This all looks so seamless and meant-to-be now.
Fresh off its first Final Four since 1965, Wichita State went 34-0 and received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And who’s to say the Shockers can’t win the national championship?
But one of the most fundamental reasons Wichita State’s success is being harvested now is because it was sown in the opposite stuff: improbable roots, seemingly disparate parts and grinding work by the coach who calls himself a “29-year overnight sensation.”
“Nothing’s ever been given to me,” Gregg Marshall said.
And that reverberates through the type of team he has assembled.
It’s a gritty roster built on under-the radar high school prospects, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton, and a small-town-Kansas folk hero, former walk-on Ron Baker. And on junior-college transfers Cleanthony Early, Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins, aka Andrew’s less-celebrated brother.
Marshall relates in some way to all this, which helps explains why these seeming loose ends fuse together with something resembling symphonic chemistry.
“More people told us what we couldn’t do,” Marshall said, “instead of how great we are.”
Marshall, in fact, perhaps was the most improbable part of all to flourish, at least when it came to coaching basketball.
For starters, he wasn’t particularly great at the game, which left him with a mouthful of fake teeth because he “played face-first, and I definitely played angry” and often absorbed “errant appendages.”
He had none of the traditional pedigree you might see on a coaches’ resume.
In fact, his most colorful and maybe most meaningful entry would be his summer internship at Amelia Island Plantation in Florida. Marshall had briefly given up on coaching when he “couldn’t get a sniff on a D-I assistant job.”
Working as an entertainer, Marshall found himself dressing in a gorilla suit for a “safari” and conducting scavenger hunts and serving as a cabana boy, fetching drinks and towels.
It was something like miserable to Marshall, who was jolted back to coaching, even if it required aiming less ambitiously at first.
“I wanted to be the one receiving the towels and drinks,” he said, laughing.
But it was a laborious process because he wasn’t part of any famous or influential coaching tree, didn’t have NBA connections and never had an attachment to a blue-blood program as a reference or entry point.
Maybe that hurt him in the pace of his career ascent, but it also ultimately bolstered him. He’s proud of it now, eagerly suggesting that no coaching staff in the top 25 has more a humble foundation and fewer strands to so-called BCS schools.
The real reason this job would have been so unfathomable, though, is because of another dynamic that at once helps clarify what distinguishes Marshall. He is a deeply driven man, and if you ask him where that comes from, he’ll say his mother, Judy Lamar, whose second husband and Marshall’s stepfather recently died.
His mother is “a survivor,” Marshall says, who “was basically abandoned” along with two younger sisters in South Carolina.
“Bad, bad family situation in many ways,” he adds. “You can let your imagination run there.”
While the girls were wards of the state at a children’s home, a family in a farming community 45 minutes away decided to adopt his mother, 13 at the time.
She thought that would be fine but had a condition: She’d consent only if the family found friends in the same community to adopt her sisters, 11 and 9.
That’s the kind of conviction and conscience his mother has, and it casts some light on why her words of long ago resonated with him.
“I remember this very vividly: In second or third grade, she said to me, ‘Now, after you finish college, we need to decide where you’re going to go to grad school or law school or med school,’” Marshall said. “She had no formal college education, zero. But her goal for me was to not just go to college but to have an advanced degree.
“It was like, ‘I survived, I’ve done well, now you’re going to have better.’ ”
So by the time Marshall was finishing up college at Randolph-Macon in Ashland, Va., where he got a dual degree in business and economics, it was understood he’d be bound for law school or the financial world and become “some sort of a businessman.”
That his mind still tilts those ways is evident in his office, where Marshall’s greaseboard is dominated by numerical graffiti at least vaguely reminiscent of that produced by eccentric mathematician Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind.”
“It’s funny: My mind kind of works like that, to be honest with you,” said Marshall, whose board blurs together everything from previous season records, his 401(k) scheme, play diagrams, old salary offers and future schedules.
