The stars are aligned for Wichita State â€” and Gregg Marshall is the brightest star of all
By SEAN KEELERFS Midwest
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - As a general rule, Eric Sexton prefers to keep his two left feet to himself. Still, when you just took down Gonzaga, he figured, what the heck? You dance like nobody's watching.
Except that, um, everybody is watching, as Sexton discovered Saturday night. Before long, his smart phone started quaking like the San Andreas Fault. Sixty texts.
Ding, ding, ding, ding …
"(They're) about, ‘Are you kidding me, son? Stop doing that,'" Wichita State's athletic director chuckles when asked about the impromptu postgame conga line that formed in Salt Lake City after the
Shockers took out the top-seeded Zags and advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. "Why be a stick in the mud? If you can't beat them, join them. It was the time to embrace the moment."
And what a moment. As of late Monday afternoon, more than half of the Shockers' allotment of roughly 1,300 tickets to the regionals at Staples Center had already been sold. Wichita is one of four Cinderellas — 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast, 13 seed La Salle and 12 seed Oregon being the others — crashing the Sweet 16 party. You can buy that kind of advertising, sure, but it doesn't come cheap.
"I know our admission staff, they're not upset about the level of activity that we are engaging in, because it can do nothing but help them," Sexton says. "Especially as you look to push your reach beyond Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, which is something I know our admission staff is working toward, so that really helps."
If you're not a paying member in the Bluebloods Club — that is to say, you weren't expected to be here — the Sweet 16, luscious as it smells, can sometimes become a rose with thorns. One minute, you're busting a move on national television. The next, you're being serenaded by Tim Tebow at the airport.
And the next (and this is the thorny part), some moneybags Bowl-Championship-Series-level program is trying to trade secret handshakes with your now very-hot head coach.
It happens every year about this time, everywhere, and Sexton knows the drill better than most.
"Gregg Marshall has been a great asset to Wichita State and he has moved our needle and he doing great things," says Sexton, whose upstart Shockers (28-8), a nine seed, draw the upstart Explorers on Thursday. "And if you don't have somebody (leading your) program that people are interested in, that's probably a different question."
On Sunday, UCLA cut the cord on Ben Howland. On Monday afternoon, while Sexton was tending to business in Kansas City, Minnesota did the same with Tubby Smith.
The Shockers' top administrator said he hadn't received any formal overtures from well-heeled suitors to speak to Marshall, his coach, but he's also savvy enough to know that that doesn't mean they couldn't be in the works.
"You know, we understand that there are opportunities," Sexton says. "We are a family at Wichita State, and so you always want the best for your family. Whether they stay in the nest or whether they get other opportunities, you want the very best for them."
But make no mistake: This is a good nest, if not a golden one. Marshall reportedly makes $900,000 plus bonuses annually in a deal that runs through 2018 and renews automatically. There's a $125,000 retention bonus, apparently, for each year he sticks around, plus access to a private plane. Marshall makes $36,000 for each NCAA tourney game the Shox play in and nets a $60,000 bonus if they reach the Sweet 16.
Wichita drew an average of 10,312 fans at Koch Arena this year, or 98.1 percent of capacity. It's a provincial following, granted — you're still sharing a state with Kansas, after all — but a profoundly loyal one, too.
"The Roundhouse," as it's called, is renowned as one of the few home courts in the country where the fans over 40 make more noise than the ones under 40. What Shocker Nation lacks in geographic scope, it makes up for in sheer ferocity.
"The stars are aligned for the Shockers right now," Marshall says.
And Wichita's coach, at the moment, is the biggest star of all. What was always one of the Missouri Valley Conference's sleeping giants will soon be, without question, the league's premier program, now that Creighton is leaving the Valley this summer to join the new hoops-centric Big East. The Shox have reached back-to-back NCAA tourneys for the first time since 1987-88, and are a win away from their first Elite Eight berth since 1981. With Marshall at the helm, Wichita is positioned to be as dominant in the MVC, short-term, as Gonzaga is in the West Coast Conference and Butler was in the Horizon League.
"What does it mean to be Gonzaga?" Marshall asked. "I think it means a sustained level of excellence. It's something that we're working on. We're certainly working on it, but we'll see where it goes."
For his part, the coach has said in interviews — albeit in vague, broad, sweeping terms — that he's happy. He has two school-age children, and relative security in a perennially insecure, notoriously fickle profession.
Last year at this time, South Carolina had a coaching vacancy; Marshall grew up a Gamecocks fan. Nebraska started sniffing around. On paper, either of them could've been a logical fit.
But rather than jump to a renovation job in the SEC or the Big Ten, Sexton and Marshall reportedly did a little contract tinkering. Sometimes, love and logic trump piles of cold, hard cash. Sometimes.
"This coaching carousel that begins at this point and time is one that we always are concerned about," the Shockers' athletic director says. "But our focus at Wichita State is, we're focused on providing experiences and opportunities so that our coaches only leave for their dream job. That's what we try to focus on. If we continually make investments so that Wichita State will be a destination university for our student-athletes and our coaches, (rather) than a way station."
Sexton may not be much of a dancer. But the man knows a good thing when he sees it.