Gregg Marshall's winning image
His Wichita State team resembles its demonstrative blue-collar coach
WICHITA, Kan. -- Long after practice ended Monday evening -- and less than 48 hours before the Wichita State basketball squad boarded an Atlanta-bound plane for the Final Four -- Shockers coach Gregg Marshall did what he once told his team he would never do.
He logged on to Twitter.
Marshall used to think it was silly. He'd get mad at the Shockers for things they would post and encourage them to make better use of their time. But this season the 50-year-old signed up for an account and immediately became hooked.
"Every time we get on the bus after a game, he's the first one with his face in his phone on Twitter," guard Fred VanVleet said. "It's actually kind of funny."
Marshall doesn't tweet. He lurks. And hardly a week passes, his players said, when Marshall doesn't forward them a comment from a naysayer expressing doubt about his team, which plays Louisville in the NCAA semifinals Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
Wichita State's only other Final Four berth came in 1965.
"He finds everything," VanVleet said Tuesday. "Last night he sent us something from an Atlanta radio guy about how our guards can't handle the ball.
"He truly gets upset about what people say. It fires him up. He has the utmost confidence in himself and in us. He feels like we should get more respect than we do."
Marshall is probably having a difficult time finding disrespectful tweets about his team these days. After wins against Big East power Pittsburgh (by 18 points), No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Ohio State, almost all of the talk about Wichita State has been filled with admiration and awe. The college basketball world has no choice but to respect the Shockers.
And their coach.
"Gregg is the miracle maker of this NCAA tournament," said longtime College of Charleston coach John Kresse, who hired Marshall as a 25-year-old assistant back in 1988. "It's remarkable that he was able to accomplish something like this given his situation."
No one has ever questioned Marshall's ability to coach. He led Winthrop to seven NCAA tournament appearances in nine years and guided Wichita State to the NIT title in 2011, when the Shockers won their five postseason games by an average of 15.4 points.
Last season Wichita State captured the Missouri Valley Conference title for just the second time in 29 years. When four starters and the top five scorers from that team graduated, Marshall told friends that he simply hoped his squad could "survive" this season before returning to prominence in 2013-14.
The Shockers did more than survive.
They got better.
Wichita State has reached the Final Four with a rotation that includes two freshmen, including one (Ron Baker) who joined the program as a walk-on instead of accepting a scholarship offer from tiny Fort Hays State in Kansas. Leading scorer Cleanthony Early is a transfer from a Division III junior college and top rebounder Carl Hall spent two seasons out of basketball because of fainting spells.
"Three years ago," Hall said, "I was painting light bulbs."
The Shockers' point guard, Malcolm Armstead, transferred from Oregon last season and was forced to pay his way through school by working at a local car wash while waiting for a scholarship to open this season. Wichita State has signed just one top-100 player in Marshall's entire tenure.
Yet here are the Shockers, one of the top defensive teams in the country, preparing to play tradition-rich Louisville and iconic coach Rick Pitino.
"Florida Gulf Coast was a Cinderella," Pitino said. "This team is not."
That a roster full of vagabonds has advanced to college basketball's final weekend by handily whipping so many of the country's top programs is a direct reflection on Marshall, who up until now has been somewhat of an enigma -- at least on the national stage.
Marshall has averaged 27.8 wins at Wichita State over the past four years, but outside of the MVC, most people didn't know how or why -- probably because they didn't care.
The grand stage of the Final Four has changed all of that, as college basketball fans are finally getting to know Gregg Marshall. Or rather, the real Gregg Marshall, and not the man whose candor and animated sideline antics have led some to describe him as prickly and difficult to deal with.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
"I'm demonstrative," Marshall said. "I'm energetic. I'm just coaching my team. Sometimes that rubs people the wrong way, but I can't help that. I've got to be me."
"You better be you when you're dealing with kids in this business," he said. "If you're not, they're going to read right through you and know that you're fake. And that's one thing I'm definitely not."
Earlier this season, as the NCAA tournament inched closer and closer, Marshall asked former NBA stars and Wichita State alums Antoine Carr and Xavier McDaniel to address his team.
Their message: Play angry.
"[They] made that statement based off of someone coming into your house and taking everything that you've worked hard to build," Early said. "You've got to be angry about that and play with a chip on your shoulder.
"We turned it into a slogan."
Indeed, "play angry" couldn't be a more fitting moniker for the Shockers or for Marshall, whose career in some ways mirrors those of his hardworking, blue-collar players.
