phoenix in the middle of the season and three games into their tenures as Bobcats coaches, the coordinators were fired, and stepping up was the Carters.
Mark called offensive plays while Marcus commanded the defense, the same roles they now own at Desert Edge.
The 2014 season ended with Central winning zero games for the second straight year. After a full offseason, Central shocked the valley in 2015 and finished with its first winning season since 2010.
Now, the Carters knew they were ready to lead a program. Luckily for them, a down-and-out team in South Phoenix needed a new coach.
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Early in 2016, after watching his football program wrap up a miserable 2-8 campaign the previous fall, South Mountain High School athletic director Brian Fair needed someone new in charge.
The Jaguars had enjoyed a heyday back in the ‘80s, but there had been lean years recently.
When Arizona implemented its open enrollment policy in 1995, the talent hotbed of South Phoenix saw a ton of its talent depart for other schools that seemingly provided them more talent.
Recent examples include UTEP defensive back Amier Boyd, who played QB at South Mountain for the twins before transferring to Mountain Pointe and switching to wide receiver and defensive back, and former New York Jets linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr., who grew up playing for South Mountain’s Pop Warner feeder team, but played at Chandler in high school.
The previous season, the Jaguars had been outscored by over 300 points.
The Carters applied and were brought in for an interview. Just Mark represented himself and Marcus in the beginning phase of the interview process. Preaching relationships and building the community, Carter cleared the first stage of interviews.
Once Fair limited his field, South Mountain held a public forum for local parents and its players in place of your typical job interviews. Once again, only Mark took questions.
Other coaching candidates brought family members and friends to voice their support after speaking. As the competition for Carter started to garner cheers from the crowd, Mark knew he needed to make a move.
While others brought additional voices, Mark brought his bling. Mark accrued two championship rings as an assistant at Cactus. When it became Carter’s turn to speak about changing the landscape for the Jaguars, he used his rings, instead of words and promises, as proof.
The slamming of Carter’s two championship rings echoed throughout the building. Everyone could now see that Carter is a championship quality coach. “I put the rings in front of the other coaches so that every time they spoke, the crowd was looking at my rings,” Carter said.
Tides were turning. Locals who previously voiced support for other candidates were now cheering for Mark. The rings were a hit. Carter got the job.
South Mountain opted to not go down the co-head coach route. Mark was the traditional head coach with Marcus by his side as the defensive coordinator. That did not stop the two from acting as head coaches together.
Nonetheless, the Carters were finally on top. “It means a big deal to me to be a head coach,” Mark said. “I’m trusted with the lives of kids and adults.”
Fair, like the Carters, is African-American. The two aren’t shy about acknowledging that if Fair wasn’t black, they might not have gotten the opportunity. “That’s how we got our first job,” Mark said, “And we took advantage of it.”
The Twins first taste of being head coach did not produce great results. The Jaguars only spit out one win in year one. However, he and Marcus laid down the foundation to building a winning culture, which once again focused on building relationships.
In the summer leading up to the 2017 season, Fair surprised Marcus by promoting him to be co-head coach with Mark. Marcus’ promotion served as just a formality to the Jaguars, but the journey had now gone full circle.
Results now became the priority. To start off their first official season as co-head coaches, South Mountain rattled off four straight wins. The strong beginning powered South Mountain to a .500 season, its first since 2008.
Heads began to turn. Neighbors started to support South Mountain in the stands. Less local players were leaving Roeser Road & 7th Street to attend other schools. The roster size increased as more and more players wanted to be Jaguars.
Year three garnered an additional win for the Carters, this time getting over .500 and finishing with just one loss in section by just seven points.
The twins were hungry for a league title. Entering year four at South Mountain, not only did the Jaguars bring home that title, they did so in dominant fashion.
Winning 5A Metro and boasting a 7-3 record with a plus-201 point differential earned respect towards the Carters, enough to honor them as the 2019 National Football Foundation Coach of the Year for the Valley of the Sun Chapter, a title which they of course shared.
Accolades and all, South Mountain missed the playoffs again, something the Jaguars had done every year since ‘08. After such a strong season, the Carters became concerned that they may never be able to lead South Mountain to the playoffs.
“It felt like we were hitting our heads on a glass ceiling,” Marcus said. For the first time, Mark and Marcus needed to make a decision about leaving something behind.
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While South Mountain failed to make the postseason, Desert Edge made a run to the 4A championship, ultimately falling short. Desert Edge athletic director Jason Linn first caught wind of the Carters when he saw they were honored as coaches of the year.
With then head coach Jose Lucero sustaining success with the Scorpions, all Linn could do was make note of the two.
Suddenly, Lucero stepped down to become the next head coach St. Mary’s Catholic High School, opening up the Desert Edge job.
Marcus saw the opening, but couldn’t muster the courage to apply. He and Mark wanted to be loyal to Fair and South Mountain, but Fair encouraged Marcus to explore Desert Edge as an option for their next step.
Carter applied, and Linn recognized the name before connecting the dots. Once he dove deeper into what the Carters accomplished at South Mountain, Linn became intrigued and brought in Marcus for an interview.
Marcus quickly became emotional during his interview with Linn.
“I just could not stop crying,” Marcus said. “I loved South Mountain so much.” He thought he lost the job before he even had a chance at it, but Linn was not fazed by Marcus’ emotions.
At Desert Edge, Linn wants to use athletics to drive success academically. “I was looking for more than the X’s and O’s,” Linn said.
Seeing the culture change at South Mountain under the leadership of the Carters set them up to be a match at Desert Edge. After more extensive interviews, Linn offered the job to Marcus with Mark as his co-head coach.
Missing the playoffs and leaving for a school that made the championship game seems like an easy decision. To the Carters, it was not.
Some nights, they went to sleep wanting to take the job. Others, staying put felt like the right thing to do out of respect for South Mountain and Fair.
Ultimately, they realized that in order to get a championship as head coaches, South Mountain might not have the resources to do so.
By the end of January 2020, Mark and Marcus had made up their mind: they were going to be the next Desert Edge head coaches.
Less than two months into their new job, COVID-19 struck America, and the Carters had even more challenges to tackle than anticipated. With the success of the 2019 season, Desert Edge got promoted to 5A.
After falling just short of the 5A playoffs at South Mountain, Desert Edge made the Open Division playoffs, meaning the Scorpions were one of the top eight teams in the state regardless of classification in year one under the Carters.
They became the first black head coaches to make the Open playoffs in Arizona. A winning program was going to new heights.
Like every stop, the Carters have focused on one thing: relationships, and the winning has followed. Players and coaches have friendly debates in between drills about popular artists and TV shows.
Several coaches followed Mark and Marcus from South Mountain to Desert Edge and were able to maintain their culture. Year two led Desert Edge to the 5A semifinals, and year three had the Scorpions back in the playoffs, only to be stopped on a last-minute touchdown against the eventual 5A champion Higley Knights.
Practices at Desert Edge are more upbeat than typical practices. There are no whistles from coaches, players are dancing to a boombox, and the Carters sport their straw hats while walking around making sure that everyone is on task.
On game days, Mark dons his gold chain attached his gold wedding ring, gold whistle, and a gold football holds his late brother Damon Kitchiner nearly as bright as his personality on the sideline. The players all reflect this vibrant spirit from their coaches with their play on the field.
“Our players would run through a brick wall for Marcus and Mark,” Linn said.
Now at the top of a winning program, it might take a brick wall or two to hold back Marcus and Mark Carter.
Their goal: lifting the championship gold ball, similar to the one that carries their brother’s ashes, truly signifying their rise to the top.