Mark Few coached Gonzaga into an NCAA Tournament sensation. A perennial Cinderella. He’s still at Gonzaga 15 years later.
Shaka Smart coached Virginia Commonwealth to the 2011 Final Four. Smart remains at VCU.
Phil Martelli coached Saint Joseph’s to a No. 1 seed in the 2004 NCAA Tournament. He’s still at Saint Joe’s.
Brad Stevens coached Butler to back-to-back Final Fours. He didn’t leave Butler until the Boston Celtics came calling.
So maybe it’s not so surprising that Gregg Marshall remains the coach at Wichita State. Marshall took the Shockers to the 2013 Final Four, then coached WSU to a No. 1 seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament and 35 straight wins, before a last-second loss to Kentucky in the Midwest Regional quarterfinals.
Marshall was in town Monday night for the Devon College Basketball Awards. He was honored as the national coach of the year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Marshall was a guest during my radio segment on The Sports Animal, and I asked him about the relatively new trend of highly-successful coaches at mid-major schools staying put rather than chasing bigger money at more higher-profile leagues.
“I can’t speak for those other gentlemen,” he said of Few and Smart, “but I’ve got a family. My wife Lynn was a college basketball player. She’s deeply invested into our program as well as the community.
“I’ve got a son who’s a junior in high school at Trinity Academy in Wichita, and a daughter who will be in the ninth grade next year. So I’ve got 11th- and 8th-graders.
“We’re very happy. We’ve got a wonderful administration that has given us everything we need to be successful.”
To be sure, all kinds of mid-major coaches still jump to the big conferences. OU’s last two coaching hires (Lon Kruger from Nevada-Las Vegas, Jeff Capel from VCU) came the mid-major ranks, though UNLV is in many ways a different kind of mid-major. OSU’s last hire (Travis Ford from Massachusetts) came from the mid-major ranks.
Kansas State hired Bruce Weber from Southern Illinois. Wake Forest just hired Danny Manning from Tulsa. Boston College just hired Jim Christian from Ohio. Georgia Tech hired Brian Gregory from Dayton. Clemson hired Brad Brownell from North Carolina-Wilmington. Miami hired George Larranga from George Mason. Nebraska hired Tim Miles from Colorado State. Ohio State hired Thad Matta from Xavier. Iowa hired Fran McCaffery from Siena. Illinois hired John Groce from Illinois. Penn State hired Pat Chambers from Boston U. UCLA hired Steve Alford from New Mexico. Arizona hired Sean Miller from Xavier. Oregon hired Dana Altman from Creighton. Colorado hired Tad Boyle from Northern Colorado. Washington hired Lorenzo Romar from Saint Louis. Southern Cal hired Andy Enfield from Florida Gulf Coast. Florida hired Billy Donovan from Marshall. Alabama hired Anthony Grant from VCU. Georgia hired Mark Fox from Nevada. Texas A&M hired Billy Kennedy from Murray State. Vanderbilt hired Kevin Stallings from Illinois State.
That’s just the way it’s done in college basketball. Most major conference schools use the mid-majors as their marketplace. It’s the natural order.
But some coaches – Stevens, Few, Smart, Marshall – have defied convention, not just with their success, but with their stability.
The truth is, it’s easier to get to the Final Four from a Wichita State than it is a Kansas State or a Minnesota or an Auburn or a Washington. Big money does not equate to big success.
“We’ve got great players that allow us to coach ‘em, they do things well on and off the court,” Marshall said. “They’re really fantastic ambassadors for any university. But especially in the realm of college basketball, they handle their business like professionals on and off the court. They’re a joy to coach.
“And what we’ve done with that combination is with my staff, we’ve worked to the point we can go to the Final Four. We’re two possessions away, two years ago (2013), from playing for a national championship. We go 35-0 and get a No. 1 seed this year, so we feel like we’re a player in the college basketball scene. We’re relevant.
“Me personally, I’m not a jumper. There’s a lot of goodwill that Wichita State has built up, and the community of Wichita, with me personally. So it’s going to take one heck of an offer. I’m sure Shaka and Coach Few and those guys feel the same way.”
What Few has done at Gonzaga, and what Marshall is doing at Wichita State, is win with veteran players. While Kentucky and other national powers have to reload virtually every year as their starts declare for the NBA, Wichita State takes the court with experienced players.
“You look at Arizona today (Monday),” Marshall said. “They lose Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson (to the NBA draft). They probably anticipated that, but it doesn’t make it any easier. You’re continually having to replace really, really good players. The better players you get, the quicker you’re going to have to replace them, it seems.
“That’s leveled the playing field a little bit and given us an opportunity to get guys that can be 23-year-old redshirt seniors. We redshirt players every year. We’ve got a couple of guys coming from prep school this year. They’ll be a little older. When you’re 22, 23, competing against 18-, 19-years olds, there’s certainly an advantage in that.”
And while Wichita State had a senior star in Cleanthony Early, the Shockers also sported younger players who will just get better.
“If you’ve seen guys like Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, Darius Carter, if you’ve seen those guys plays, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Those guys can play with anybody in the country.
“I’ve just got to get them directed in the right path, and everyone being on the same page, just give them a little bit of structure, but they know how to win. It makes it very comforting for a coach to have a backcourt of Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, two rising juniors.”
Some school could hire away Gregg Marshall from such a plum situation. But it better be a good job. His salary jumps to $1.76 million this month, an enormous amount for a non-football school.
A power-conference university could give Marshall a hefty raise. But could it give him the kind of relevancy that he talked about at Wichita State? In other words, Marshall might go to Kentucky, but he’s not going to LSU. Marshall might go to Michigan State, but he’s not going to Iowa. Marshall might go to Kansas, but he’s not going to Iowa State.