Wichita State's Gregg Marshall puts teeth into coaching
Eric Prisbell, USA TODAY Sports 5:04 p.m. EST February 4, 2014
USP NCAA Basketball_ Evansville at Wichita State
(Photo: Peter Aiken, USA TODAY Sports)
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WICHITA, Kan. — Gregg Marshall, the coach of one of two remaining unbeaten men's college basketball teams, leans forward in his soft office chair, opens his mouth wide and lifts his lip.
"These are fake teeth, by the way," the seventh-year Wichita State coach says. "When you get your teeth knocked out a couple times, they can't save them after that."
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Marshall, 50, is the architect of an unlikely national title contender whose players embody his distinctive personality, considered fiercely competitive even in an industry laden with intense peers. The essence of that spirit is found in stories Marshall recounts about those teeth. He last shattered some 25 years ago when he accidentally embedded them around another player's eye socket during a men's league game in Richmond.
But the incident witnesses most marvel about occurred a few years earlier, when Marshall, who had graduated high school as a 6-foot-2, 145-pound guard, was still wire-thin at then-Division II Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. If there was an image that encapsulates Marshall's rough-and-tumble playing career, it was the guard occasionally wearing a plastic protective facemask during the season that his assistant coach says made him look like The Lone Ranger.
During one summer pickup game, Marshall and teammate Rod Wood, cut from the same competitive cloth, exchanged no-call fouls and blockade-like screens before physicality escalated and emotions boiled over. When Marshall charged at Wood near midcourt, Wood connected with an overhand punch that landed squarely on his nose, knocking Marshall to one knee.
"I was bleeding like a stuck pig," Marshall says. "He rocked my world, broke my nose and my face splattered."
Marshall sprang to his feet and made a bull-like charge at Wood, lifting him up, slamming him to the court and pinning him. They kept connecting with punches. Blood gushed from both. Teeth broke.
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Their coach, the late Hal Nunnally, always enforced fighting rules intended to be a deterrent: If two players wanted to fight, everyone else went to the other side of the court to continue drills. If a third man entered the fight, he would be dismissed from the program.
Wichita State Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall talks with guard Fred VanVleet (23) against the Evansville Aces during the first half at Charles Koch Arena. The Shockers won 81-67.(Photo: Peter Aiken, USA TODAY Sports)
But this fight was different, more serious. There was no defense, no bear hugs, no end in sight. Only repeated haymakers thrown by two diminutive, fiery guards.
"It was like better than MMA," Marshall says. "It was a bad, bloody deal." As Wood recalls, "We were both pretty much knocked out on our feet."
It grew so vicious that for the first time in his career Nunnally summoned assistant Jeff Reynolds to break it up. Nunnally frantically hollered for the team manager to get towels, which were handed to Marshall and Wood as if they were boxers. In his measured Southern twang, Nunnally yelled, "Not for them! My floor! Get the blood off my floor!"
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Marshall and Wood walked shoulder to shoulder into the locker room. They squinted through the blood to stare into the mirror above the sink and saw faces temporarily remade by deep lacerations and re-formed noses. Wood was concussed.
Finding both showering, Reynolds told them he had been petrified because he thought they ultimately would have killed each other on the court. What came next that day still makes Reynolds shake his head.
Fifteen minutes after breaking up the worst basketball fight he has seen in 32 years of coaching, when he asked both players what in the world got into them on the court, they slowly tilted their heads in the shower, smirked and started laughing.
"The most amazing thing, it was like just another day at the office type deal …," says Reynolds, now the director of basketball operations at Marquette. "Sometimes people say a team reflects the personality of their coach. Gregg's teams have done that. As a player, he had an edge. As a coach, he has an edge to him. And he has never lost that edge."
'No safety net'
Second-ranked Wichita State (23-0) is not the Little Engine that Could. The Shockers bear little resemblance to the 2005-2006 George Mason team, which appropriately fed off its school band's rendition of "Livin' on a Prayer" during its improbable Final Four run.
