Gregg Marshall gave his sustainability speech in March 2011, although few realized it. During Wichita State’s NIT championship run, he enthusiastically rejected the notion he coaches at a mid-major.
Check my bank account, he said. Check the way my team travels, and the budget, and my talent and the Koch Arena crowd, he challenged. Had that question and answer taken place in the NCAA Tournament, it goes viral and “Check my W-2” becomes a sound bite on ESPN.
With that statement, he signaled his belief in Wichita State’s spot in college basketball. Entering his sixth season, he is after a fourth straight 20-win season, something unprecedented for the program.
“I knew coming in, if given time, we could be very successful here because of the renovations to the facility and the great crowd support, which means revenue,” he said. “When you eliminate excuses why you can’t win, then it’s up to you to win. We’ve got what we need to win.”
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Marshall and his coaching staff are proving that in landmark numbers. His 2011 team won a school-record 29 games on its way to the NIT championship. The Shockers followed with 27 wins, a Missouri Valley Conference title and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. Those 56 wins are the second-most in MVC history for a two-season span.
WSU, with a history characterized by a decade of success followed by a dropoff, is on a roll with one losing season since 2002. As in the past, success follows the traditional markers.
In the 1950s, the hiring of Ralph Miller and the construction of the WU Fieldhouse (later Levitt Arena and now Koch Arena) opened the door for national rankings and a program-building run in the 1960s. The hiring of Gene Smithson in 1978 fueled the talent-rich 1980s and Eddie Fogler maintained high standards until he departed in 1989.
In 2003, renovated Koch Arena opened for coach Mark Turgeon to power two trips to the NIT and the 2006 Sweet 16. Marshall took over in 2007-08 and needed only two seasons to push the Shockers back into MVC contention.
“We’ve invested in people,” athletic director Eric Sexton said. “We’ve invested in facilities.”
How does Sexton know those investments are paying off? Marshall remains in his Koch Arena office, one increasingly filled with pictures, trophies and souvenirs from Shocker victories, in addition to the ones he brought from Winthrop. If Marshall didn’t believe he could win at WSU for years to come, he would find a place more attractive.
“Without a doubt,” Marshall said. “I like what we’ve got going.”
While WSU still plays in the shadow of the Big 12, people notice its success nationally. ESPN loves showing games at Koch Arena because of the atmosphere. WSU was the first MVC member to play in the Maui Invitational and it regularly lands spots in good tournaments because of its fan support and reputation.
“Wichita State has a product and a brand,” ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said. “They play hard. Normal college basketball fans take that for granted or don’t understand the importance of that. That’s why I like watching them play.”
Marshall knows who makes the program go. When he talks recruiting, his voice rises and his speech quickens.
That is why Marshall and assistant coach Chris Jans jumped in a car for a recruiting trip on their way to the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association coaching clinic early last month in Columbia.
They made four stops along the way, a trip reminiscent of his young days as an assistant coach. Marshall did his share of the driving, something not all head coaches are up for. They stopped for enough fast food to keep Jans satisfied — Marshall can go longer without — and the head coach changed clothes in the car to go from clinician to recruiter.
“It was old school,” Marshall said. “I saw parts of Missouri that I’ve never seen. We hit four young kids, and it was great. I don’t do that that often anymore.”
Marshall does most of his recruiting by airplane these days. In population-poor Kansas, that’s a necessity. It is tougher to go on recruiting trips as a family man, but he can’t bear to relax.
“When I was 22 years old and they gave me a car and some sunflower seeds and $15 and a credit card for gas and I was good,” he said. “I’d drive all over the eastern seaboard. Now, you miss things, the homecoming dance for your son or daughter.”
Marshall and his staff understand how to mine the sweet spot in the recruiting world where players are talented enough to play for higher-profile schools while available to an MVC school. He hires assistant coaches with roots across the country and connections to all levels of feeder institutions. He isn’t afraid to take chances on academic risks, such as Dayton’s Teddy Hawkins, and refuses to get caught short.
Hawkins didn’t meet NCAA eligibility standards and is at a prep school in Iowa. His return to WSU, once promised, is iffy after he recently reopened his recruiting. Center Henry Uwadiae, another member of the last fall’s signing class, is at a junior college after not meeting NCAA standards.
At many schools, losing two members of a class is devastating. Marshall prepared and filled those scholarships. He finds it funny that fans and the media are concerned about his ability to count to 13 scholarships allowed by the NCAA.
“Towards the end (with Hawkins), we kind of knew where he was and we reacted accordingly,” Marshall said. “My college coach … used to say, ‘You’re only as good as your secondary recruiting list’ at some point. That secondary recruiting list better be really good.”
Dykes admires Marshall’s recruiting for the type of player he attracts. Marshall enjoys coaching a certain type of person, one who is coachable and team-oriented. It is one of the attractive facets of coaching at WSU.
“He’s never won with high-maintenance, elite-level kids that have their own agenda,” Dykes said. “That’s not how he’s built, not how he’s wired. He’s after guys who have a little bit of an edge, guys who are good enough to play in power conferences. He uses that to his advantage.”
This season’s roster contains two transfers from Division I schools and five from a junior college. WSU has two Canadians, a Nigerian and a player from the Bahamas. Eight came to WSU from high school, hailing from as close as Wichita and as far as Georgia and Nevada.
“I said the very first day I was hired as head coach that we will recruit locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, universally,” Marshall said. “We will look at high schools, prep schools, junior colleges and the military. It doesn’t matter, as long as they want to work and work together.”
With Marshall satisfied with his resources, sustained success seems likely for WSU. The work started by former athletic director Jim Schaus and Turgeon is continued by Sexton and Marshall.
Sexton thinks the program checks all the major boxes for facilities and amenities. That doesn’t mean work stops. WSU is evaluating its locker rooms. A recruiting room, where coaches and administrators meet with athletes and families, is the latest upgrade in recruiting wars to catch Sexton’s attention.
A few years ago, it was common to see athletic directors and boosters from other MVC schools touring Koch Arena. Bradley opened a basketball practice facility in 2010. Evansville is opening one this fall and Creighton recently announced plans.
“We made investments in our facility way ahead of many of our competitors in the conference and they are starting to catch up,” Sexton said. “We look at those things every year.”
Veteran Shocker fans testify that success slips away quickly. Gary Thompson took the 1965 Shockers to the Final Four and exited in 1971 after four losing seasons. Smithson’s NBA talent dried up under the weight of NCAA probation and changing times in college basketball. Turgeon’s final team plunged from the national rankings to sixth place in the Valley.
Marshall feels confident he can sustain the momentum from three straight 20-win seasons. As he said, there are no excuses.