Wichita State Shockers

Shocker basketball 2014-15: Fans support the coach who supports them

From left, Darius Carter, Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet know the focus is on them as the Shockers’ top returners.
From left, Darius Carter, Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet know the focus is on them as the Shockers’ top returners. The Wichita Eagle

Fund-raising stories are usually about the big money and the big donors and perks like dinner with the coach or Final Four tickets or a trip on the charter plane to a game.

Then there is a story about the man who wanted to give $100.

The people in the Wichita State athletic department who fund-raise like this one, too, and it demonstrates the all-in, why-not-us attitude that enveloped the community in recent years. Somewhere along the way, WSU showed people it could compete in ways not previously thought likely and the people responded by pitching in and pushing for more.

“He just wanted to help,” associate athletic director Darron Boatright said. “He was excited to give that $100. He didn’t care what it went to. And we were excited as heck to get it, because he wanted to do his part. It was almost like the widow’s mite Biblical story.”

The widow gave her farthing to a winner. Shocker fans are no different, although they often are asked for more than a few farthings.

At key points in Shocker basketball history, the community rose up, responding to a wave of success, and elevated the team.

When The Forum became too small to hold the fans who wanted to watch Cleo Littleton play, the university built the WU Field House, later to be named Levitt Arena. Fans set attendance records in the 1960s during the Dave Stallworth era. In the 1980s, fans again packed the arena and WSU showed home games on the Shocker Sports Superchannel and pondered raising the roof for an upper deck. When the program declined and Levitt Arena needed a makeover, the community and university contributed $25 million to produce Koch Arena in 2003.

The feeling of community is always important for Shocker fans. They grew up going to games, listening to Mike Kennedy, complaining about officials and sitting next to the same people in the Roundhouse from November through February. They always entertained lofty aspirations, even in bad times, fueled by the memories.

In 2011, things clicked in a way they never had before and the community found the coach who believed in Shocker basketball as much as they did.

“The feeling of ‘Why can’t we win the national championship? We could,’ is a lot more prevalent than it was five years ago,” said Kim Taylor, president of the Shocker Athletic Scholarship Organization.

Think back to March 2011. You were disappointed with the Shockers playing in the NIT. Then they routed Nebraska and started playing exciting basketball and beating teams from the ACC, Pac-10 and SEC. While your friends mocked the NIT, it was fun and the Shockers won a national title, even if it wasn’t THE national title.

Coach Gregg Marshall didn’t leave.

He didn’t leave after winning the Missouri Valley Conference title in 2012. He didn’t leave after the Final Four in 2013 or after going 35-1 in 2014. The list of open jobs in recent years includes South Carolina, UCLA, North Carolina State, Tennessee and Missouri and he didn’t leave for any of them.

If anybody can make this community feel great about itself, it’s Marshall. This is a community without beaches or oceans or Boeing, and it’s the one with politicians spending millions to tell you in what miserable shape Kansas is or will be, and much of that is tolerable because it’s basketball season and the Shockers are winners.

“He is loved by everyone in Wichita,” said Chris Logsdon. “There’s Wichita State jerseys everywhere, just because everyone in Wichita is proud. It’s a good time right now.”

Marshall isn’t from here. And he likes it. Sure, he’s paid millions to like it, but he really likes Wichita. His family likes Wichita. He likes telling people about Pizza Hut and WSU’s engineering program and the aviation industry. He makes president John Bardo’s job easier, he gets Ron Baker to dump a bucket of ice water on Charles Koch, takes his son to Royals games and acts as if this place is a big deal. He likes sharing the good times with fans, whether that means signing autographs, speaking at a luncheon or inviting children to the locker room after a win to yell the victory chant with the players.

“It is cool that he lets community people in as much as he does,” Ty Houseman said. “You feel a little bit more invested when you’re a fan and part of what’s going on instead of just looking down on what’s going on.”

On Thursday, Marshall opened his comments at media day by expressing sympathy for those affected by the plane crash at the FlightSafety International building near Mid-Continent Airport. Then he talked about why he remains in Wichita.

“This is a close-knit community,” he said. “This is a community that really cares about Wichita State University. Regardless of where you went to school … you have a tie to Wichita State University because we represent the region and the area. It’s a great feeling to coach at a place where basketball is as important as it is here.”

The community responded to a coach who wanted to remain at WSU and knew how to win.

“It was the NIT,” said Jon Markwell, past president of SASO. “We went through some of the best conferences in the country. I know that anybody who is against Wichita State is not going to buy the NIT as anything very significant. Well, it was to us.”

It wasn’t just the NIT, of course. The mania existed before then and it exploded in March 2013 with a series of three-pointers against Gonzaga, a win over Ohio State and a trip to Atlanta. But the NIT helped give the athletic department the momentum it needed to raise the money to pay Marshall and continue building. After winning the NIT, WSU gave Marshall a $100,000 raise, from private contributions, to $900,000 for seven years. The longer he stayed, the easier it became to find donors.

Along the way, everybody started to believe that WSU could compete with anybody and pays Marshall $1.75 million to make that dream reality.

“Success at WSU, I believe, is tied to the ability to create longevity with all of our sport programs,” WSU athletic director Eric Sexton said. “Individuals said, ‘We are not going to be a place that people go to their next job from. Wichita State can be the place where folks only leave for their dream job.’ Our public and our fans began to believe when you actually saw it happen.”

Oh, it’s happening.

“Nobody is going to be telling us anymore that we’re some kind of Cinderella,” Markwell said. “All fans of Wichita State believe that we can play with anybody in the country.”

WSU blew up in 2013 on the way to the Final Four. Then the Shockers made all kinds of history on their way to winning 35 straight games, a No. 2 national ranking and a No. 1 seed. Even when they lost, they won all kinds of respect with their effort against Kentucky.

Now WSU doesn’t look like a mid-major. It schedules like a big-time program. It recruits like one. It pays salaries and travels with the best. Nobody in the community is telling Sexton to hold back.

“Our geography doesn’t limit us,” he said. “Our vision doesn’t limit us. Our fans allow us to have that vision. In fact, they embrace that.”

They embrace that vision when they sell out Koch Arena. They embrace it when they travel to Hawaii or Kansas City or St. Louis to watch the Shockers. If four seats in Koch Arena come open in prime locations, the department will require a pledge of $50,000 to $100,000 for the right to buy the seats. Boatright said the department raised $280,000 in three days with that program earlier this fall.

WSU generates around 70 percent of its $23-million athletic budget through donations, tickets, concessions and the like. At the other MVC public schools, university support and student fees make up almost half or more of their budgets. During the 2013-14 fiscal year, WSU athletics raised around $7 million in donations.

“When they see us doing it the right way, with the right types of folks … they come out and support us,” Sexton said. “We reflect our community. We try to do things with high integrity and try to remember we’re not entitled to any of this.”

The next five months are all about Shocker basketball. That is just what this community wants.

Reach Paul Suellentrop at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @paulsuellentrop.

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