Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall’s ascent is all grit
03/27/2012 4:41 PM
08/05/2014 6:35 PM
You did not want Gregg Marshall guarding you in a basketball practice at Randolph-Macon College, or even in a pickup game. He would stick to you and harass you and annoy you until you wanted to do what one of his teammates usually did: punch him in the face.
Some of the fistfights between Marshall and college teammate Rod Wood were epic. They still talk of the one where Wood suffered a concussion and wound up in the hospital, and Marshall had his nose broken.
“We would just go at it,” Wood said. “One time he came through a pick and mowed me over and I told him not to do that anymore. If you told him not to do something, that’s just what he needed to keep doing it.”
Sometimes the blows Marshall suffered were accidental. Jesse Hellyer, another college teammate, remembers putting Marshall in a face mask for the rest of his senior season by breaking his nose with an elbow while grabbing a rebound in practice.
Hellyer said he heard a “pop,” turned, and saw blood all over Marshall’s face.
Marshall’s response was that Hellyer had just ruined a spaghetti dinner they’d planned with their girlfriends that night.
It would not be inappropriate for Marshall, the Wichita State coach who will take his Shockers to the NCAA Tournament this week, to top off the fine suits and ties he wears courtside with a face mask. Twice as a player, Marshall spent a good part of the season wearing protective headgear.
Wood, now basketball coach at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., played all four seasons with Marshall at Randolph-Macon in Ashland, Va. Wood was a point guard who became one of the school’s career offensive leaders. Marshall was a defensive stopper who did all the dirty work.
A typical statistical line for Marshall after a game, Wood said, was 1 point, a few charges, a bunch of rebounds and 10 stitches.
Marshall also was the player most likely to get in your face.
Hellyer, a talented offensive player, was named a Division III All-American after his junior season, but he returned for his senior year with a poor attitude. He was told to take some time off and think about his future with the team.
Marshall visited him in his room and let him have it.
“He told me that I was better than I was showing and to get off my ass and get back to work,” Hellyer said.
“I didn’t resent it one bit,” Hellyer added. “He was my friend and my teammate. It motivated me to work harder, if nothing else just to keep from pissing him off.”
Randy Lower was the guy who put Marshall in a face mask in high school, when they were teammates at Cave Spring High in Roanoke, Va. Lower grabbed a rebound during a game with a little extra flourish, sending an elbow crashing into Marshall’s mouth. The blow knocked out a couple of teeth, and Marshall’s mother came out of the stands to stop the game so everybody could search for them.
They found one at midcourt, the other by a wall.
Marshall’s dentist had to be summoned from a Friday night cocktail party to repair the damage.
After that, Marshall wore a hideous red wrestling mask during games, Lower said.
Face masks failed to stifle Marshall’s competitiveness. Billy Hicks, who has known Marshall since they were kids, said that in the first game Marshall played in his new face mask at Randolph-Macon, a 6-9 opponent intentionally elbowed him in the face, and Marshall went after him.
“There just wasn’t any back-down in him at all,” said Hicks, who now is basketball coach at Cave Spring.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Lower said. “There’s no letup. I think that’s why he’s successful in coaching. There’s not a coach out there that’s going to outwork him.”
It was clear to most people, if not always to Marshall, that he would be a basketball coach some day, if he survived his playing days.
As a kid in Greenwood, S.C., Gregg had an instinct for the game and a desire to make himself better, said his father, Walter, who coached him in youth football.
“Gregg wasn’t the fastest player. He might have dunked the basketball twice in his life. But he played really, really hard, and he played very good defense,” Walter Marshall said.
Not that he couldn’t score once in a while, too. In a youth league championship game when he was 11 years old, his team scored 51 points, and Marshall had 49 of them, according to his father.
Marshall’s competitiveness was honed by a need to earn respect. As a kid, he was a skinny guard who couldn’t jump but who wanted to win. He grew up in an apartment in Roanoke, where his mother moved after a divorce and re-marriage.
Basketball was played nearby on a concrete half-court with a chain net. Marshall had to scrap for playing time among the neighborhood kids who swarmed the small space. You had to earn the chance to get on the court, and once you got on it, you had to win to stay on it.
Marshall was 12 at the time of the divorce, but emerged emotionally unscathed.
“We all worked hard to make the best of a bad situation,” he said. “Other than that, we had a very normal childhood.”
At Cave Spring, Marshall was a serious kid who got good grades, said Hicks, who was a freshman when Marshall was a senior.
“He was a big mentor for me as a player and when I decided to be a coach,” Hicks said. “He was just one of those guys that younger guys wanted to emulate.”
Learning to be a coach
Randolph-Macon coach Hal Nunnally saw that Marshall knew the intricacies of the game even in high school and recruited him. He also recruited Hellyer, Wood and a few others who would form the foundation of a team that would reach three NCAA Division III tournaments in the next four years.
But their practice and pickup games were wars.
“We had the types of guys who didn’t go around picks. We went through picks,” Wood said.
And they had a coach in Nunnally — an old-school guy with a crew cut and a drill-sergeant approach — who allowed fighting. Marshall said the fight between him and Wood was the only one Nunnally ever broke up.
“It’s not something I’m proud of,” Marshall said. “Rod was a better player than I was, and I thought that there was a lack of respect from him to me. Once the respect started going both ways, we became better friends.”
After Marshall’s playing days at Randolph-Macon, Nunnally recommended that Marshall, who was getting a business degree and thinking of law school, try coaching. He wanted Marshall to be his assistant.
