It turns out all those country roads were leading Mark Downey on a journey back to Arkansas Tech University.
Downey, who served as head men's basketball coach at ATU from 2006-10, is returning to that role as of Friday, May 1. Abby Davis, ATU interim director of athletics, will introduce him during a virtual press conference at 1 p.m. Friday.
Members of the media and Wonder Boys fans who wish to view the press conference may do so at www.facebook.com/ATUathletics.
The decade between Downey's two stints at ATU was a basketball odyssey that began with a return to his alma mater, the University of Charleston in his home state of West Virginia, to serve as head coach.
His first words at UC's introductory press conference in April 2010 were the title of the 1971 John Denver hit and West Virginia-themed song "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
Downey’s perspective on home has evolved over the past 10 years.
"My family and I are so excited to return to Russellville and Arkansas Tech University," said Downey. "This community has been so good to our family. This is where it all began for us. Ericka and I met at ATU, we started our family here and we built a pretty successful basketball program. The passion we have for the people here is unmatched. There is just something special about Arkansas Tech University and Russellville. We are glad to be home."
When Downey first arrived at Arkansas Tech in 2006, he inherited a Wonder Boys program that had accumulated a conference record of 9-39 the previous three years. It had been six years since Arkansas Tech had qualified for the men's basketball postseason and 10 years since the Wonder Boys had won a postseason game.
After a year of transition in 2006-07, Downey led the Wonder Boys to the Gulf South Conference Tournament in 2008. Twelve months later, Arkansas Tech returned to the DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven, Miss., and walked away with the 2009 GSC Tournament championship.
It led to the Wonder Boys' first NCAA Division II Tournament appearance. Arkansas Tech defeated Benedict College 63-62 in the first round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament before falling to NCAA South Regional host Florida Southern College 95-92 in overtime in the regional semifinals.
The final season of Downey's first stint with the Wonder Boys was among the finest in program history. Arkansas Tech won its first 25 games of the 2009-10 season, attained a No. 1 national ranking for the first time in program history, captured the GSC West Division regular season and GSC Tournament championships and earned the right to host the 2010 NCAA Division II Tournament South Regional.
The Wonder Boys rolled past Tuskegee University 92-58 in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament before falling to Valdosta State University 72-60 in the regional semifinals.
A month later, Downey accepted the job at the University of Charleston, concluding a four-year stint at Arkansas Tech that saw the Wonder Boys accumulate a 77-43 overall record.
He remained at Charleston for three seasons before moving on to become the head coach at the University of West Alabama (2013-14), assistant coach at Bowling Green State University (2014-15) and assistant coach at Purdue University-Fort Wayne (2015-18).
After four seasons as an assistant coach at the NCAA Division I level, Downey returned to NCAA Division II as head coach at Northeastern State University (Okla.) in 2017.
There, he orchestrated a turnaround similar to the one he had performed at Arkansas Tech. Downey inherited a RiverHawks program that had gone 28-81 the previous four seasons. By year two, Northeastern State was back in the postseason.
During the 2019-20 campaign, Downey's third and final season in Tahlequah, the RiverHawks finished 18-11 overall and appeared in the quarterfinals of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association Tournament. It marked just the third 18-win season in the last 15 years at Northeastern State.
"I look forward to digging in and building a program that we can all be proud of," said Downey. "I believe you do that with great people. We will recruit local players that take pride in this community, and we will engage the ATU basketball alumni that paved the way for us to be successful. This game is about relationships on and off the floor. We will work tirelessly to cultivate those relationships. We have the blueprint, and I personally feel like I have some unfinished business to attend to. Let’s get to work."
Arkansas Tech has accumulated 1,348 all-time wins and 21 regular season conference championships during its first 97 men’s basketball seasons. The Wonder Boys have reached national tournament postseason play on 20 occasions, including eight NCAA Tournament appearances during a nine-year span from 2009-2017.