Southeastern Louisiana assistant men’s basketball coach Tyson Waterman was in a meeting with his players earlier this week.
The Lions are 9-20, and few would give them much chance of winning the Southland Conference tournament, which begins next week. Waterman told his players a story about a Winthrop team that he played on in 1998-99 that did something nobody thought was possible.
Waterman, as proud a Winthrop alum as can be found, told his players the story of a team that epitomized Winthrop basketball’s late season success. A team that sparked a run of wins and personal triumphs that for about 12 years became as much a part of March as flower bulbs popping free in newly warming air.
It’s March again, and before Southeastern Louisiana and Winthrop try to birth some new March memories, why not dust off a few old ones to get the blood pumping?
Gregg Marshall was always able to create a chip on his teams’ shoulders. The 1998-99 squad was the easiest.
That was Marshall’s first season at Winthrop. He inherited a 7-20 team at a school with essentially no history of Big South basketball success, a situation that led to an obvious mantra: “worst to first.”
“That was our slogan,” said Waterman, the point guard on that team who had his No. 41 jersey retired. “He asked us to believe in his vision and give him the opportunity to lead us and do it his way, because the way it was being done wasn’t working.”
“Worst to first” was quickly embraced by the team, which still featured seven players from the preceding Dan Kenney era. Waterman was back with the team after academic issues forced him to sit out the year prior. Before he rejoined the program, he had a meeting with Marshall.
“I had to sacrifice a lot of my abilities to score the basketball to become the true point guard,” said Waterman. “It was hard for me, and trust me it wasn’t all peaches and cream during practices and watching film. A lot of things happened in those film rooms, man. It was a big adjustment for everyone.”
Marshall’s first year in Rock Hill was the birth of “Play Angry,” a mantra he still uses at Wichita State. Waterman said that Marshall would show the team statistics from its 7-20 season the year before and ask them “what are you gonna do to change it?”
The Eagles were eager to shed the losing vibe. Winthrop won 12 straight Big South games before falling to Radford in the final game of the regular season. No matter; the Eagles got revenge in the conference championship game, dropping the Highlanders 86-74 and earning the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance, much to the delight of a Rock Hill community that was suddenly paying attention.
That first team wasn’t shackled with the expectations that hounded later Big South championship teams. Far from already thinking about the tournament selection show or seeding, Waterman and company were free to fully soak up the win, and how far they had progressed in just a year.
“I always tell people, that feeling – other than graduating and walking across the stage and getting that diploma – that was the greatest feeling I’ve probably ever had when we were able to cut down that net as conference champions,” said Waterman. “The feeling is something that I wish every young player that comes to Winthrop gets the chance to be a part of. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Pierre Wooten had a very successful career at Winthrop in the early 2000s. He led the 2002-03 team into the NCAA tournament as a 16-seed against No. 1 Duke. But before the Eagles played the Blue Devils in Dayton, Ohio, not far from Wooten’s hometown of Cincinnati, the Winthrop upperclassmen had a little business to finish.
At that time, there was an unwritten ritual that the older players in the program shaved the heads of new players, whether they were freshmen or transfers. One player, junior college transfer Tywan Harris, had avoided this fate during his entire junior year, and for much of his senior season too. After a team film session the night before the Duke game, the Winthrop guys headed back to their hotel rooms to play video games and relax for the night.
“That’s when we got him,” said Wooten.
Marcus Stewart, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound all-conference senior forward that the players called “Deebo,” after the hulking character from the movie “Friday,” grabbed Harris and subdued him.
One problem: they couldn’t shave Harris’ head because he had cornrows. The group had already decided to take off his eyebrows instead.
“Nobody was gonna come through there and not get their head shaved or something,” said Wooten.
He remembered contemplating a jump out of the window of his dorm as a freshman when his time to get shaved arrived. “I thought I was all big and strong. They got me too.”
Eventually the ritual ended, though Wooten doesn’t know why. He contended that it wasn’t hazing or even about establishing hierarchy.
“These are things that we want you to pass on down because you’ve got to go through this,” said Wooten. “Coaches were fine with it because they knew what we were trying to do. There was a method to the madness of getting them mentally tough.”
If there was one binding characteristic in all of Winthrop’s NCAA tournament teams, it was toughness. And that went for those with bald or fully-haired heads or eyebrows that were bushy and full, or post-shave smooth.
Wooten said the ultimate message of the hair-shaving was: “Just because we won, didn’t mean you won. You’ve got to earn your stripes.”
Michael Jenkins was a member of four straight Winthrop Big South championship teams. Ask him which team he enjoyed the most and he says the 2006-07 team. But if you ask the Kinston, N.C., native which of the title-winning teams means the most, he says 2007-08.
“I like that one especially for all the meaning behind it, the foundation for that game, everything that brought us to that point,” said Jenkins, speaking last week from Turkey, where he is playing professionally.
