ATLANTA — Gregg Marshall has led the Wichita State Shockers to a Final Four berth that has stunned most of the college basketball world.
To the men who knew him during his nine years as Winthrops coach, it comes as no shock at all.
Marshall, 50, coached Winthrop from 1998 through 2007, going to the NCAA tournament seven times. He transformed a sleepy basketball program in Rock Hill into a regional force. He did it partly with his recruiting, partly with his sound on-court philosophy and partly by the sheer dint of his big personality.
On Thursday in Atlanta, I asked him to recall what he was like when he first got the Winthrop job at age 35.
Like an electric cord thats been severed and sparks are coming out of it, flying all over the room, he said. Thats how I was when I got my head coaching job. It was perfect for Winthrop. We had a beautiful 6,100-seat arena. We probably had 500 fans at the first game I coached. You could hear every voice. Every sneaker squeak. I needed to infuse some energy into that program and energy into my team.
He did. Marshall has been gone from Winthrop for six years but maintains relatively close ties to the school. He will travel to Rock Hill on April 27 to be inducted into its athletic hall of fame.
Marshalls biggest moment on a national stage will come Saturday when his ninth-seeded Shockers face Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament and the prohibitive favorite to win the championship.
The coach who grew up in Greenwood, S.C., and apprenticed under John Kresse for eight years during the heyday of the College of Charleston basketball program calls himself just a small-town South Carolina guy. But during a four-game NCAA tournament win streak including victories against No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No.2 seed Ohio State in the West Region Marshall has become more well-known than ever.
His glasses with the yellow frames have inspired social media talk. His play angry mantra has become so popular that the Wichita State cheerleaders sometimes chant it.
And there may be more wins to come at least according to Pierre Wooten, a standout player on several of Marshalls first teams at Winthrop. Wooten said he can already tell you what the score will be Saturday.
Wichita State 78, Louisville 71, he said. I know he can do this. There are methods to his madness, and I really think its going to happen.
Marshall left Winthrop for the first time in 2006, taking the College of Charleston job, only to change his mind hours after publicly accepting it. He returned to Rock Hill for one final year, winning the Big South again and also getting his first-ever NCAA tournament victory, against Notre Dame. Then he left for Wichita State in 2007.
Tom Hickman, Winthrops athletics director, hired Marshall in 1998 capturing just the sort of up-and-coming basketball coach that mid-major schools desperately want to have.
Bobby Cremins told me once that every time he went somewhere recruiting that Gregg Marshall had already been there, Hickman said.
Marshall began to win almost immediately, borrowing liberally from what Kresse had done at Charleston. The two remain close, and Kresse will sit close to Marshalls wife Lynn at Saturdays game. He is my Coach K, Marshall said of Kresse.
Even 15 years later, Marshall is a little surprised that Hickman took a chance on him as a head coach.
I dont know why they gave me the job, he said. But I remember telling them my College of Charleston experience. I was not the architect. But I was the foreman. I carried some bricks. I slung some mortar. And I could steal the blueprint.
And they fell for it.
Like a raging bull
Tyson Waterman, who starred for Marshall at Winthrop, was tutored in college occasionally by Marshalls wife. He has now become a prep school coach himself in Rock Hill.
He brought a level of competitive spirit that was missing, Waterman said of Marshall. He was energetic, like a raging bull. But it was what was needed.
Said Wooten: He knew how to push your buttons. But to do that effectively, you have to spend time with people to know what buttons you can push. He did that, too.
That Marshall stayed nine years was quite a coup for Hickman and Winthrop. In almost every year before he left, Marshall had at least one chance to leave for a bigger school.
We would get together on a pretty regular basis for awhile it seemed like every year on what we needed to do to keep him here, Hickman said. It became pretty obvious after awhile, though, that we werent going to be able to keep Gregg forever.
Just before Marshall took the Wichita State job where he will make north of $1 million this year including incentives Winthrop made a final pitch.
The coach ruffled some feathers at Winthrop recently when CBSSports.com published a story that described what was reported as a 10-year, $400,000-per-season proposed deal from Winthrop with this quote from Marshall: They were going to put my name on the floor. But they werent going to let me leave. It was ironclad. I had to stay all 10 years. It was indentured servitude. I said, Thats BS. Ive been here nine years, been to seven NCAA tournaments.
Marshall will make some mistakes, and that was one of them. It was a silly thing to say. Thats the sort of servitude millions would love to sign up for, and the coach sheepishly said Thursday that he knew some people at Winthrop hadnt liked the comment.
Winthrop responded with a graceful statement by school President Anthony DiGiorgio, who said: The offer made back then was genuine, fair and would have been binding on both parties no involuntary servitude required. We enjoyed having Gregg and what he added at Winthrop, and have followed his continuing success with great pleasure. We look forward to this weekends game.
Marshall has only had two jobs in 15 years, but he makes no secret that he is willing to talk to other schools. N.C. State did talk to him in 2011 before hiring Mark Gottfried.
As for his long-term future in a state where basketball is huge but where Wichita State will also never usurp the Kansas Jayhawks in terms of fans or interest, Marshall said Thursday: I have a great job. I could retire there, I hope. But at the same time, if the right situation ever came along at the right time, I havent closed any doors. I listen. But I am very cautious on making moves. I dont care if you pay me $5 million a year and Im getting my brains beat out, Im not going to be very happy.
Im a lot calmer
For now, Marshall leads a team that is the first Final Four squad from the Missouri Valley Conference since Larry Birds Indiana State team of 1979. He has Louisville at least slightly worried.
Said Louisville coach Rick Pitino: Ill say this without exaggeration. Theyre the best team we will have faced this year on the defensive end. They are Marquette on steroids in terms of the way they play defense.
Marshall is not the same coach he was when he started at Winthrop in 1998, when the players referred to his film sessions as Hell sessions because of his sometimes brutal critiques.
We didnt talk much about positives in the film room, Waterman said. But the man is a father figure for me. Honestly, Wichita has a good chance against Louisville, because he will have them so prepared.
Said Hickman: His style has mellowed a little bit from the young brashness he had. But hes still an exceptional coach.
Said Marshall: Its not to the point where Im sedated. But Im still a lot calmer then I was at that point, and hopefully wiser.
As for Saturdays game, Marshall vs. Pitino would seem to be a mismatch to many. Not to those who know Marshall well, though.
Wichita honestly has a chance, Waterman said. A good chance. You watch.
Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler