WICHITA, Kan. – Perhaps it was no coincidence that the day Gregg Marshall interviewed for Wichita State’s head-coaching job happened to be Friday the 13th.
Building a mid-major basketball school into a relevant national program is a Sisyphean-enough task without the obstacles immediately thrown in front of Marshall, who’d engineered one of the most impressive low-major program turnarounds in NCAA history in his nine years at Winthrop. At mid-majors like Wichita State — or Creighton, or Gonzaga, or Butler, or Xavier, or any smaller schools we only notice come March — the top recruits look past you and head straight to the bluebloods. There’s the question of not having as much money, or not having the best facilities, or not having a coach who’ll hang around much past that first Sweet 16 appearance.
But on that Friday, Marshall, who’d just said no to a job at a Big East school, said yes to Wichita State’s $850,000-a-year offer. He hired his first assistant coach on Saturday. He cleaned out his Winthrop office on Sunday. He said goodbye to old friends at the place he’d been given his first head-coaching job, and on Monday morning he jumped on the Wichita State private plane and headed out on the road.
The road ahead was tough: Marshall needed to meet with recruits the previous coach, Mark Turgeon, had signed. He needed to put the program on the right path after a bumpy season, where the Shockers had been ranked 8th in December, then dropped 14 of 22 games and missed the postseason.
The plane ride was bumpy, too, a can of Diet Dr Pepper hitting the ceiling as the aircraft rumbled around a winter storm and toward New Hampshire. There, one of the previous coach’s recruits was waiting at his high school to meet with Marshall.
As the plane descended, Marshall had no idea just how bumpy the coming year would be. First was the personal side: In the next month he’d fly back to South Carolina for two funerals — for his grandmother and for a Winthrop player who died in a car crash.
Then came Marshall’s basketball problems. Paul Miller, one of the best players in Wichita State history, who’d guided the team to its first Sweet 16 in 25 years, had graduated. Turgeon had cut three players during the team’s downward spiral the season before Marshall took over. Two of Turgeon’s recruits weren’t planning to honor their national letters of intent after Marshall came on; one wouldn’t even speak to him. Marshall had seven scholarships to fill before the season started, so walk-ons wouldn’t just be playing — walk-ons would be starting. And his starting point guard suffered from repeated concussions, an issue that would cause him to miss nearly half of the upcoming season.
Marshall got off the plane and drove through the snow to the New Hampshire prep school. There, he walked up to a tall, lean 19-year-old boy named Guy Alang-Ntang. The 6-foot-7 forward had moved to the United States from Cameroon to play basketball. Before playing a pickup game, he shook Marshall’s hand and said he’d honor his commitment to Wichita State.
Then Marshall’s first day on the job veered from difficult to tragic. Alang-Ntang collapsed on the court. Medics surrounded him. Marshall watched helplessly and called his new athletic director, unsure what to do. An ambulance rushed the 19-year-old young man who’d just shaken Marshall’s hand to a nearby hospital. He was pronounced dead of a heart attack.
There’s no handbook for this. Marshall did what he thought was right: He got back on the plane with an assistant. They flew to Washington, D.C., hours late for a scheduled meeting with another recruit. When he got to the recruit’s house, the young man wouldn’t speak with him. His eyes were glued to the television. Another tragedy: On the campus of nearby Virginia Tech — where the recruit had friends — a gunman had shot 32 people and himself earlier that day.
Two things were clear: This recruit wasn’t coming to Wichita. And that first season was going to be more challenging than Marshall ever imagined.
That year Marshall’s team went 11-20. It finished next to last in the conference. It was Wichita State’s worst season in seven years. By most measures, the first losing season of Marshall’s career could only be judged a disaster.
Instead, this seeming disaster was the beginning of something special.
Last week, Marshall sat in his Wichita State office, thinking back on the crazy, awful way his Wichita State years began.
“That’s how I started this whole deal,” Marshall shrugged.
That was six seasons ago. Since then Marshall’s teams have improved every year. In his third season, the Shockers made the NIT for the first time in his tenure. The next year, they won the NIT. Last season they made the NCAA tournament, Marshall’s first since his 11th-seeded Winthrop team upset 6th-seeded Notre Dame in 2007. As Marshall sat in his Wichita State office last week, his team was 19-2, the newest mid-major darling of college basketball, sitting atop the Missouri Valley Conference and perched high in the national polls. Marshall was even getting traction as a national coach of the year candidate.
This is the story of Wichita State. But this is also the story of schools like Creighton, ranked 16th in the nation and boasting player of the year candidate Doug McDermott. This is the story of Gonzaga, 6th in the nation and with a team some think could be the school’s first Final Four squad. This is the story of Virginia Commonwealth’s miracle in 2011, or of George Mason’s miracle in 2006, or of Xavier’s four Sweet 16 appearances in the past five years, or of Butler’s riveting run of two national championship games in as many seasons. This is the story of how the Cinderellas of March are made the other 11 months of the year.
This, really, is the story of college basketball, a world in which schools that don’t even have football can go toe-to-toe with the nation’s wealthiest, most tradition-rich schools, and win.
Every year March descends into madness because college basketball is America’s most egalitarian sport. People always say the NCAA tournament is the most fascinating tournament in sports. Schools like Wichita State are the ones that make it so.
And this story is perhaps never more relevant than this year. In a season in which Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has said the college basketball hierarchy is more up in the air than ever, nine teams identified as mid-majors have been ranked in the top 25 (though some would argue the Mountain West and Atlantic 10 have outgrown their “mid-major” status). Over the past five years, 19 mid-major schools have made the Sweet 16, including five apiece in 2010 and 2011. It’s entirely possible this could be the most mid-major-filled March in history.
