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After enabling and ignoring Gregg Marshall's antics, Wichita State deserves this mess

Pete Thamel
·6-min read

There are plenty of jarring and disgusting details in the reports that emerged on Thursday about Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. There are allegations of punching a player, choking an assistant coach and using racist language, all uncovered in reporting by The Athletic and Stadium.

Amid the despicable details, one stands as particularly vexing to Wichita State and its administration. The anecdote that will reverberate most on campuses provides an HD portrait of all of Marshall’s defining traits — ego, narcissism and vanity. And it’s also perhaps the most relatable to anyone who has worked in an athletic department, been around college athletics or trafficked in an industry where self-reverence so often trumps servant leadership.

The Athletic reported that Marshall had a confrontation with a student who parked in Marshall’s parking spot outside the athletic facility. Marshall blocked the student’s car at an intersection and screamed, according to The Athletic, “Do you know who the f- - - I am?”

To the student’s credit, they fired right back in equally colorful language that they didn’t care. The Athletic then reported that Marshall attempted to punch the student through the window.

That anecdote rings so loudly amid all of the allegations because that is exactly who the f- - - Gregg Marshall is. In a controversial story that was notable for near-universal agreement on how believable it was, the parking lot story stuck out because it’s so true to Marshall’s character.

Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall instructs his players against Tulsa in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Joey Johnson)
Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall instructs his players against Tulsa in the first half of a college basketball game in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Feb. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Joey Johnson)

It’s also utterly confounding how athletic and university leadership failed in any meaningfully way to alter his behavior, as stories like that ricochet around athletic departments at warp speed.

But there was clearly no one with enough power — or perhaps incentive — to sit Marshall down and tell him he couldn’t get away with overt acts of oafishness. Similar to the video that circulated of Marshall getting thrown out of an exhibition game in Canada that may long set the low bar for poor sideline behavior by a coach.

The details reported by The Athletic and Stadium are sickening: Marshall punching former player Shaq Morris, according to The Athletic, “between his shoulders and near his neck.” Marshall choking a former assistant coach, racially taunting a former player and body shaming another. The behavior explains, in part, the anomalous exodus of transfers from Wichita State in recent seasons, which included six players and a walk-on this spring.

The portrait that emerges from the stories isn’t just one of a deranged coach. It veers into an ethically challenged university allowing a coach to act this way. Ultimately, this shows how a small-time university thirsty for a sliver of national fame enabled its star coach instead of deterring his behavior and demanding change. To say that the athletic department and university higher-ups didn’t hear about this behavior means that they pressed their palms firmly against their ears and screamed loud enough to drown out the bad news.

To be fair to Wichita State, it’s reportedly running an investigation into the allegations about Marshall’s behavior. And Marshall himself has essentially denied any wrongdoing, as he told the Wichita Eagle: “What I am not is demeaning or abusive. I have deep respect for all my players. I believe unequivocally in their value as athletes, as students, and as people. Any portrayal of me to the contrary is wrong.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Wichita State has yet to suspend Marshall. This is a sign of both its apathy to public perception and an indicator that it has tolerated his boorish behavior for so long that it needs the comfortable cover of an outside investigation to discipline, or perhaps fire, Marshall. (Wichita State certainly tolerated the preposterous behavior of Marshall’s wife, Lynn, whose low-brow heckling and behavior in the stands has long branded her the most infamous first coaching lady in all of the sport. There’s really not a close second.)

With more than $6 million at stake in the remainder of Marshall’s contract, the university that conveniently never found cause for Marshall’s dismissal as he was leading it to the Final Four, into a better conference and near-annual trips to the NCAA tournament is making it clear that it wants someone outside to determine what happened.

And considering Wichita State has staged Marshall’s one-man theater of the absurd for this long, let’s not assume it’s going to fire him. Surely, any university president who chooses to keep Marshall would be sneered at in higher education. And any athletic director who continues to work with him would be tethered to Marshall’s wrecked reputation for the remainder of his career.

But Marshall’s contract has been among the most generous in the sport because of the Koch Brothers, the billionaires who’ve propped up the Wichita State athletic department with their money. Charles Koch once famously “encouraged” Marshall to stay when Alabama called after the 2015 season.

Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall gestures in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall gestures in the second half of a college basketball game against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

To get rid of Marshall appears obvious. But it also seems obvious that the distinct pattern of misbehavior would have been caught, corrected, reprimanded or altered at some point. Instead, the players were pawns in the way of Marshall showing the world his genius, and the reports show that he got comfortable pushing and prodding them past the points of common decency and behavior to uphold that genius.

Marshall has always been one of the most awkward coaches in the country. He loved to talk openly about how much money he made, how much his jeans cost and would share stories that showed off either his wealth or genius. It’s a reason why no blue blood ever made a strong push for him the same way they did for VCU’s Shaka Smart or Butler’s Brad Stevens. Marshall had a reputation for being so defiantly in love with Marshall that he wasn’t worth the headaches. (His wife didn’t help matters.)

Marshall also stuck around because he knew he could lord over the school, city and basketball-crazed area. He could be the big man on campus, and bully anyone he wanted.

Two things happened to the administrators, who clearly did little administrating. They either completely let him run so unchecked to the point where allegedly inflicting harm on players and staff was normalized. Or, the more likely answer, they heard rumblings of his parking lot rage, player confrontations and racist language and simply looked the other way. Let the wins pile up, the money flow and the din of electric winter nights on the court drown out the behavior off it.

Here’s the thing about enabling somebody like that: Abdicating leadership in exchange for wins and ignoring warning signs that appear in front of you are like midnight fireworks. Eventually, the bills come due.

At Wichita State, the bills came due on a dark Thursday. And the most revealing reaction is that no one is surprised. Everyone by now knows exactly who Gregg Marshall is.

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