Marshall knows his Wichita State players play clean, don't fight and don't commit flagrant fouls. But they are gritty and tough-minded, fueled, much like their coach, by uneasy career journeys.
"One of Wichita State's slogans is to play angry," says Wood, a close friend of Marshall who is the head coach at the University of Mary Washington. "I think he coaches angry … He didn't come from a hierarchy under Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith or Larry Brown. You have to do things twice as good to get looked at half as much."
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Marshall says he still coaches with a fear of failure because he has "no safety net." His father's not a coach. He didn't play in the NBA. And he does not have roots in one of the nation's blue-blood programs. If he lost his job, he says, he can't immediately find refuge on the staff of a Hall of Fame coach.
"I don't have a guy," Marshall says. "Before I became a coach here, I was advised by some people to stop being the head coach at Winthrop and go be an assistant for (Tom) Izzo, Krzyzewski or Roy Williams. Then I'd have the successful head coaching tenure however long you have it because now you have the lineage."
Over the years, Marshall's honesty, competitiveness and demeanor have been interpreted by some as prickly and arrogant. There may be some truth in that, Marshall says. He doesn't care.
"Whatever," he says. "You know what? That may be the case. Nothing has ever been given to me. I've had to fight and scratch and claw for every single thing. Does everybody in the world of basketball think I'm the greatest thing? No. But does everybody think (John) Calipari is the greatest thing in the world? Does everybody think (Rick) Pitino is the greatest thing in the world? Does everybody think Krzyzewski is the greatest thing in the world?"
There's a reason why Marshall is enamored with junior college players who endure winding, hardscrabble careers before they step foot on a Division I campus. They've ridden for hours on team buses headed toward obscure junior college games and can't identify with players who have been anointed stars as pre-teens. It's a metaphor Marshall understands.
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Gregg Marshall and the Wichita State Shockers are one of two remaining undefeated teams.(Photo: Peter Aiken, USA TODAY Sports)
During his first assistant coaching job at Randolph-Macon in the mid-1980s, Marshall wore several hats. He helped with laundry and mopped courts. As a recruiter, he had to walk into players' homes and tell them the program would be Division III in three years, which meant he could offer a partial scholarship for three years but, as seniors, players would have to pay full tuition.
"That," he says, "is a hard sell."
Will Blackwell, a former a high school prospect in Winston-Salem, N.C., says Marshall was so personable, "I knew the second I met him that I was going to go to Randolph-Macon because of Coach Marshall." Blackwell became Marshall's first-ever signee, and after he committed, Marshall even stayed over at Blackwell's Winston-Salem home during recruiting trips to the area.
Intensity simmered, as well. After one game, Blackwell told Marshall that if he was not capable of dunking, he didn't know if he'd want to play basketball. Marshall immediately turned to Blackwell and hollered, "Maybe you don't love the game!" And after three decades, Blackwell, 45, remains so loyal that he visited Marshall in Wichita last month.
Marshall also learned attention to detail. He sent 250 letters to high school coaches but failed to personalize them, addressing each on the typewriter, "Dear Head Basketball Coach." Nunnally made Marshall call all 250 schools to ask secretaries for names and correct spellings.
"I get letters now from people applying for a job where my name is misspelled, one 'G' or one 'L,'" Marshall says. "I just go, 'Yeah, whatever.' I throw them in the trash; I don't even respond. Would you?"
Selling his wares
In 1987, Marshall put out feelers to every low-major Division I program in the nation to be an assistant coach. He received zero offers, so he walked away from the coaching profession after earning his master's degree in Sports Management from the University of Richmond and accepted an internship he'll never forget.
He worked six days a week at Amelia Island Plantation in Florida. Companies like Procter & Gamble would bring 500 of their brightest people, and Marshall would entertain. He was a cabana boy by the pool. He dressed up in a gorilla suit for a safari that guests enjoyed. He organized scavenger hunts. He was a craps dealer on Casino Night.