That year’s team, Randy Peele’s first after Marshall left for Wichita State, didn’t produce the same dominance as the year before, and Jenkins, Gaynor, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris were embarrassed on senior night by UNC Asheville in a 63-50 regular-season-ending loss. Winthrop had to play on the road in the conference tournament for the first time in Jenkins’ four years. But when the teams met again seven days later in the conference championship game, the senior 3-point sniper was ready.
“I knew what we had to do,” Jenkins said. “The regular season was one thing, but once it got conference time it was a whole ’nother game. As one of the leaders of the team, I wanted to make sure that happened.”
He was playing for more than himself that night. About 10 months earlier, Jenkins had made a promise to the father and grandmother of De’Andre Adams that the Eagles would win the 2008 conference tournament in his honor. Adams was killed in a car wreck near his native Austell, Ga., robbing the team of one its funniest personalities and best spirits.
There had been slips and falls along the way during the first season with Peele as the head man, but there Winthrop was, facing up to Asheville and its 7-foot-7 giant Kenny George on the Bulldogs’ home court with an NCAA bid on the table. Before the game, Jenkins remembers no talking, laughing, anything before the game. He said Adams was on his mind the entire tournament.
Jenkins played all 40 minutes, hitting six 3-pointers and scoring 33 points in probably the best performance of his college career. As the clock ran down on Winthrop’s 66-48 win, the Eagles fans in Asheville began chanting “DeAndre, DeAndre.”
“Just to overcome all of that stuff and to come out at and prove in the end that we were still the team to beat,” said Jenkins, “it was a joy.”
Will Plyler coaches the junior-varsity boys’ basketball team at Clover. One of his duties after the final horn is to shake the opposing coach’s hand and then grab his team’s game ball.
That was also his job as a manager for the men’s basketball team at Winthrop from 2006 to 2008. There’s one ball that Plyler chased that he’ll always remember.
Winthrop, in the midst of a dream season under Marshall in which the Eagles set a record for single-season wins and also claimed the school’s first NCAA tournament victory, blasted Charleston Southern and UNC Asheville in the first two Big South Conference tournament games, setting up a final at Winthrop Coliseum against upstart VMI.
The Keydets had put together a giant-killing run, beating the No. 3 and No. 2 teams in the conference to reach the final against the No. 1 Eagles. Because Winthrop was the top seed, the game was played in Rock Hill. Winthrop Coliseum was sold out, the third time that season.
Managers took turns sitting on the bench during games, and Plyler was seated at the end of the bench with trainer Jeff Lahr for the conference championship game. A tight game came down to the final play. VMI had an in-bounds under the Winthrop basket with nine seconds left, so Plyler was already leaning in toward the court, ready to dash on to the floor and celebrate. When VMI star Reggie Williams’ last-chance 3 clanged off the rim, Plyler shot onto the court.
“I was trying to find one of the players but they were embracing so I ran straight for the basketball,” said Plyler. “One of my jobs all year after the game ends, we’ve got to get that ball. I wanted to hug a player, but I’ve got to go get that basketball.”
Students rushed on to the floor from the opposite direction, filling the court with humanity in a matter of seconds. Plyler said running on the floor was kind of a blur, but he still has two strands of the victory net that the team cut down. That was a neat memento for a student manager, one who, as Plyler said Monday, wasn’t the low man on the totem pole, but the sand that the totem pole sat upon. Those strands of net are proof that when March comes around, every member of the Winthrop basketball program counts.
“It was an incredible feeling,” said Plyler. “Being a part of it every day, and you see the grind and the ebbs and flows, guys bringing their baggage from outside, but they still come to work everyday and had a mentality of ‘we’re getting it done.’”
Chris Gaynor was the starting point guard on four straight Big South championship squads at Winthrop from 2004 to 2008. Before that, he earned the starting job as a freshman on his high school team, a gig he never relinquished. It was before that first ninth grade start that Gaynor began a curious and largely unavoidable pregame ritual that became an unmentioned staple of Winthrop’s March success. He vomited before nearly every game.
“I was just anxious to get out there, thinking what-if, what if this, what if he makes me fall,” remembers Gaynor. “I was a scrawny (high school) freshman going up against a senior who is very fast, stronger than me and has been playing longer than me, and so ever since then, that was just my pregame ritual.”
Winthrop’s all-time leader in career minutes played and games started said it wasn’t nerves that caused his physiological pregame reaction.
“It was more anxiety,” said Gaynor, who lives and works in Charleston. “I have a condition that I still take medicine today for. I was never nervous playing basketball my whole life.”
While his Winthrop teammates were getting up shots during warm-ups, Gaynor would slip back into the locker room to do his deed in private. Gaynor said if he didn’t do it, he knew something was wrong. His dad could tell from the stands because Gaynor’s play would suffer.