Marshall saw buddies heading off to make their fortunes on Wall Street and hesitated at the $10,000 salary. But he relented when Nunnally agreed to help pay for Marshall’s graduate work at the University of Richmond.
As Nunnally’s only assistant, Marshall helped coach practices, recruit, scout, serve as strength coach, wash the uniforms and clean the gym.
Nunnally, who died in 2004, was a perfectionist. He taught Marshall to be demanding, disciplined and attentive to details.
Marshall said he once sent out 250 recruiting letters to high school coaches addressed to “Boys Basketball Coach.” Nunnally made him re-send every letter, this time personally addressed to each coach, with all the names spelled correctly.
“You don’t like when people spell your name wrong, do you?” Marshall remembers Nunnally telling him.
Marshall spent two seasons with Nunnally while earning a master’s degree in sports management at Richmond. Then he left coaching to put his degree into practice. He worked at a beach resort in Florida as a cabana boy who entertained corporate big shots with scavenger hunts and luaus. The job didn’t last long.
“I was pretty miserable at that,” Marshall said. “I’d gone down there in August, and by October I was going, ‘God, get me out of here.’ ”
He called Nunnally for help, and one day received two coaching offers: one at Coastal Carolina, the other at Belmont-Abbey in Belmont, N.C. under Kevin Eastman, now a Boston Celtics assistant. Nunnally recommended he go with Eastman, and Marshall spent two years at Belmont-Abbey.
While Nunnally, a basketball purist, taught Marshall a lot about the game, it was John Kresse, the coach at the College of Charleston, who taught Marshall how to be the CEO of a successful basketball organization. Marshall met Kresse at a postseason coaching clinic, impressed him, and served as his assistant in Charleston for eight years.
Kresse said Marshall helped him elevate the program from NAIA to NCAA Division I.
“He was just so instrumental to me because of his abilities to evaluate, recruit, and practice and game coach,” Kresse said. “He was just a terrific young guy. He got us some very good players. When it got to recruiting, he had a personality-plus style. He could wow the parents and also the high school coach.”
Marshall left in 1996 to be an assistant at Marshall University, and two years later took over as head coach at Winthrop in Rock Hill, S.C., thanks to recommendations from Kresse and former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins.
“We both helped him get that job,” said Kresse. “And he ran with it.”
Marshall took Winthrop, which had virtually no basketball tradition, to the NCAA Tournament in seven of his nine seasons. Along the way, he built up a fan base not only by winning but by introducing such fan-friendly traditions as inviting kids to the team’s locker room after wins to join his players in singing a victory song.
In 2006, Marshall had a brief flirtation with the coaching job at College of Charleston when the previous coach, Tom Herrion, was fired. He accepted the job, but turned it down less than a day later.
Driving back to Winthrop from the announcement, Marshall said, he realized the move didn’t feel right for many reasons, which he declined to discuss.
Cremins took the job after Marshall turned it down.
WSU job offer
Marshall was on a golf course with a friend, Marvin Johnson, when he got the call offering him the job at Wichita State the next year.
“He was real excited about that,” said Johnson, who never had been to a Winthrop game until Marshall started coaching there, then became a huge fan and close friend. “He said, ‘What would you do?’ I said, ‘Gregg, you don’t want to ask me that because I’d be selfish.’ He was torn between his family being close by and wanting to move up.”
In five seasons at WSU, Marshall went from 11 wins his first season to a school-record 29 wins and the NIT title in 2011. This season, he led the Shockers to a Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title, pushed them into a top-15 ranking in the polls, was voted conference coach of the year, and has the Shockers back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Kresse and other friends who stay in touch with Marshall said he is happy at Wichita State. Kresse said he told Marshall two weeks ago he’s got such a great thing going at WSU that he ought to retire there.
“Why not stay there and keep prospering and enjoy the people and friends he’s now gained?” Kresse said.
Marshall’s name has circulated through the coaching rumor mill since he became successful at Winthrop. He said he has turned down multiple job offers from major-conference schools while at Winthrop and Wichita State. He pointed out that he has been a head coach for 14 years and has had only two jobs.
“I’m not a jumper,” he said.
Last week, he said, his wife, Lynn, speculated that they’d have to endure more coaching rumors this spring.
“I said, ‘We don’t have to. We could come out and say point blank, right now, I’ll never leave here, I don’t want to even talk to anyone.’ But is that smart? You never know,” Marshall said.
Last year, he talked with North Carolina State, but decided to remain in Wichita.
“Never in a million years, when I was a kid in Greenwood and Roanoke, did I think in my wildest imagination I would be a coach at an ACC school. And I had that opportunity last year,” Marshall said. “That could’ve been my only shot. I don’t know.
“Maybe I’ll retire here. I don’t know. It’s something Lynn and I deal with. It’s a case-by-case, day-to-day decision.”
Marshall received a new contract last year that raised his salary from $800,000 to $900,000 and included a seven-year extension through 2018 that automatically renews each year.
Friends like Wood marvel at Marshall’s journey from scruffy hard-nosed player at a small college to coaching jobs in the college-basketball wilderness to successful Division I coach and national figure at Wichita State.
Marshall said that background is one reason he hasn’t jumped from job to job, and why he remains as intense a competitor as when he and Wood went after each other at Randolph-Macon.
“I don’t have a safety net,” Marshall said. “If I fail, it’ll be like falling out of a plane. I’ll hit the ground and I’ll have to start over.
“I’m not an NBA name; I didn’t play in the NBA. My father isn’t a college coach. I don’t have a guy that is my college roommate that is a big-time coach now who’s going to hire me if I get fired.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve had a hardscrabble ascent that I’m very leery of the descent.”