Wichita State should erect a statue of Jim Schaus.
And I’m not kidding.
The Shockers’ basketball program was headed nowhere fast when Schaus took over as athletic director in 1999. And he went out and found the solution for the program’s ills by hiring Mark Turgeon away from Jacksonville State.
When Turgeon left in 2007 after seven mostly-successful seasons to coach at Texas A&M, Schaus pursued Gregg Marshall, then the coach at Winthrop. And he bagged him.
Schaus hit two grand slams, and the first came as the Shockers were facing total irrelevance.
Remember, Wichita State was 127-188 during the 11 seasons preceding the Turgeon hire. The Shockers couldn’t get out of their own way. The decision to give Mike Cohen the coaching job after Eddie Fogler left for Vanderbilt after the 1988-89 season remains as one of the worst in Shocker athletics history.
Cohen, an assistant on Fogler’s staff, simply wasn’t ready for the job. And the program went downhill fast.
After four seasons, Cohen was fired and Scott Thompson was hired away from Rice. It looked like a good move because the Owls were making some noise as a basketball program, which had rarely happened before.
But Thompson, despite being one of the best guys I’ve ever been around, could not connect with players. Wichita State continued to spin its wheels, rarely winning a road game and playing for a fan base that was becoming more apathetic with every defeat.
Finally, after an 8-21 season in 1995-96, Thompson was fired by athletic director Bill Belknap, a congenial sort who lacked the connections to make an insightful hire.
So he went for the safe hire, bringing Shocker favorite son Randy Smithson over from Butler Community College to coach the Shockers.
Smithson was a standout player on some of the best and most exciting WSU teams ever during the early 1980s. He was plucky and engaging and highly successful at the junior college level. That apathetic fan base welcomed Smithson with open arms.
And then they waited. And waited. And waited some more. Wichita State basketball improved under Smithson. The Shockers became essentially a .500 team. But that’s where it ended.
Smithson encountered issues with his two best players, Maurice Evans and Jason Perez. Evans eventually transferred to Texas. And Schaus, in his first major act as AD, decided to replace Smithson after the 1999-2000 season.
He went and hired Turgeon, a former point guard at Kansas. You may have heard about what most Shocker fans think of Kansas.
But Turgeon started to win over the Shockers’ fan base with an outstanding recruiting class that included Randy Burns, Jamar Howard, Rob Kampman and Paul Miller. They would become the backbone of a team that would ultimately go from 15-15 in Turgeon’s second season to 19-12, 21-11 and 22-10. In 2005-06, the Shockers broke through to the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 before losing to George Mason.
Turgeon was a hero. But he may have stayed one year too long.
The Shockers started the 2006-07 season with nine straight wins and vaulted into the upper echelon of the national rankings. Then the bottom fell out, starting with two losses in a tournament in Las Vegas and continuing the rest of the season. WSU lost 14 of its last 22 games and Turgeon left after the season for the riches of Texas A&M.
Schaus had been impressed two seasons earlier with the coaching style of Marshall at Winthrop. He had seen Marshall up close during the NCAA Tournament’s first- and second-round at Greensboro, N.C., where the Shockers had also been sent. And like good athletic directors do, he filed away that impression for another day.
Marshall’s success at WSU followed a similar path to that of Turgeon. The Shockers were bad in Marshall’s first season (11-20), then became much better in his second year, going 17-17.
In 2009-10, Marshall’s third season, the team took off, winning 25 games. Then 29 and an NIT championship, 27 and an NCAA Tournament appearance and 30 with a spot in the Final Four.
And now, in Marshall’s seventh season, Wichita State is 34-0 and likely headed for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
Somewhere, Jim Schaus, who left WSU in 2008 to become athletic director at Ohio, is smiling. And Shocker fans should be smiling back while down on their knees. He rescued Wichita State basketball by hiring two outstanding coaches. That should never be forgotten.