With all his emotional momentum invested in that premise, with no inkling he’d become a coach in between, it became a major event when Marshall’s coach, Hal Nunnally, wanted to encourage him to coach for $10,000 a year.
Maybe his alma mater wasn’t Harvard or Yale or Duke or Stanford, Marshall said, but it’s a darned good school from which “your goal is not to come out and make $10,000 a year. That’s exactly not the goal.”
So Nunnally flew to New Mexico, where Marshall’s mother and stepfather had moved, to urge him to consider coaching and seek their support and consent as he entered his senior year at Randolph-Macon.
“He said: ‘You have a mind for this game,’ ” Marshall said.
Maybe Marshall would have done it without that, or maybe it would have been too much to resist his mother’s aims for him.
But Nunnally spiced up the offer with a promise to pay for grad school, too, so the compromise was Marshall getting his master’s degree in sports management at the University of Richmond as he began coaching.
And with the exception of the stint on Amelia Island that served to realign his interest, he’s been doing it ever since:
From Randolph-Macon, to Belmont Abbey, to College of Charleston, to Marshall before his break, becoming head coach at Winthrop of the Big South in 1998.
When Marshall arrived there, he was making $60,000 and had “no car, no cell phone, no camps, no clinics, no computer.”
“I made a lot of mistakes as most coaches do when they’re young and just doing it for the first time,” he said. “But nobody really cared. Nobody saw it. And I was able to work through it and grow and just be a nut case sometimes.”
But he whisked the unheard-of Eagles to the NCAA Tournament seven times in nine seasons. And they became well-known with a near-upset of second-seeded Tennessee in 2006 and by beating Notre Dame in 2007, becoming the first Big South team to win a NCAA tourney game.
Along the way, Marshall had numerous other opportunities that for one reason or another didn’t take.
But the one that did, Wichita State after the 2007 season, started with that loss to Tennessee a year before.
The Shockers were playing their NCAA game in the same part of the bracket in Greensboro, N.C., and each caught the eye of the other.
Wichita State had beaten Seton Hall and was watching Winthrop nearly upend Tennessee, and that day school administrators took stock of Marshall’s energy and how he was doing more with less.
Meanwhile, before his game, Marshall remembered “watching all these black and yellow fans, how rabid they are, how excited they were for their team, coming all the way from Wichita to Greensboro.”
So a year later, almost instantly after coach Mark Turgeon left for Texas A&M in April, Wichita State contacted Marshall through Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin.
Days later, it was a match.
But it couldn’t be that simple, and as of day one, Marshall found himself confronted by thoughts of … what have I done?
On virtually his first official act on the job, he went to New England to visit recruit Guy Alang-Ntang to reaffirm the commitment he’d given Turgeon.
“Thirty minutes later, he lurches back on the court, right there in front of me, 15, 20 feet maybe, and dies,” Marshall said. “So there’s no manual on what to do at that point.”
Later that day, the day of the Virginia Tech massacre, another recruit de-committed when Marshall visited.
In the weeks to come, other players left the program. And three people died with whom Marshall had important relationships: his grandmother, a dear family friend and DeAndre Adams, who had just helped Winthrop beat Notre Dame.
“That first year was destined to be a very difficult year,” said Marshall, who recalled a shrunken roster that left him with what he called “a one-step bench.”
“One step, and I was at the end of my available players,” he said.
Little by little, though, Wichita State improved, from 11-20 his first year to 17-17 and 25-10 and then 29-8 and an NIT championship in 2011.
And now, this.
“We don’t have to just say, ‘Boy, we can be a Sweet 16 team,’ or, ‘We can be an Elite Eight team,’ ” Marshall said. “We know we can win the whole doggone thing because we just saw it. All we needed was one more play or one more break against Louisville, and we’re playing for a national championship.”
But it only looks as if this was simple and inevitable for one who never was given anything in the game and thus makes no assumptions about what comes next.
“It’s the next game,” Marshall said. “It’s not the past, it’s the present. It’s right what you’ve got in front of you.”