KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Beneath the makeup and the glass slippers and the pixie dust, Cinderella is really Frankenstein’s monster. Wichita State, the new darlings of Atlanta, was conceived from a patchwork of philosophies, stitched together over time and miles, infused by lightning, a corpse on a slab set loose to bring terror upon the helpless denizens of Bracketville.
“Yeah, I’ve seen some familiar signals and some familiar plays in those four games that Wichita State has played,” chuckles John Kresse, the man behind the man behind the beast. “I see some College of Charleston in how Gregg (Marshall) coaches.
“It’s really physical. Got the same defense, rebounding and shot selection, getting the right guy taking the inside and outside shots. So I see some of that (from) my 38 years of coaching (and) there’s some of what Gregg and I put together for eight years, that’s now how his Wichita State teams (play).”
The voice is gentle, a New York timbre softened by decades of Southern hospitality. Kresse is 69 years young, retired, a St. John’s man, a former Lou Carnesecca assistant who won 560 games at College of Charleston between 1979 and his retirement in 2002. Marshall, the coach of the Final Four-crashing Shockers, was a Cougar assistant from 1988-96.
“You know, Gregg … is in the style of, I think, of the Rick Pitinos and the John Caliparis and the Jay Wrights,” Kresse continues. “Great recruiters, guys that can really teach the game, motivators and also entertainers.”
The one-liners? The soul of the monster? Pure Kresse. The spitfire defense, the backbone, is taken from Hal Nunnally. The ambition hails from Greg White, the humility from Bobby Cremins.
A man is the sum of his memories. A man’s program is the sum of his influences. Wichita State’s road to the Final Four was paved by unseen hands, a line of silent grandfathers, arm in arm. Nunnally, Marshall’s basketball coach at Division III Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, passed away in 2004. Greg White, who hired the Shockers’ big cheese away from Kresse to join him at Marshall University in 1996, is now a motivational coach and author.
“You ever see the movie, ‘The Wizard Of Oz?’” White asks. “You see The Cowardly Lion, that’s scared of everything? Gregg Marshall is scared of nothing.”
The truth, least of all. During the two seasons they worked together in Huntington, W.Va., it became a symbiotic relationship: White served as Marshall’s career counselor, pushing him to keep networking and climbing the coaching ladder; Marshall, in turn, served as White’s constant reality check.
“Whether it was good, bad, or indifferent, he told you the truth,” White says now.
Then he recounts the story of the time he was bouncing ideas for a Thundering Herd flyer off of his assistants, how he wanted to sell the program’s tradition and heritage to new recruits. Marshall just sort of — coughed.
“He said, ‘Quite honestly, the tradition’s not that great, and it’s certainly not that recent,’” White recalls. “But you need to hear the truth when you’re a head coach.”
White’s piled up dozens of Marshall anecdotes over the years, some more printable than others. There was the time he showed up for practice just a few hours after his son Kellen was born and had to be sent back to the hospital. And the time White saw him take out a pen and start writing on his left palm during practice.
“I said, ‘What are you doing?’” the coach remembers asking Marshall, who then flashed his palm. “He had written several names and phone numbers of people he wanted to call that night. And I said, ‘Why don’t you do that on a piece of paper?’ And he said, ‘That way, I won’t forget.’
“I don’t know how much you know about coaching, but that’s not normal.”
But the piece de resistance was at halftime of a nationally televised tilt, just as White was wrapping up his pep talk. The coach did a quick head count and realized Marshall was missing. Before long, he found his then-assistant in a side room, on a cellular phone, deeply engrossed in conversation. Marshall, seeing his boss, beckoned him over, telling the recruit on the other line that White was eager to say hello.
It was a 2-minute walk from the locker room to the floor; White continued his spiel all the way through it until he noticed the second half was about to start.
Play resumed. White looked over and noticed that Marshall was nowhere to be found. As it turned out, he was still on the phone, and didn’t return to the bench until several minutes of the second stanza had elapsed.
Fortunately, the kid on the other end of the line, Travis Young, wound up signing; heck, in 1998, Young was even named the Mid-American Conference’s Freshman of the Year.
“(Gregg) called me last Sunday (while) was in D.C. on business,” White says. “I said, ‘Hey, man, what are you doing here?’ He said, ‘Can you believe this?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, I can believe this. You’re good, you’re good. You just keep doing what you’re doing.’ And he said something about this job or that job, and I said, ‘Listen, pal, you don’t worry about that stuff. Just take care of winning. Winning takes care of all that stuff.’”
While the Shockers were going medieval on brackets in Los Angeles, Marshall found himself thrust into the discussion for several vacant BCS-level gigs — the vacancy at UCLA, in particular. While the pros and cons are self-explanatory, those who know the Wichita coach best aren’t sure if one of basketball’s destination jobs is actually the ideal destination for a lifetime underdog, a man who loves the building and the shaping as much as the maintaining.
