By DAVE SKRETTA
ATLANTA — Gregg Marshall sat in his office on the campus of Wichita State on a cold January morning, his familiar eye glasses set aside, and gazed at the championship nets nailed to the wall.
Every one of them represents a league title he won at Winthrop. Seven in all.
Seven times in nine seasons he took the tiny school in South Carolina to the NCAA tournament, and he insists that he would have been perfectly content doing the same thing for the better part of another decade. He’s not the sort to uproot his family, jump to the next best thing, the bigger job with the bigger salary, especially when they too often turn out to be a mirage.
So it took the right opportunity at the right time for Marshall to leave for Wichita State, where he now has the Shockers in the Final Four. And he insisted back in the quiet solitude of his office that it would take the right opportunity at the right time to pry him loose again.
“You can’t buy happy,” Marshall said. “Winning is important to me, and we’ve proven we can win here. And so it would have to be really, really special, and the timing would have to be right, and it’s not just me. It’s my players and the players I recruited and my family.”
There was a time not so long ago that Marshall’s steadfast dedication to the Shockers would have run countercurrent to big-time college basketball. The coaching ladder was one to be climbed until your arms gave out, until you reached the pinnacle of the sport — or until you fell.
So there was Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who will oppose Marshall on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, skipping town after five years at Boston University to become an assistant for the New York Knicks. And there he was after just two years and an improbable Final Four run at Providence in the late 1980s, leaving to take over the same NBA team as its head coach.
That was how it was done. Tackle your current challenge, and look for a bigger one. Nobody seemed to think that Pitino would coach the Friars for a decade, not even him.
“During my era, everybody was leaving,” Pitino said. “Including myself.”
This is a new era, though, and what was once taken as gospel is no longer true. Bigger isn’t always better. More money does not mean more happiness. Success can be had anywhere.
The result has been that more coaches than ever are finding long-term contentment at places long considered mid-majors, and those heavyweights of the BCS era are finding it harder and harder to lure away successful coaches to rebuilding jobs that offer little guarantee.
Average salaries have risen so dramatically the last few years that the financial incentive to jump jobs has mostly dissolved, and the Butlers and VCUs and Gonzagas have proven that schools beyond traditional powers can have just as much success in the NCAA tournament.
“There’s a fragile line in our industry, too, and that fragile line is how hard it is to get a job, how hard it is to get a good job,” said Marquette coach Buzz Williams. “And of the small collection of good jobs, how hard it is to have a good job and make it a great job.”
Once a good job becomes great, it’s only natural that coaches would be reluctant to leave.
Look at Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who began his career as a graduate assistant at the small private school in Washington, became a full-time assistant in the 1990s and then took over as the head coach in 1999. He has remained there ever since. The ‘Zags rose to No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time this season, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and along the way have shattered every notion that they can’t compete.
There are other examples, too.
After winning 166 games and reaching a pair of national title games, nobody has managed to drive a wedge between Brad Stevens and Butler. Shaka Smart is still at VCU after his Final Four run a couple years ago, and Jim Larranaga spent 11 seasons at Bowling Green and another 14 seasons at George Mason — with a Final Four of his own — before he left for Miami last season.
“You have so much invested in these kids. You have so much invested in your program,” said La Salle coach John Giannini, who has spent the past nine seasons at the Philadelphia school, and whose team lost to the Shockers in a regional semifinal this year.
“Coaches who have been at a school as long as I have now,” he said, “you care about a lot of the people there and you appreciate the school and what they’ve done for you and your family.”
There were 51 coaching changes in men’s Division I basketball last season, including 10 at BCS-member institutions, a three-year low and a drop from 57 changes the previous year. As of April 1, there had only been 31 changes this offseason for a turnover of just over 11 percent, far below the 20-year average of 15.3 percent. By comparison, nearly 1 in 5 jobs changed hands as recently as 2008, and the turnover rate was more than 20 percent just 10 years prior.
There will undoubtedly be more turnover — Rutgers fired Mike Rice on Wednesday after video surfaced of him physically and verbally abusing his players. But the fact is the coaching carousel may finally be slowing down, and there are two obvious reasons why.
Winning is one of them: It’s easier to have sustainable success in the Colonial Athletic Association than, say, the Big Ten. Improving compensation at mid-majors is the other.
More than three dozen coaches in Division I are making seven figures this season, led by Kentucky coach John Calipari at better than $6 million. But his replacement at Memphis, Josh Pastner, will rake in more than $2 million this season, while Marshall has a chance to approach the same level once all the incentives from the Shockers’ tournament run are factored in.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, compensation at non-automatic-qualifying schools such as Butler and VCU increased by 44 percent to an average of more than $500,000 last season, not including bonus incentives.
That’s not to say coaches won’t weigh opportunities that come up. Andy Enfield parlayed his surprising run at Florida Gulf Coast into a high-profile job at USC, and with it came a massive increase in salary, better resources and the chance to prove himself in the Pac-12. The latter could be said of Steve Alford, who went from Iowa to New Mexico and, just a few days ago, on to UCLA.
But it is becoming just as common for coaches such as Marshall to stay put at the Wichita States of the world, and the price of hiring them away appears to be only going up.
“I’ve had offers. I mean, I’ve had two offers in excess of $1.9 million. Two,” Marshall said. “I’m very well taken care of here, and I’ve got a long-term contract. It’s basically a seven-year roll over, which means it’s really a nine-year contract, and it’s into the seven figures.
“I could retired here very easily,” he added. “We lack nothing. We have no built-in excuses. If we’re not successful, it’s my fault.”
Many mid-major coaches are feeling the same way.