A Greenwood, S.C., native, Marshall attended Randolph-Macon College on a partial basketball scholarship. A shade over 6 feet, 2 inches, Marshall had good height for a point guard at that level, but he weighed just 145 pounds. Marshall said he was pushed around lot. He had some teeth knocked out twice and broke his nose on two other occasions.
Still, he was always assigned to cover the opposing team's biggest offensive threat, mainly because he "played angry."
"That's the only way I knew," Marshall said. "I wasn't very skilled or very talented. At that size, you have to give great effort. You had to have great passion and energy and toughness. That's the only way I could get anything done."
Marshall carried that same drive with him into the coaching profession. He hadn't played major college basketball, so he had no connections to large programs that could offer him a job. Instead of starting out as a video coordinator at somewhere like North Carolina or Duke, Marshall's first position was as an assistant at his alma mater, where he spent two seasons before moving on to Belmont Abbey College.
A year later he was hired by Kresse at the College of Charleston, which was making the move from the NAIA to Division I.
"He was only 25 years old," Kresse said, "but when he was next to me on that bench, I knew I was sitting by a winner."
Kresse said Marshall's scouting and game prep were a key reason for the College of Charleston's program-changing upset over No. 8 Georgia Tech in 1992. Six days earlier the Yellow Jackets had upset No. 1 Duke.
Marshall's next job was as an assistant at Marshall University, where he spent two seasons until Winthrop contacted him in 1998 about its head-coaching position.
"I told them I wasn't the architect [at College of Charleston and Marshall], but I was a foreman," Marshall said. "I had swung some mortar and carried some bricks and I could steal the blueprint. They took a chance on me."
In Marshall's first season, Winthrop went from finishing last to first in the Big South. He made the NCAA tournament in seven of his nine seasons there, almost upsetting Tennessee as a No. 15 seed in 2006.
"I always felt like he was a star in the making," Kresse said. "He's extremely bright. He reminds me of a Rick Pitino or a John Calipari or a Jay Wright. He can recruit and teach the game well, but he can also motivate and entertain."
Even after he moved to a bigger school, Marshall pursued the same types of players who helped him get to this point in his career. Overlooked talents looking for a second chance, junior college standouts who may have slipped through the system and prep school stars that bigger schools may deem a step too slow or an inch too short.
Guys like a high-school-aged Gregg Marshall.
"I like self-starters," Marshall said. "I like guys who want to work and have a drive to be better, to be the best. I try to find winners. I try to find guys that have those intangibles like playing really hard, having a good rapport with their coach, not being a jack-leg during a game and showing opposition to a teammate."
Marshall has had particular success with junior college transfers such as Hall and Early this season and Joe Ragland and Ben Smith from a 2011-12 squad that won the MVC regular-season title and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"Guys in junior colleges drive around on buses," Marshall said. "They very rarely see an airplane. They play in front of small crowds. They may have a practice set of uniforms, they may not. It's not 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' for basketball.
"They're hungry and they've got a short time to prove what they're capable of doing."
Some have said this Wichita State team is the embodiment of its coach. Marshall's players don't disagree. Early said Tuesday that the Shockers respect Marshall more because of the rocky path he traveled to achieve high-level success.
Just as they did.
"He didn't come from a lot," Early said. "He started from the bottom and worked his way up. Everything he has, he built."
A part of Gregg Marshall wanted to hang up the phone. Here he was, on a national radio show he'd hoped would paint himself and Wichita State in a positive light, and the first question host Dan Patrick asked him was about his personality.
"Your personality does it scare people? Does it make people nervous?" Patrick said.
The question came in response to some comments by CBSSports.com's Jeff Goodman earlier in the show that Marshall had been passed over for jobs because he "rubs some people the wrong way."
Schools such as NC State, Nebraska and South Carolina have called Marshall about jobs in the past. And UCLA reached out to an intermediary last week about Marshall. But what irked Marshall the most were the questions about him as a person.
"That bothers me," Marshall said. "Who is [Goodman] talking to?"
Marshall is asked why he cares what other people say about him.
"Because I'm human," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I'm human."
Marshall can get emotional on the sideline, where he constantly sips on his cup of "Go Juice," which is actually an energy drink called Vemma he has mailed to him from North Carolina. Marshall usually seems to know when someone is criticizing his team. And if he thinks his squad was wronged by officials, he'll say so in his postgame news conference.
