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Marlin Did It His Way: The Right Way – From the Bird’s Nest

I remember my first conversation with Bob Marlin.

It was in his office the day after he was hired (I had been out of town the day of the announcement.)  We visited for about an hour.  Some of the conversation had to do with business (coach’s radio show, timing of pre-game talk, post-game visits, etc.)

But a lot of the talk was just about philosophy.  Not X’s and O’s philosophy, but rather, running a program philosophy.  Marlin made it clear he would push academics.  Now I’ve heard that from coaches before.  But I could tell by looking at him, he meant it.  He also talked about embracing the history of the program, something I had never heard a coach say.  He talked about team, and discipline.  Those who didn’t believe in both were welcome to find another place to play.

I already knew about Bob Marlin’s success at Sam Houston State.  I had talked with several people who follow the Southland Conference.  They said, quite simply, that the Cajuns had hired the best coach that league had.

Marlin immediately made good on his promise to embrace the history of the program.  He immediately forged a relationship with legendary Coach Beryl Shipley.  He reached out to Jim Hatfield and Bobby Paschal.  He learned about past successes.  He said later one of the reasons he agreed to come to Louisiana is it had the reputation of being a “basketball school.”  Indeed, some of the athletic programs’ biggest successes had been on the basketball court, including nine NCAA Division I appearances.  Of all those who coached the Cajuns, everyone from Shipley to Robert Lee, had an appearance in the “Big Dance” except Hatfield, who was only at the school for three years.  Marlin learned much about the Cajuns’ fan base and how they yearned for a winner in basketball again.

Then the first season began, and it all fell apart.

Although the Cajuns returned a good nucleus, including seniors Travis Bureau, LaRyan Gary and Randall Daigle, things just didn’t go well.  The Cajuns were mired with a 3-14 record.  Marlin and his staff, with the help of others, organized a reunion of Cajuns’ coaches and players from the past.  He told me later he was embarrassed because the team had played so poorly to that point.

But, with the team struggling, Marlin did something over the holidays that made his team better in the long run.

He pulled some weeds.

Marlin dismissed two players who he felt were hurting the team in the locker room; players who had trouble adjusting to Marlin’s system, philosophy and discipline.  It still took a few games for everything to come together.  But, beginning with reunion weekend, the Cajuns and Marlin righted the ship.  Daigle adjusted to coming off the bench when Marlin inserted a freshman named Bryant Mbamalu into the starting lineup because he was a better defender.  Bureau elevated his game.  The newcomers started to make more of a contribution.  And, senior forward LaRyan Gary inspired his team, the fans and everyone associated with the program with his courageous play, despite being in tremendous pain after coming back from a horrific knee injury.  The Cajuns came from nowhere to win eleven in a row, and get a tie for the division title.  The season came to an end with a loss in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.  But the groundwork had been laid.

Despite losing three important cogs, the Cajuns and Marlin had high hopes for year two.  Three starters returned.  Josh Brown, who missed a good part of the previous season, was back.  And, Marlin added some size with senior transfer Darshawn McClellan and junior college transfer Kadeem Coleby.  And, there was another new player, a late signee and lightly recruited guard named Elfrid Payton.

The Cajuns played well enough.  They finished ten and six in conference play.  But there were issues.  The locker room was partially divided.  An assistant coach was subversive.  Two players who had been starters the year before, were now coming off the bench and they didn’t like it.

And, the man who insisted it was all about team, pulled some more weeds.  But this time, they were players who had played a lot of minutes.  Two who started and made big contributions the previous season, were told by Marlin they were suspended for the conference tournament.  McClellan and Payton had replaced them in the starting lineup and the players didn’t handle it well.

So Marlin handled it for them.

Then he fired the assistant that wasn’t on the same page as the rest of the staff.  That coach became vindictive and talked three players into transferring out of the program.

Brown, David Perez, Scottie Farrington and McClellan were gone, having been part of senior night.  The two suspended players left the program.  Coleby, freshman Kentuan Smith and junior Darnell Jackson said adios.

And, after all that happened, I knew for certain the Cajuns basketball program would be fine.

Marlin’s decisions to pull the weeds and dismiss the players and coach who had caused issues in the locker room meant his timetable for success would be pushed back.  But he steadfastly held to his decision, believing in the long run, his program would be better off.

And, when he made those decisions, I knew for certain the basketball program was in the right hands.

To use a burned out cliche, Marlin not only talked the talk, he walked the walk.  The ideals he talked about in our first conversation were things he held onto, regardless of what it meant on the court.  The players were working hard in the classroom.  Those who were a part of the history were included.  And, Marlin made sure the it was the team, not the individuals on it, that came first.

But there was going to be a price to pay.  Marlin would have to rebuild.  And, he was going to take a lot of criticism from impatient fans who didn’t quite understand what the journey was all about.  Marlin would be criticized for his ability to recruit and retain players.

And, that’s exactly what happened.

The Cajuns never went on a long losing streak, but they lost three in a row three different times.  They won back to back games only twice during the season.  And, for the first time in his career, a Bob Marlin coached team lost twenty games.

Marlin and his staff believed the 2013-14 season could be a breakthrough year for the Cajuns.  His young team was a year older.  They had lost only one senior.  They added a couple of more pieces to the puzzle.

But how special could it be considering the Cajuns were coming off a 20-loss season?

There were signs early.  A tournament championship at Coastal Carolina and a win in Ruston against a very good Louisiana Tech team were signs the season could be a good one.  Conversely, there were also losses at Jackson State, UL Monroe and South Alabama.

The Cajuns started 3-2 in conference play and had a good overall record at 12-6.  But then Louisiana lost three in a row, two of the losses at home.  The third was a game at UALR that the players said later was the turning point. 

And it was a game when Marlin’s discipline came into play.

He suspended post man Shawn Long for the game for what was termed “conduct detrimental to the team.”  The team lost 80-69, but came together like never before.

And then they got on a roll.  The Cajuns won eight of their last ten to get to 20-11.  They earned the #3 seed in the conference tournament.  And they were a confident bunch heading to New Orleans in their quest for an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

On the night of their quarterfinal game against UT Arlington, five members of the Cajuns’ basketball team were honored for their ACADEMIC achievements.  That was the largest number of honorees of any team in the league.  Again, Marlin made good on his word that academics would be an integral part of his program.

And, then the Cajuns took care of business on the court. All of the games were close:  a four point win over UTA…a one point win over #2 seed Western Kentucky.  And, then, a one point overtime win over regular season champion Georgia State.

The Cajuns had a championship.

The ride ended in San Antonio last Friday with a second round loss to Creighton in the NCAA tournament.  But Cajun fans and fans around the Sun Belt Conference saw what a Bob Marlin coached team was really about.

It was a team with chemistry.  It was a team that played for team.  It was a group of unselfish young men that were only concerned with the statistic of winning.  And, it was a team that got it done on the academic side as well.

Now, it’s Marlin’s job to keep the program at a high level.  The Cajuns lose three seniors from that team.  And, the future of Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long is up in the air as we wait to see if one or both will declare for the NBA draft.

It would be unfair to expect the Cajuns to cut down the nets every season.  But it’s not unfair to expect this program to challenge in the Sun Belt on a regular basis.

Bob Marlin’s history says that’s what will happen.

And, it will happen his way.  The right way.

 

 

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