Gregg Marshall does an impersonation of former UCLA basketball coach Jim Harrick, who is a guy who gets gold buttons on his two-button navy blue blazer.
It was Harrick who explained the Final Four Coaches Club and the signature blazer to Marshall.
Didn’t know there was a Final Four Coaches Club?
Neither did Marshall, until he received a letter from the National Association of Basketball Coaches last summer inviting him to the luncheon on semifinal Saturday at the 2014 Final Four. He coached in nine NCAA Tournaments at Winthrop and Wichita State before learning of the club, which first met in 2006 in Indianapolis. WSU’s spot in the 2013 Final Four earned him that invitation and the blue blazer with his name embroidered inside above the pocket.
Marshall and Harrick played golf in California where Harrick, who coached UCLA to the 1995 NCAA title, revealed the secrets of this exclusive group. Marshall told Harrick he had never heard of the club until the letter arrived.
Harrick replied “Marshall, you didn’t need to know about it, son.”
Marshall said “I guess I need to now.”
And Harrick said, “I guess you do. Now. Now you need to know.”
Final Four weekend in and around Dallas was a whirlwind of awards, dinners, autographs and pictures for Marshall, his time in constant demand after WSU’s 35-1 season. Any organization that thinks of itself as national gave him a plaque or trophy, most of which he had shipped to Wichita.
The blue blazer ceremony will stick out in his memory. Wichitan J.V. Johnston took his measurements. Christopher’s Custom of Menands, N.Y., designed the blazers for Marshall and Michigan coach John Beilein, the new members. Marshall chose Bobby Cremins, former Georgia Tech coach, to present his jacket.
“They put it on you, like they do the green jacket at the Masters,” Marshall said.
In this setting, the spirit of competition is set aside and the 200 or so men in the group are comrades. Retired coaches can pass on advice and marvel at how the game has changed. Younger coaches can meet the men they grew up idolizing. Marshall took a picture with Harrick, former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian and former Louisville coach Denny Crum.
“When I was kid, they were bad boys (at Louisville),” Marshall said. “He had a great program.”
He enjoyed meeting former Kansas coach Ted Owens and learned Owens did color for Shocker TV games in the 1980s. He talked with Lou Henson, former New Mexico State and Illinois coach, about Bob Hull, Henson’s former assistant who now does color on WSU’s radio broadcasts. He talked with former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, now coaching at NAIA Northwood (Fla.) University, about playing an exhibition game next season.
“You know who it’s coolest for — the older coaches,” Marshall said. “They just love it. These coaches just come right up to you and they congratulate you and they talk to you. It’s really, really, really fun.”
Across the country in Rock Hill, S.C., the man who played a major role in starting all this is pretty proud of Marshall. Winthrop athletic director Tom Hickman hired Marshall in 1998, putting a struggling program and an office without computers or VCRs in his hands. Marshall wowed him during the interview at the 1998 Final Four in San Antonio. Hickman loved his background with coaches John Kresse (College of Charleston) and Hal Nunnally (Randolph-Macon).
“It was a no-brainer,” Hickman said. “You knew right away he was going to be effective meeting people. He was a dynamic personality.”
Hiring coaches is a constant grind for Hickman and not his favorite part of the job. As the man who helped discover Gregg Marshall, he can take satisfaction starting a career that changed basketball at schools 1,083 miles apart. Hickman remembers driving home one night recently when Marshall’s name came up, as it often does, on a local sports talk show. The hosts and callers debated if South Carolina or Clemson made a mistake by not grabbing Marshall, and they wondered if his success at Winthrop and Wichita State would translate to those schools.
“I was on the verge of calling and saying ‘Anybody who questions whether Gregg Marshall can coach is absolutely crazy,’” Hickman said. “It doesn’t matter where he’s at, he’s going to win.”
Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh, an assistant under Marshall for two seasons at Winthrop, was in Los Angeles recruiting while Marshall was piling up his coaching honors. He got his coaching start as a student assistant at East Tennessee State in 1986. Like Marshall, his coaching resume grew at lesser-known stops, such as Queens (N.C.) University, Wofford and Furman.
Radebaugh joined Marshall’s staff before an August exhibition trip to Chile and his first practice with Marshall reminded him of a boot camp. He went home and told his wife he was working for a coach unlike any other.
“He’s built his career because every day his teams play like its Game 7,” Radebaugh said. “That practice was like Game 7. He is the most focused, intense, driven basketball coach I’ve been around.”
The coaches who rise through the profession without benefit of a big-time playing career or the advocacy of a famous coach share a bond. Marshall is proof it can be done without limits.
“He’s been a guy that’s driven tons of miles and slept in his own car,” Radebaugh said. “He’s had to do it on his own. He represents a lot of us out there.”
Marshall welcomes that role. He points to Mercer’s Bob Hoffman, who won the 1989 NAIA women’s championship at Southern Nazarene (Okla.), and Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood as similar sources of inspiration. VCU’s Shaka Smart played at Kenyon (Ohio) College. Former Butler coach Brad Stevens, now coaching the Boston Celtics, came off the bench at DePauw (Ind.) University.
“I would be proud if I could be that,” Marshall said. “Because that means it’s possible for all of us. I notice guys like that now. ”
Harrick wasn’t finished introducing Marshall to the Final Four Coaches Club that day on the golf course. Everybody gets a blazer. The buttons are shaped like basketballs and they carry a significance. Not everybody gets the same buttons.
“They’re going to give you a blue blazer,” Harrick said. “You’re going to be part of an elite club of coaches.”
Marshall said, “I can’t wait to do that. That sounds fun.”
And Harrick replied “You’ve got to understand, Marshall, yours is going to have silver buttons. Mine has gold.”