ST. LOUIS — There is a well-beaten path to becoming a head coach working the sidelines of an NCAA Tournament game as hyped as Sunday's matchup between unbeaten Wichita State and pre-season No. 1 Kentucky.
That route is not how Gregg Marshall got here.
A quick road to such a game can involve a tie to a famous "coaching tree" — Rick Pitino's or Mike Krzyzewski's. The main coaching influences of Marshall, the hard-charging 51-year-old South Carolina native who has led Wichita State to a 35-0 record, include Hal Nunnally, Kevin Eastman, John Kresse and Greg White.
Another way to crack the top levels of college basketball coaching is to have been a famous player. Current NCAA Tournament coaches Billy Donovan, Steve Alford and Danny Manning can attest to that. Marshall played about as far from the bright lights as one can get — he was a guard for Nunnally at Randolph-Macon, an NCAA Division III school in Ashland, Va.
If one does not have a tie to a famous college coach and was not a star player, it helps if one is identified early on as a coaching prodigy — as happened with Rick Pitino, a Division I head coach at age 25. Marshall mopped floors and did the laundry as an assistant at Randolph-Macon. He then worked as an assistant at Belmont Abbey, College of Charleston and Marshall before finally landing a head coaching shot at Winthrop in 1998.
"A 29-year overnight sensation," Marshall described himself to the Kansas City Star.
If you wonder how a Wichita State roster filled with three-star — and no-star — recruits can mount a surprise Final Four run in 2013, then come back and enter its 2014 NCAA Tournament round of 32 meeting with UK with a shot at perfection, start with a coach who sees himself as a grinder who has had to scratch for every inch he's climbed up the coaching ladder.
"Nothing's ever been given to me," is the Gregg Marshall quote that appears in article after article written about him.
After Marshall the coach moved to Marshall the university as an assistant, he played the pivotal role in recruiting then-Paintsville High School star J.R. VanHoose — Kentucky's 1998 Mr. Basketball — to the Huntington, W.Va., university.
"I didn't know that much about Marshall (the school), even though it wasn't an hour from my house," VanHoose said Saturday. "But (Marshall the coach) was so persistent, he just kept showing up. He came to open gym with us in the summer. Even after I committed, he went to Delaware with us when we played in a national tournament. He came to a ton of home games at Paintsville. He was actually the main guy that recruited me to Marshall."
The next season, Marshall (the coach) got his head coaching break when he took the job at Winthrop, in his native South Carolina. It was not exactly landing the Duke job. Winthrop paid him $60,000 a year. Yet in nine years, Marshall took Winthrop to seven NCAA Tournaments. In 2006, as a 15 seed, Winthrop came achingly close to ousting No. 2 Tennessee. The next year, Marshall and Winthrop bounced Notre Dame from the Big Dance.
Following that 2007 season, Marshall took the Wichita State job. His first year was an adversity-filled 11-20, but it's pretty much been a relentless march up the mountain ever since.
In 2010-11, Wichita State went 29-8 and won the NIT. The next season, it made an NCAA Tournament appearance. Then, last year, came the run to the Final Four. Now, Wichita State is trying to become the first men's Division I basketball team to record an undefeated national championship since Indiana in 1976.
Rather than feeling pressure from trying to make history, the Shockers seem energized. As their winning streak has grown, Marshall said Saturday, he has started "naming" the wins for the jersey numbers of famous athletes with ties to Wichita. Win number 20 (at Illinois State) was "Barry Sanders" for the NFL running back who was born in Wichita. Win number 35 Friday over Cal Poly in WSU's NCAA opener was "Antoine Carr" for the 1980s-era Shockers hoops star.
"Gregg has done a great job with these guys," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. "He and I spoke, I have a couple of teams that have gone through what he went through (chasing perfection). I said, 'I didn't do as good of a job (as) you have, which is take (the pressure) off the kids and just let them keep playing basketball.' I said, 'I'm telling you, I felt it with the teams I had that were, like, 26-0, and I was almost happy we lost, just get this (pressure) off.' He's handled it superbly."
Within basketball circles, Marshall's reputation for brash honesty and on-the-edge intensity has not always played well.
"He's an intense guy, but a great guy," Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early said. "You've got to get to know him."
Asked if he'd ever seen the WSU coach not be intense for even one second, Shockers point guard Fred VanVleet thought. "Not that I've seen," he said.
On the day before Wichita State is to face Kentucky in a game that, should the Shockers lose, will open their magical season up to skeptics who consider it mostly the result of a soft schedule, Marshall was polished, relaxed and funny in his news conference.
A coach who has traveled a most unlikely path to this point laughed at the pressure of being 35-0. "I don't want to be relieved at this point. I want the pressure to last a few more weeks, if possible," Gregg Marshall said.