It probably wasn’t fair to ask Gregg Marshall what makes him such a good basketball coach.
Asking people to quantify their own excellence only puts them on the spot. What are they supposed to say?
Yet the question is so enticing, especially for a coach such as Marshall, who consistently led Wichita State to improvement since he took over the Shockers seven years ago, that I couldn’t resist.
The first thing Marshall did was to ask me to repeat the question. He wasn’t sure what I was asking. And when he finally did understand, he wasn’t excited to answer.
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“I don’t want to sit here and blow my own horn, to be honest with you,” he said.
Then he talked about hiring a great staff and recruiting good players and all the things successful coaches mention. Which is fine, but there has to be more. There has to be a quantifiable reason why Wichita State, which has never had this kind of prolonged success, is having it now. And it has to start with Marshall. It just does.
He went back to players to try and explain. He expects them to work really hard. Without high character, the demands of playing at Wichita State are too great.
“And another thing,” Marshall said.
OK, this is about to get good.
“I read people pretty well. I can’t read minds but I wish I could. Man, that would be great. I’ve always thought that would be awesome to be able to read people’s minds. If you read their mind and they have evil intent or are thinking bad things, you turn the other cheek. But I would love to be able to do that.
“What I’m telling you is that I read people pretty well. I think that helps me press the right buttons to get the desired reaction in coaching.”
And there it is. Marshall may not read minds, but he studies them. He knows when to push and when to back off. He can massage an ego when he has to and unleash a verbal barrage to make a point.
He would rather coach a really good player who buys in than a great player who questions.
“You’ve got to have some talent, now,” he said. “When I was at Winthrop (for nine seasons before coming to WSU), I sat a guy down one time and told him — he was probably our second-leading scorer — and I said, ‘Look, the way you go about your business and the way you play on the defensive end and how hard you play I feel like I’m making a deal with the devil playing you.’”
Marshall told that player he would either have to come around to Marshall’s way or transfer. The player made some changes. He survived in the program.
“But he still wasn’t ever great,” Marshall said.
Marshall, 51, didn’t get his first head coaching job until he was 34. He’s not one of those silver-spoon coaches. He started coaching at places you never heard of and was content to make enough money to live as long as he was around basketball.
“I never even really thought about being a head coach,” Marshall said. “And now, 16 years later to be doing what we’re doing — it’s not something you set out or plan to do or even think about much. I mean, I’ve always had confidence, but this is pretty cool. And I think I will appreciate it, just like the Final Four last year, later.”
Not now because Marshall can’t stop. The unbeaten Shockers will find out Sunday where they’re headed and who they’ll meet up with in the NCAA Tournament.
“It is hard to stop,” Marshall said, almost sadly. “Because you get so caught up. That’s what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to do that ‘it’s hard to stop’ thing until I’m 70.”
Marshall would like someday to stop and smell the roses with his wife, Lynn, and their two teenage children. He has insisted for a while now that he’s not interested in coaching into old age.
“I don’t want to coach forever,” Marshall said. “It’s hard, it’s tiring, it’s exhausting. It gets harder every year, the physical toll, even though we’re having more success. I don’t want to be one of those guys who just coaches to coach. I want to be able to enjoy some of the fruits of our labor here. We’ve worked really hard.”
If someone could figure out a way to rank the people in the world based on drive and will to compete, Marshall would be in that top 1 or 2 percent. He gets after it in a way that frightens new players and those who haven’t adjusted to his methods. He can be a mad man. But he’s also tremendously giving of his time, which is diminishing with every victory. The constant glow of being unbeaten and the center of a national debate is taxing.
“I like finding that place where I can just be Gregg Marshall,” he said. “But all of this is still kind of new for me. It hasn’t been like this my whole career. I thought we were a big deal at Winthrop going to the NCAA Tournament almost every year.”
Marshall was happy at Winthrop, content to be in Rock Hill, S.C. He grinded over whether to leave in 2007, even though the money at Wichita State was significantly better and the support was much louder.
He’s doing what he’s always done, he said, and is now being recognized. Recognition wasn’t easy at Winthrop, and it’s not easy at Wichita State. You have to do spectacular things to get noticed.
“Even with the success we’re having at Wichita State, there’s still that barrier,” Marshall said. “People are saying, ‘Well, they’re still not relevant.’ Well, I thought we were relevant at Winthrop and I think this is a big-time program. But I’m still getting that because there’s such a bias on BCS, BCS, BCS.”
Marshall tries to ignore the skeptics, he said. They make him angry. But he’s a victim of his own curiosity. He can’t help but wanting to know what is being said about him, his team and his players.
“I am so pleased that we’re 34-0 and that we’re the (Missouri Valley Conference) regular-season and tournament champions,” Marshall said. “So pleased. But I will be honest with you, I’m more ecstatic knowing how we’re doing it and with whom, about the quality of individuals we’re dealing with as players. We’re doing it with blood, sweat and tears. And that’s the reason I like coaching here. That’s a reason why I haven’t made that move to the next level, where you’re dealing with a different element in recruiting.”
So what makes Marshall a great coach? He took Winthrop to the NCAA Tournament his first four years there. He’s had only one losing season, his first at Wichita State in 2007-08 (11-20).
He’s organized, focused and he gets his players to do the right things. That’s the goal of every coach, of every leader, yet so many fall short.
But they don’t read minds.