“Proud peacock one day,” Kresse used to tell him, “feather duster the next.”
It’s a maxim that rolls all the way back to Marshall’s collegiate days, when he was a hardscrabble Division III player, molded by a Division III legend.
“I was texting or emailing with somebody (Monday) morning … my assistant coach for Coach Nunnally, Rick Banta, who played at UC-Irvine, an assistant coach my freshman year,” Marshall says. “He was talking about Coach Nunnally holding court in Heaven with all the former coaches and lighting a big cigar and just kicking back, breaking down the game, the fact that one of his guys is going to the Final Four. And we got a big chuckle out of that.”
Marshall was the Bruce Bowen of the Randolph-Macon men’s basketball team, a defensive stopper-cum-pest who was usually assigned to shadow the other team’s best perimeter scorer. He was also competitive to a fault, a streak that ran so deep that his fights with fellow teammates during practice became the stuff of local legend.
“(Nunnally) was a disciplinarian,” the Shockers’ coach continues. “He developed discipline and toughness in a young, skinny kid from Roanoke, Va. That was the only way I could contribute as a college basketball player, was to play extremely hard and be tough and defend.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that those have been the hallmarks of his teams at Wichita since 2007, just as they were at Winthrop in the nine seasons prior to that. It’s one of the reasons the Cougars wanted to hire him back, this time as a head coach, in 2006.
At about the same time, former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins was looking to get back into the business. One of Cremins’ pals with Charleston ties reached out to the ex-Yellow Jackets icon — Cremins infamously took the South Carolina job for just three days in 1993 before reneging and going back to Atlanta — only to call back the next day to report that the search was over; they’d hired Marshall from Winthrop.
“I actually left a message on Gregg’s phone, congratulating him,” Cremins recalls. “And then two days later, my friend calls me back and says, ‘Gregg’s pulled a Bobby Cremins. He went back to Winthrop.’
“And I thought my friend was (B.S.)-ing me, so I actually hung up on him.”
Only he wasn’t. Marshall had indeed pulled a Cremins, backing out just a day after being tapped for the Eagles job. The former Tech coach quickly called his pal back to apologize, and wound up taking the position.
Cremins and Marshall — they had a mutual friend in Kresse — actually wound up bonding over the whole crazy (and shared) experience, comparing notes during the summer Peach Jam in Augusta, S.C., once the dust had settled.
“First of all, I thanked him for doing it,” Cremins says. “And I reassured him that everything was going to be fine. ‘You just concentrate on Winthrop, don’t worry about it.’ And I almost talked him into doing a ‘Flip-Flop’ game. (I said), ‘Let’s play each other and raise some money, and we’ll call it the ‘Flip-Flop’ game. We’ll get a sandal company — Foot Locker or something — to sponsor it, or Nike, and we’ll give everybody flip-flops, we’ll have a ball.’”
Marshall, not surprisingly, passed on that one.
“(A couple) years ago, we went out there to play them in the NIT, and we brought fans with us and we brought Coach Kresse with us,” Cremins says, “And (Gregg) was great to everybody. And then he beat the hell out of us.”
Make no mistake: This one is for John. It’s for Hal, for Greg, for all the whistle-jockeys who danced around the shadows, whose One Shining Moments just happened to play out in the margins of the game.
“I just think there’s a lot of good coaches that don’t ever get this opportunity,” Marshall says. “In fact, one of the things I’m most proud of is how many folks texted, e-mailed, called me prior to the (regional final) and said, ‘Look, we will never get this opportunity. Please do this for us, for the little guys that never get this opportunity.’
“That’s what makes it so cool that we were successful. Those people should feel part of that run to the Final Four just (to) me, personally, to validate all of the great coaches out there that will never get a chance because of the level in which they coach.”
For Kresse, the Shockers’ running Charleston imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, although a bit of a bear on his blood pressure. Marshall’s mentor says watching Wichita’s victory over Ohio State last Saturday night “was the longest 11 minutes since I’ve been in coaching.”
Kresse hadn’t planned on traveling to the Final Four, in part because of an accidental fall two weeks ago that left him with cracked ribs and a bruised ego. But that all changed on Monday, when Marshall, his old pupil, called with a formal invite, replete with tickets and a hotel confirmation number.
“So I was very fortunate,” Kresse says. “I wasn’t going, originally, but with that personal invitation from Gregg, I will be there, wearing Wichita State colors, to root those guys on.”
Feather duster one day, proud peacock the next. Marshall knows: If you’re dancing in April, you dance with the ones that brung ya.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com