"Nobody likes to lose in this business," Marshall said. "Find me someone in this business that loses and takes it really well, I'm going to show you a loser.
"I'm not in a popularity contest. I can't help who I am. I've got 500 texts and emails right now from friends in the business, wishing us luck. That's what I care about. The people [at Wichita State] love me and I love them. It was the same thing at Winthrop. At the end of the day, that's all that matters."
Marshall doesn't appear to be stretching the truth.
Media members who cover the Shockers on a regular basis talk about how personable Marshall is and say his candor is refreshing. Administrators brag about Marshall's work ethic and genuineness. In the community, he goes out of his way to mingle with fans.
"Sometimes people take his bluntness as brash, but it's not," associate athletic director Darron Boatright said. "He's as likable as anyone I've ever worked with."
John Brewer, Wichita State's assistant athletic director for marketing, talked about how Marshall invites hundreds of children to hang out in Wichita State's locker room after home games to mingle with players.
"He's so approachable," Brewer said. "He's willing to take and answer any question. He doesn't put an iron curtain up around his program. That's why fans love him so much."
The Shockers draw sellout crowds of 10,512 to every home game. They take charter flights to road contests and are asked for autographs on campus. Baker even received a few marriage proposals before the team left for Atlanta Wednesday. There are no professional sports franchises in town and Wichita State has no football team.
Basketball is it.
"It's a spotlight job, and Gregg flexes in it," Boatright said. "From community to marketing to social media, he runs the entire program."
And no part of Marshall's program is more important than its players.
Marshall is tough on the Shockers. It's no secret that he curses at them and pushes them to their limits at practice. Rumor has it that, at the College of Charleston, Marshall became so agitated that he kicked a ball into the stands.
"I can neither confirm or deny that that happened," he said with a smirk.
Whatever the case, the Shockers don't have any problem with Marshall's style. If anything, they appreciate him for it.
"Sometimes players can be flat," Armstead said. "He gives us a new energy and takes us to another level. When he's done talking to you in the huddle you're ready to run through a brick wall for him."
"I'm all for commitment and investing myself and learning," Early said. "That's why I came here, so he can teach me. That's what he's doing, just being there and being straightforward and being who he is.
"He's a good guy. He invites us over to his house. His wife is great. His kids are like my brothers and sisters. They're just cool people to be around. I can converse with them and talk with them about anything. Those are the kind of people you want to be around."
Kresse said he can see how much the Shockers respect Marshall when he watches his former pupil on television. He said Marshall is a "meat and potatoes" coach who gets his team to play physical and defend as well as anyone in the country.
"You really have to have the respect of your players to get them to play as hard as the guys at Wichita State," Kresse said. "Watch them in close games. He's so positive with them on the sideline. It's clear he's instilled a confidence in his players to take and make big shots. They always seem to have the right game plan."
One of the biggest questions surrounding Marshall is how long he plans to stay at Wichita State. He has had suitors in the past, and this achievement will almost certainly make him the hottest name in coaching.
Marshall, though, doesn't appear in any hurry to leave. He makes about $1.5 million a year, lives on a golf course, has the use of a private plane and is adored by a fan base that loves everything about him. He's smart enough to know that a little more money won't necessarily replace that happiness.
Even though he never personally discussed the UCLA job with Bruins officials, Marshall said Tuesday that he probably wouldn't have taken the job had it been offered after the season. He's always willing to listen, but it's going to take an ideal fit for him to pick up and move his family from such a good situation.
"He's in the right place," Kresse said. "I spent 23 years as head coach at Charleston. I found my paradise. I could've made an upward move but I decided to stay there. I hope Gregg considers that also at Wichita State, that that is now his paradise.
"They respect and admire him there, he's got great friendships there and a community that really supports him. Maybe that's the place for him to retire his whistle someday."
Marshall, of course, isn't thinking about anything beyond Saturday's NCAA semifinal against Louisville. The Cardinals have won 14 games in a row and, much like Wichita State, Pitino's squad boasts one of the top defenses in the country.
Louisville is an 11-point favorite. Hardly anyone expects the Shockers to win. Then again, no one thought a team filled with freshmen and walk-ons and transfers and outcasts would beat Gonzaga and Pittsburgh and Ohio State, either.
"We've got to find a way," Marshall said. "This isn't Duke or North Carolina or Kentucky. Each year, we have to find a way to win. I've done that my whole career."
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