NCAA tournament: Gregg Marshall finds Wichita State to be just his type

When Gregg Marshall answered a call in spring 2007 asking if he would be interested in coaching the Wichita State basketball team, Marshall needed a moment. Marshall, then the coach at the overachieving mid-major Winthrop, was on a golf course in North Carolina, so he asked the caller to hold, stepped up and teed off on the course’s seventh hole.

“I can’t hold up the people behind us,” Marshall would say with a chuckle years later.

Marshall didn’t scare off his suitors, later taking over for Mark Turgeon, who had taken the job at Texas A&M and is now at Maryland. Wichita State needed a determined coach, maybe a little audacious, and seven years later, Marshall has followed last season’s run to the Final Four with a 34-0 record, the Missouri Valley Conference championship, and the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region.

The 51-year-old coach has built the Shockers in his own image: with a swagger and an unyielding attitude, along with seemingly no idea that Wichita State just isn’t supposed to be this good. Not that everyone appreciates his approach.

“The reason that people don’t like Gregg is, he just beats people,” said Greg White, who hired Marshall as an assistant coach at Marshall University in 1996.

But there are other reasons. Marshall’s honesty and confidence have, White said, rubbed some people the wrong way. When White brought him to Huntington, W.Va., to interview nearly two decades ago, he had a tough question for Marshall. He was 33, a talented coach who had learned the game’s finer points while playing for Coach Hal Nunnally at Randolph-Macon, but why was he still an assistant at small schools? “What’s wrong with you?” White asked Marshall, who didn’t have much of an answer.

White hired him anyway, promising to shape Marshall into a future head coach, but he learned through the next two seasons that the man has an edge. When White brought up the Thundering Herd’s basketball tradition, Marshall criticized it. When White mentioned a well-known former player, Marshall announced that the alumnus must not be too famous; he had never heard of him.

“Just being bold enough to say it,” White said, “it almost makes you mad.”

But Marshall was a tireless recruiter, stepping away from family functions and even his own games to call a prospect who should’ve been beyond his reach.

“If Bobby Knight is in the house, and it’s 6:30,” White said, “Gregg’s at the fence going: ‘Hey, Knight, your time’s up.’ He fears absolutely no one.”

Winthrop, a school of about 6,200 students in Rock Hill, S.C., had never reached the NCAA tournament when it contacted Marshall in 1998. He had spurned other jobs, White said, but he wanted this one. At each of Marshall’s stops, he had been part of overachieving programs. Was he this good — or just lucky? Marshall told them that maybe it was luck, but wouldn’t poor Winthrop like to ride his horseshoe? The program certainly needed something, he said.

“Pretty brash,” Marshall said recently in a telephone interview. “But it worked out.”

He began the discussion, he said, as the sixth name on a six-candidate list. But administrators liked his confidence, moving him up that list and eventually hiring him. In his first season, Winthrop won the Big South regular season and tournament championships, and the Eagles made the first of seven NCAA tournament appearances in nine years. When they did struggle, or Marshall faced difficult times, he could handle things quietly, learning to be a head coach in his own way.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” he said, “and I was able to do so out of the spotlight.”

Marshall kept winning, posting at least 20 victories in six of his nine seasons, and after seven of those seasons, he said, he fielded overtures from other schools. Marshall was being choosy, White said, but it also became clear his personality wasn’t for everyone, including some administrators at larger schools.

“They want to win the news conference,” White said. “. . . He’s going to voice his opinion, and it’s not always going to be pretty.”

Marshall’s opinion during the 2006-07 season was that, as long as he was at Winthrop, playing deep into March would be difficult. Small conferences typically receive only one invitation, reserved for the conference tournament champion; even with a 14-0 record against Big South opponents that year, reaching the NCAA tournament was hardly guaranteed.

He needed a change, but where would it be? Marshall said he interviewed with South Florida and Arkansas, but neither worked out. Then his phone rang on the golf course, he hit his tee shot, and a few hours later, he was scouring the Internet for facts about Wichita State.

The sides completed a seven-year deal worth about $750,000 annually, and not much later, Marshall faced his new players, sharing his expectations but also managing hopes. Players would graduate, he told them, and hopefully the Shockers would have a chance to play meaningful games in March. He targeted recruits who didn’t mind a little dirt under their fingernails, who had an edge, who reminded Marshall of himself.

“I like guys with some spirit about them,” he said.

In his third season, Wichita State won 25 games, and two years ago, it reached the NCAA tournament. Last year, though, the Shockers were the nation’s surprise team, a No. 9 seed that toppled top-seeded Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Ohio State to reach the Final Four. This year’s team is somehow better, led by plucky players who weren't heavily recruited, such as point guard Fred VanVleet and all-American forward Cleanthony Early.

Whatever happens, the talk naturally will turn to what happens next with Marshall. With incentives, he makes about $2 million annually, but he has said that maintaining high-level success at Wichita State will be more difficult than achieving it.

Early’s eligibility is expiring, and other players could explore early exits for the NBA. As for Marshall, will he chase an elite job in a major conference, or has he learned to simply settle in where his personality and methods are accepted?

“People enjoy you being their coach,” he said, “and there’s value in that.”

He continued, making an analogy about his team — and maybe himself, too.

“I’ve got four mutts,” Marshall said, comparing them to Wichita State’s coaches and players. “We don’t have our papers, but this is NCAA tournament basketball. . . . You don’t have to have your papers to win it.”

Kent Babb is a sports features writer for The Washington Post.
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