It’s a testament not just to the amazing parity of today’s college basketball but also to how the sport itself seems perfectly structured for a turnaround artist who can take an irrelevant program and make it great.
“Every school has that aspiration,” Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen, whose Bluejays have been ranked in the top 25 all season, told FOXSports.com. “You gotta always treat it as if it’s precious and it could go away tomorrow. Loyalty is developed when you do things you don’t have to do. You’re not always going to win, and you’re not always going to have great years.”
A program like Kentucky, Rasmussen explained, can have an entitlement attitude because it knows it will be good every year. Creighton knows the opposite: Some years will be like this one; many years won’t. A school like Creighton needs to identify as Omaha’s team. Just like Xavier is Cincinnati’s team, or Gonzaga is Spokane’s team, fan loyalty fuels those mid-majors that are consistently relevant.
Mid-major schools can’t win the way a Kentucky wins. Earlier this season, Butler coach Brad Stevens sat in his office in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse and talking about recruiting more for feel than just talent. He watches players on the bench after they foul out. If they sulk, that’s not a player he wants. If they lustily cheer on their teammates, that’s a future Butler Bulldog.
“If everybody tries to be exactly like Kentucky, well, Kentucky’s got better players,” Stevens told FOXSports.com. “We gotta figure ways to be different, and sometimes being different is just being the best, most cohesive team.”
For a mid-major school like Wichita State to build a nationally relevant program, you need innovative ways to get better. You give away free tickets to fans, like Marshall did at Winthrop. You invite fans into the locker room after big wins, like Marshall does at Wichita State. You out-recruit bigger schools like Missouri to get a talented junior-college player like Cleanthony Early. You pick guys up off the scrap heap like Carl Hall, a big power forward who was shut down after his freshman season at a junior college in Georgia because of a heart condition.
Hall got a job working 60 hours a week in a light-bulb factory. After two years, he decided to go back to basketball.
“I told my doctor, ‘I could live with dying from playing basketball,’ ” Hall said.
Could there be a mentality more perfectly fit to turn a mid-major school into something great?
The door whooshed open at Gregg Marshall’s office, and the head coach jumped up in a frenzy.
“Fourteen!” he shouted to his top assistant. “Fourteen!” he shouted to the secretary. “Fourteen in coaches’ poll!”
“No way!” another assistant said.
Moments before, Marshall was on the weekly conference call for Missouri Valley coaches. Over the past four games, Marshall’s Shockers had out-toughed 12th-ranked Creighton, grabbing 22 offensive rebounds in the upset, and beaten up three other conference opponents. In the Missouri Valley, a physical, Big Ten-like conference, Wichita State is the quickest team, and the only one to regularly use a full-court press.
Marshall was talking about an upcoming game against Indiana State, which already had beaten top teams in the ACC and SEC, when a reporter asked about the new USA Today coaches’ poll. Wichita State was ranked 14th, the reporter said, its highest ranking in Marshall’s six seasons (the Shockers were 15th in the AP poll). At hearing this, Marshall’s jaw dropped. “That’s pretty high cotton is what we say in South Carolina,” he replied. Moments later Marshall was running around his office with the wide-eyed look of a kid who’d just been told he made varsity.
“You ever been 14th in the country?” he shouted to nobody in particular. “I never have.”
This seemed like a good time to reflect. After that disastrous first season, there came a moment when Marshall and his top assistant, Chris Jans, doubted whether this would ever work. It was January of Marshall’s second season, and Wichita State, already 0-5 in conference play, had just gotten blown out at 0-5 Missouri State. “At that point you look around and say, ‘Are we going to be able to do this?’” Jans said.
They came home to face Creighton, the top team in the conference that year.
“And I’ll never forget,” Jans recalled. “We went out of the tunnel, and it was a sold-out arena. Coach Marshall turned to me and said, ‘Can you believe it? They’re coming out like this and we’re 0-6?’ ”
That was the turning point. The Shockers upset Creighton. They won eight of their final 12 games. They are to Wichita what the Oklahoma City Thunder are to their city: The best thing going in town. Their fans stuck by them in the lean years, and the squad made it through those years, got better and better and got all the way to last week, when they were recognized as one of the top teams in the country.
“The key is, ‘Can you keep it going?’” Marshall said after his excitement settled down. “If you keep it going, you can get a great seed in the NCAA tournament.”
If you keep it going you become more than the mid-major darling of the week. You become the best part about college basketball, the school without the talent or the tradition or the money of a Kentucky or a North Carolina, and now one of the nation’s elite.
Of course, keeping it going isn’t easy. The level of play in the Valley is far more challenging than the mid-major reputation would suggest. The day after Marshall learned of their ranking, the Shockers shot a disappointing 27 percent at home against Indiana State’s zone defense and lost by 13. They shot poorly again in a close loss at Northern Iowa.
As soon as Marshall’s Wichita State team had sniffed big-time success, it got punched in the mouth.
“We did it once at Winthrop,” Marshall said of overshooting expectations. “Was that a fluke? You’re leaving a situation there where you’re liked and revered in the community, and now you have to do it all over again. There’s a lot of potholes in building a program, a lot of missteps you can take. My thought process is to treat it like it’s the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics. Like it’s the most important job in basketball.”
Do that and Wichita State, the Kansas commuter school that doesn’t even have a football team, could really stay among the best in the country.
“It can happen, dude,” Marshall said.
And it has happened, the mid-majors making the Final Four against all odds: With VCU, in 2011. With Butler, in 2010 and 2011. With George Mason, in 2006.
The miracles could come from anywhere this year: From Gonzaga, or from Creighton, or from VCU, or from Saint Mary’s. Why not from Wichita?