As he made his way to Wichita State’s locker room in the Georgia Dome, minutes after an open practice session attended by thousands and being greeted by basketball television personalities Greg Gumbel and Clark Kellogg in the hallway, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall didn’t mask his sense of awe.
“It’s like being a rock star,” Marshall said.
That morning, he had met men’s basketball legends Oscar Robertson, Bill Walton and Lucius Allen. The night before, he and his wife Lynn went to dinner with friends and fans who had donated $19,000 to the Wichita Children’s Home.
Marshall is the coach desired by bigger-budget, football-playing programs but who extols the virtues of playing at this mid-major level. “We’re playing for the non-BCS schools,” Marshall told Jim Nantz after practice to booming cheers from the Shockers’ fans.
On Saturday, Marshall’s team has a Final Four date with Louisville, with the winner advancing to Monday’s national championship contest.
Heady stuff, all of it.
But it’s easy for Marshall to remain grounded. All he has to do is turn back the clock, to about this time about six years ago, when he arrived at Wichita State from Winthrop.
The smile leaves Marshall’s face at the subject. The memories are vivid, and sad.
Deaths to four people who were part of Marshall’s life or had recently entered it in a significant way confronted the Shockers’ new coach upon taking the job in Wichita.
“My faith was challenged,” Marshall said.
Marshall lost a grandmother with whom he was close and a next-door neighbor from South Carolina who was a dear family friend.
One of his former Winthrop players, DeAndre Adams, a standout who had just helped the Eagles upset Notre Dame for one of the program’s greatest victories, died in a car accident in 2007.
Each of these deaths happened in Marshall’s first few weeks on the job at Wichita State.
But the death that may have shook Marshall the most was the one he witnessed.
Marshall interviewed and was offered the Wichita State job on April 13, 2007. After nine years and seven NCAA Tournament seasons at Winthrop, he said yes to then-Shockers athletic director Jim Schaus and was introduced the next day.
On April 15, Marshall returned to South Carolina to clear out his desk, “pack boxes of memories and have a couple of cold ones with friends.”
The next day, Wichita State sent a plane to collect Marshall and fly him to New Hampshire, where he was to watch a recruit play. Guy Alang-Ntang had signed with the previous regime, headed by then Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon, and Marshall was in re-recruiting mode.
“I had talked to his coaches, and Alang-Ntang said he wanted to stay with us,” Marshall said. “That was a good first step for us.”
Marshall and Alang-Ntang had a 45-minute conversation, and the player went back to participating in a pick-up game at the New Hampton School. He was back-pedaling down the floor about to play defense when he collapsed. Marshall thought he was seeing a player have a seizure but soon realized it was more serious. Alang-Ntang died on the way to the hospital from a heart attack.
That same day — April 16 — 33 students died when a gunman opened fire at Virginia Tech.
“I had cried the day before at Winthrop, and I cried the next day,” Marshall said.
There was a team to coach, a season to play, and the first edition of Marshall’s Shockers, by his standards, was a disaster. Marshall had won 29 games and was perfect in the Big South during his last year at Winthrop. In his first season at Wichita State, the Shockers finished 11-20 and 4-14 in the Missouri Valley Conference.
But Marshall wasn’t discouraged. He summoned the lessons he learned as an assistant on John Kresse’s College of Charleston staff and at Belmont Abbey (N.C.) and Randolph-Macon (Va.) before that.
Namely, play with an edge.
The Shockers improved steadily, from 17 victories in 2009 to 25 in 2010. The 2011 team won the National Invitation Tournament, and the 2012 Shockers earned their first NCAA Tournament bid under Marshall, falling as a No. 5 seed to No. 12 VCU.
The Shockers’ mantra for 2013 — “play angry” — has carried the team to its greatest season yet.
“We play with energy, passion, play like your hair’s on fire,” point guard Malcolm Armstead said. “Play with everything you got.”
Marshall doesn’t forget the people who shaped his life.
Kresse — “my Coach K,” Marshall says in a nod to longtime Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski — is his mentor and will be with the Shockers in Atlanta this weekend. Marshall worked under Kresse for eight years before Kresse recommended him for the Winthrop job.
“I told (Winthrop) that I was not the architect at College of Charleston, but I was the foreman,” Marshall said. “I carried some bricks, I slung some mortar and I could steal the blueprint. They fell for it.”
The seed for leaving Winthrop for Wichita State was planted by Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin, who as a member of the Division-I men’s basketball committee, saw the Eagles play in the NCAA Tournament’s opening-round game at Dayton, Ohio, and was impressed with Marshall’s approach.
When Turgeon left Wichita State for Texas A&M after the 2007 season, Elgin called Marshall for a sales pitch.
“I just told him he should take a look at the job,” said Elgin, watching the Shockers’ practice from courtside on Friday.
The Shockers sell out their home games, Elgin told Marshall, and the Missouri Valley Conference was a considerable step up from the Big South. Marshall wasn’t happy that his Winthop team, coming off its best season with losses only to ranked teams, could do no better than a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Winthrop, Marshall determined, had reached its ceiling.
At Wichita State, a Final Four was a greater possibility. And with a team that includes two starters from New York, along with Alabama, New York and Kansas, the Shockers have made it happen.
Along the way, they demolished Pittsburgh from the Big East, upset top-ranked Gonzaga, buried La Salle and took down second-seeded Ohio State. Louisville coach Rick Pitino said there’s no difference in ability on a regular basis between marquee programs and ones like Wichita State.
“I go back a long, long time ago, where you could pencil in Coach (John) Wooden, Coach (Dean) Smith, Kansas or Kentucky, and now you can’t do that,” Pitino said.
You can’t because of teams like the Shockers, Butler and VCU, programs that have reached the Final Four in the past three years.
“There’s absolutely no difference,” Pitino said.
Perhaps that why Marshall remains in Wichita. Seemingly no NCAA Tournament news conference passes without a question about Marshall’s happiness in Wichita. He’s making $1.2 million this year, and bigger schools have offered much more. North Carolina State and South Carolina have pursued Marshall in recent years, and UCLA sent out a feeler after firing Ben Howland last month.
But like Butler’s Brad Stevens and VCU’s Shaka Smart, Marshall said he’s content where he’s at.
And so is his school.
“Wichita State is very appreciative of the job we do, and we’re adored in the community,” Marshall said. “When I took the job I knew it was a good one. I knew I could win there.”
It took a season or two, and the first few weeks — when he was mixing recruiting trips with funerals — weren’t easy.
“But we started building this thing,” Marshall said, “and now we’re at the pinnacle.”