“When I did, I just felt like I would be okay,” he said. “It would be a good game.”
Gaynor remembered a game where he ate too soon before tip-off – a McChicken from McDonald’s – and then wretched on the court. That was the only time his pregame routine was revealed to Winthrop Coliseum fans. He was already well known to them before that, a consummate point guard who never averaged more than 9.9 points per game in his career, and yet was a crucial spoke in the program’s success. The four championship rings that he won are shiny reminders of Gaynor’s role in a program that put team first.
“Each ring, I can just point out specific events that happened that year, the times I had with those guys, and the bond we created,” said Gaynor. “When I think of March Madness and Winthrop I think of all the things that paid off to get us those rings.”
March is much easier on Gaynor’s gag reflex now.
“I don’t get nervous watching anybody else play,” he said.
By the time Mantoris Robinson arrived on Winthrop’s campus from Charlotte in 2006, the men’s basketball program was really starting to roll. He remembered stepping into a fiercely competitive environment that made everyone better, and that helped the Eagles thrive in March.
“With the team that we had, we challenged each other,” said Robinson. “We never looked at our opponents; we looked at our team and how can we make our team better?”
Robinson, now an assistant coach at Appalachian State, remembered a walk-on, later confirmed as Marc-Jean Vil, playing Michael Jenkins one-on-one for a jersey number. Jenkins won, but it showed the closeness of the team, that even low-ranking walk-ons were comfortable enough within the team structure to challenge established starters. And it underscored the competitiveness engendered by Marshall.
“It carried throughout the season and on into the NCAA tournament,” said Robinson. “That’s how you’re supposed to be. You’re a freshman, a walk-on, that’s the kind of confidence we tried to instill in each other because you have to have that kind of mentality if you want to be a champion.”
That intensity is a quality that Robinson is trying to instill in the Appalachian program.
“When you get to the tournament, and you’ve already won rings, you think you’re at a level and you go to a whole ’nother level,” said Robinson. “The focus was completely different. You’re looking at the finish line and you see nobody else around you. And that’s the way it was with that team.”
Kelvin Thomas was Winthrop athletics’ videographer from 2005 to 2014. He’s shot video of sporting events for more than 20 years and seen many pregame speeches. Few have clung to him like Marshall’s pregame speech before Winthrop upset Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2007.
“I take the fan’s point out of it. It’s work to me,” said Thomas earlier this week. “But there have been a couple of times in 20-something years where I just couldn’t do it, and that was it.”
The 2006-07 Eagles had established a new level of success in the Big South; they were the conference’s first team to be ranked nationally, the first to win 20 games in three straight years, and also the first to run through their 14 league games unbeaten. But the coaches and players were still simmering from a last-second loss to Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament the year before. If Winthrop was to ever graduate from pesky March darling, it needed to win a tournament game.
Marshall’s speech before the Notre Dame game spawned from this very feeling.
“In some ways I remember it and in some ways I don’t,” said Thomas, who now lives in Greenville, N.C. “Here is why...”
Thomas said that being in that locker room in the Spokane Arena in Spokane, Wash., he just knew something special was about to happen.
“Moments like that in your life, whether it’s sports, weddings, it could be anything, sometimes you just kind of zone out,” he said. “The magnitude of the situation is so great. So in that way, I don’t remember a whole lot.”
There are two things Thomas remembers clearly. The first was how unburdened and loose Marshall seemed in the locker room while the players were on the court warming up. Thomas usually stayed behind in the locker room to get “b roll,” video of Marshall looking pensive or writing on a dry erase board that could later be used with a voice-over or music. If Marshall looked nervous or serious before the game, Thomas’ camera would capture the image.
“That game, he was really calm. Matter of fact, he was so calm, he was joking around,” Thomas remembers. “He didn’t seem nervous at all. I was like, ‘okay, you guys are probably gonna go out here and beat Notre Dame and make history,’ and he was making jokes.”
Thomas doesn’t remember the particulars of the speech, one he felt was probably ad-libbed. Thomas does vividly remember Marshall telling his players “do what you do.” He implored his players to stay in their role and their skill set and play to the best of their ability. This was a staple quality of Winthrop’s best teams, the acceptance and fulfillment of specific roles.
The last thing Thomas remembers is how Marshall closed the speech, and multiple people interviewed for this compilation of memories remembered it as well. Marshall told his players that Notre Dame was already confirmed to appear in the following day’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Spokane, an allusion that the Fighting Irish felt beating Winthrop in the first round was a foregone conclusion. Whether Notre Dame was actually booked for the parade or not has never been confirmed.
Regardless, Marshall told the team, “there’s not gonna be any damn parade.”
“Everybody in there just knew Winthrop was going to win,” said Thomas, laughing at the thought. “It was incredible.”