"I was like, 'Oh, my god,' " Marshall says. "In six weeks, I called Coach Nunnally and said, 'Man, I made a mistake. I want to come back and coach. Help me.' "
One off-day, he walked back home from Fernandina Beach and found two messages on his answering machine: One from Belmont Abbey College's Kevin Eastman, another from Coastal Carolina's Russ Bergman. Marshall chose to work for Eastman, now an assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Marshall gives advice to WSU star player Cleanthony Early during a game this season.(Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)
After a year, Marshall was off to the College of Charleston to work eight years as an assistant under John Kresse, who recalls Marshall absorbing some losses so hard that afterward he would enter the restroom and vomit. Kresse also recalls Marshall's keen eye for evaluating talent and acumen as a recruiter.
"He could sell the player, his parents and the family dog," Kresse says. "They came to the College of Charleston because of Gregg Marshall."
Wood still jokes with Marshall, "'I can't leave you alone with my wife because you'll recruit her. She doesn't even want to be with you.' He is always on. He is always recruiting. Always a step ahead of everyone else."
At Charleston, Marshall dated his future wife, the former Lynn Munday, who once told her family that she met a great guy who had a great job that paid him almost $20,000 a year. When Marshall took the Marshall assistant job in 1996 for $45,000, Marshall told his wife, "Our prayers have been answered. You don't have to work. I've got this great job."
That was only the beginning.
When Marshall got his first head coaching job at Winthrop, he made $60,000. When he left there, he says, he had a 10-year, $400,000 a year contract on the table. Every year, he had made the job a better one.
Chris Jans, now Wichita State's associate head coach, regrettably turned down an offer to be an assistant on Marshall's Winthrop staff and now says, "I could tell he had the 'It' factor. His approach was going to be, 'Every waking minute, how am I going to make this program better?' Building relationships in the community, getting people excited, one handshake at a time."
At first, Marshall says, he didn't have any of the 'Cs' at Winthrop: courtesy cars, computers, clinics or camps. He also remembers 500 fans showing up for his first game in a 6,100-seat arena. His biggest opponent? Fan apathy.
So Marshall acted as a hands-on marketing director. He trekked around Rock Hill, S.C., carrying rolls of little red tickets, stopping in delis and mom-and-pop stores to say, "Hi, I'm Gregg Marshall. I'm the new basketball coach. Here's a ticket to our next game. In fact, here's four. Bring three friends. If you don't like it, don't come back. But give us a chance."
Lynn would do the same, lifting their toddler son Kellen out of his car seat, walking into local businesses and handing out the little red free-admission tickets. "Basically begging people to come and support the players," Lynn says.
"He doesn't have a silver spoon," Reynolds says. "He has come up the hard way. He has been at the Division II level. He has been at the NAIA level as an assistant. He has mopped floors. He has made literally nothing. There are very few like him that are still in the business that have been able to sustain it and use his system at every level and have success."
A decade ago, a family friend who is a psychologist told Lynn that there was something she had to understand about her husband: He is never going to be content work-wise. He has an insatiable appetite for improvement.
"Over the years, I have gotten used to it," she says. "It's kind of frustrating sometimes. But that's one of the things that makes him really good at what he does."
Popularity not a goal
In June 2006 came what Lynn says is the hardest decision her husband has ever made.
Marshall accepted the head-coaching job at the College of Charleston and received a spirited introduction. But after the Charleston news conference, Marshall called Kresse to say he had some doubts about the job.
As Kresse says, "He realized he left his heart at Winthrop."
He decided to stay at Winthrop. The news of Marshall's change of heart was announced before a packed room of Winthrop supporters; a standing ovation brought tears to his eyes.
"It was very, very emotional," Lynn says. "One day there's a big headline in the paper saying he took the Charleston job. The next day it says he didn't. Sometimes people are afraid to say, 'I think I made the wrong decision.' He was not afraid to do that."
Marshall led Winthrop to seven NCAA tournament appearances in nine seasons.
After struggles his initial season at Wichita State, success continued. Before the Shockers won the National Invitation Tournament in 2011, Wood recalls standing with Marshall in his high-rise Marriott Marquis hotel room, both looking out at Times Square, when Marshall realized how far he had come.
"Isn't this crazy?" Marshall told Wood. "Can you believe this?"
And it's only gotten crazier. Marshall says he never would have believed 25 years ago that he would one day receive interest from schools such as UCLA and N.C. State – historic men's basketball programs – only to respectfully opt to remain in Wichita.
"He is building a mini-dynasty at Wichita State," Kresse says. "He certainly has a very lucrative contract for whatever level you call that. I think it's a little higher than mid-major, for sure. He's on this rollercoaster ride from Winthrop to Wichita State, which has led him to the pinnacle."
Steve Forbes, a Wichita State assistant, says Marshall is one of the few coaches in the profession who can do it all: recruit, coach, communicate with the media and build relationships in the community.
Declining to name all the schools, Marshall says he has received several firm job offers from schools in the big five conferences, some offering close to $2 million a year. The closest he came to leaving Wichita State, he says, was probably in 2011 when he says N.C. State offered him the job.
"They didn't want him enough, did they?" Wood says of other schools that pursued Marshall. "That makes me angry, because they messed up. They should have wanted him more. It should have been an offer he could not refuse. I think he's the best college coach in America."
Now, Marshall says he earns $1.865 million a year before incentives. His team flies chartered flights to road games. He can have use of a private plane for recruiting. And he has listened to fellow coaches who told him not to mess with happiness.
Doc Sadler and Greg McDermott both told Marshall to be careful what he wishes for, Marshall recalls. McDermott had gone from Northern Iowa to Iowa State and was teetering at the time. Sadler had left UTEP for Nebraska and was in the same predicament.
Marshall understands that cautionary tales abound: Todd Lickliter left Butler for Iowa, where he was fired. Dan Monson left Gonzaga and struggled amid sanctions at Minnesota in the wake of former coach Clem Haskins' academic fraud scandal.
"You think he (Monson) would rather be back at Gonzaga now?" Marshall says. "He's at Long Beach."
When Marshall appeared on "The Dan Patrick Show" before last season's Final Four, the first question Patrick asked was about the suggestion that Marshall's personality made some BCS schools hesitant to hire him. That bothered Marshall at the time, he says, because he didn't think it was appropriate to go on the record about all the jobs he has been offered or about the interest he received during the NCAA tournament.
Marshall's wife says critics "don't want this guy, Gregg Marshall, to be successful. So they are going to say, 'Yeah, he's kind of an ass. He's kind of arrogant.' It reminds me of middle school."
Lynn says criticism of Marshall has been so sophomoric in the past that fans even lampooned him for using too much hair gel, a slight that occasionally prompted Lynn to turn around and respond, "His hair is like really straight, okay. He has to put product in it!"
And with his team vying for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a return trip to the Final Four, Marshall remains as competitive as ever.
"I sleep well at night," Marshall says. "I do my job and I try to win. Yet do I try to beat the (expletive) out of the other coach? Hell, yeah. And yet, am I responsible for a lot of coaches in the Big South and maybe the Missouri Valley getting fired? Yeah. Do you think you'd like that person?"
Marshall leans forward again in his office chair, shakes his energy drink and takes a gulp. Three decades after Marshall took the court at Randolph-Macon in that Lone Ranger mask, he still operates with that razor's edge, if not all his original teeth. As the Shockers inch closer to an unbeaten regular season, figuratively, his fists remain clenched.
"It's a competitive world, man," he says. "It's not a popularity contest. I am myself. I am honest. I am open. And I am trying to win. If you don't like that, if I somehow rub you the wrong way, that's okay. That's not my goal. My goal is to serve this university and these basketball players, and to be the best I can for them and my family."