College basketball's latest villain (hint: The Zags know him well)

Not to strike a downbeat note on a Gonzaga basketball program with a preseason No. 1 imprimatur, but we start today’s treatise with a question for Zag fans:

What’s the most gut-bombing, migraine-inducing, shivers-down-your-spine defeat in GU history?

No doubt, the 2006 NCAA-tournament loss to UCLA draws significant mention. Here were the Adam Morrison-led Zags, with a 17-point first-half lead, and a nine-point advantage with 3 ½ minutes left, all set to play Memphis in the regional final in Oakland. And it all came apart – like a K-Mart deck chair, the handicapper Greg Roberts used to say – in a torrent of mistakes, and it was UCLA that advanced all the way to the title game that year.

I might lobby for the Zags’ second-round loss in the 2013 tournament as a smidge worse. For one thing, they were a No. 1 seed as well as top-ranked for the first time, which clicks the klieg lights up to high-beam. And the Zags-as-tournament-underachiever narrative had already taken hold, so that defeat in Salt Lake City rallied the naysayers to their pitchforks and torches.

Here’s what’s off the top of my head: Wichita State blowing out to a 13-point first-half lead; Gonzaga nosing back into it, and seemingly taking shaky control with 12 minutes left on a three by Mike Hart to go up 49-41; the Shockers, not a good three-point shooting outfit, somehow hitting 14 of 28; Gary Bell, unable to play the second half on a bum ankle; and the Zags stumbling to the finish, even klutzing up an uncontested pass inbounding the ball.

If the UCLA loss was singularly devastating, this one seemed to make a broader case: that Gonzaga was never, ever going to get to a Final Four.

In a hotel bar that night, I shared beers with a writer from Wichita. Have to admit, I was a bit envious. He was, eventually, going on to a Final Four. I was going home to try to remember to put out the recycling on Wednesday morning. I wrote 20 Final Fours, but I never did cover a team that got me there, and there were several that could have.

There was a hard edge to that Wichita State team; you could feel it in its locker room the practice day before the game. Recently, we’re finding out why. Gregg Marshall, the coach, ran a remorselessly nasty ship. If we’re to believe reports in The Athletic and Stadium, Marshall at least once struck a player; he demeaned players regularly, sometimes invoking references to female anatomy; he barked racist words; and he generally made the lives of his roster miserable. He was a good enough coach to paper over the seamy stuff, until a mass exodus last spring got people to asking questions.

Nor did it start at Wichita. The Athletic detailed an anecdote from his previous coaching stop, at Winthrop, when he and his wife Lynn hosted the team for their two-year-old son’s birthday party. A player accidentally broke a plastic Wiffle ball, players said they’d get the toddler a new one, but when Marshall emerged, he grabbed a player and muscled him up against a wall before they were separated. One player involved in the incident quoted Lynn Marshall as saying, “I just hate when he gets like this.”

A lot of coaches practice tough-love. This isn’t that. This is abuse.

And this week, we learned the price-tag on abuse. Gregg Marshall lost his job at Wichita State. And he walks away with a $7.75-million buyout, which ought to keep him in Wiffle balls for a good while, until some woebegone institution introduces him at a press conference down the road, saying, “Gregg has learned from his mistake, and besides, everybody deserves a second chance.”

Nowadays, it’s impossible to scoop up all the ills of college athletics and shovel them into one bag, but the Marshall mess does its damnedest. The abuse part should speak for itself. You’d like to think we’re beyond that, but no. In some quarters – dying off, you’d hope – the end justifies the means, however repugnant.

Meanwhile, it’s the exit part of this saga that is rightly drawing attention. Gregg Marshall, credibly accused of being an abusive coach, skates off with almost eight mill. Wut?

Obviously, the school, which gets heavy support from conservative billionaire Charles Koch (his name is on the basketball arena), just wanted to be done with Marshall, which, narrowly viewed, is completely understandable. But it was also willing to throw a lot of money at him to make it happen, and in today’s college sports, that’s not uncommon. The Wichita Eagle newspaper interviewed two attorneys wise to the ways of sports contracts, and they pointed out the downside of simply firing Marshall with cause: It likely would result in a lawsuit, probably a long, messy one with dirty laundry aired publicly; and firing with cause is a dicey proposition, so it could be costly both in dollars and image.

But you find yourself wishing Wichita State would have seen it through, however risky, just to make a statement. Instead, the Shockers took the path of least resistance. Some would say that’s really the path of most expense, which is totally in sync with college sports these days.

A year ago, I recall reading, in astonishment, USA Today’s comprehensive, annual look at college-football coaches salaries. What the report focused on were the buyouts that have become de rigueur in today’s contracts. If memory serves, Gus Malzahn of Auburn, perpetually, seeming to be on the hot seat, would have been owed something like $27 million if fired for not winning enough. Lesser names like Jeff Brohm of Purdue would be due north of $20 million.

Well, guess what? Those numbers have been made to look like the change you find under your seat as you vacuum at the local car wash. According to USA Today’s last analysis a month ago, Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M – who entered the season accompanied by some nervous coughing among Aggie donors – would be due $53,125,000 if A&M wanted to turn him loose. I count 14 coaches who would be due $20 million or more if fired without cause, and not all of them on stable ground.

Wait’ll Mark Few, the Gonzaga coach, hears about those numbers. Yes, this is basketball, not football. But he’s taken the Zags to 21 straight NCAA tournaments and five straight Sweet 16s.

Yeah, there have been bumps along the way, a notable one administered by Wichita State and Gregg Marshall seven years ago. Sometimes, you lose to titans. Sometimes you lose to scofflaws.