Stars are aligned for Marshall, Shockers

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.
 
You can follow Sean Keeler on
Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com