When Earl Grant scouts a high school player to decide if the kid can play basketball for him at the College of Charleston, a first thought always pops in his head:
“Could this kid play for Gregg?”
Grant doesn’t say that out loud. But whether a prospect could succeed under Gregg Marshall, Grant’s former boss at Winthrop and Wichita State, is the threshold.
“If he can, I’m like, ‘shoot, we might need to take this kid,’” Grant said.
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Grant has some Gregg Marshall-caliber players this season. He led College of Charleston to the Colonial Athletic Association tournament title March 6, his team erasing a 17-point second half deficit in the final minutes of regulation, before throttling Northeastern in overtime for the Cougars’ first NCAA Tournament bid since 1999.
Backed up against the cliched wall, the Cougars showed some of the toughness that Grant recognized from his three years (2004-07) as an assistant coach at Winthrop under Marshall.
“The underdog mentality, the junkyard dog mentality really came out,” he said.
Talking on the phone Wednesday morning, Grant sounded tired after a night celebrating his team’s championship. He’s at the start of a very tiring few weeks that will include at least one NCAA Tournament game, all the immense preparation and logistical organizing that goes into that, as well as the media attention that comes from making the tournament and the inevitable links to open head coaching jobs around the country that hook onto any promising young head coach.
Grant was a sophomore in college the last time a Cougars men’s basketball team played in the NCAA Tournament. Since the 1999 appearance, College of Charleston won 20 or more games 11 times and lost in six conference championship games.
“The program deserved to be in the Big Dance,” Grant said. “I’m glad we’re able to get it back to this moment.”
Coming to the CAA, Grant knew how much disappointment could result from the conference tournament.
“Big South was a one-bid league,” he said. “It lets you know how hard it is to win a championship. Knowing the importance of winning the regular season but how hard it is to win the conference championship really prepared me for something like this.”
Former Winthrop basketball players Antwon Harris and Chris Gaynor texted each other throughout the CAA final. They’ve maintained a close relationship with Grant, not unusual for members of Winthrop’s 2006-07 team which experienced triumphs and low points together.
Grant recruited Harris to Winthrop from junior college. And Grant was instrumental in helping Harris get his first coaching job and learn the business.
“Coach Grant, he’s a smooth operator,” said Harris, now an assistant women’s basketball coach at Longwood. “He’s that type of coach that doesn’t get riled up, he doesn’t show it. But he’s a big-time motivator.”
Blunt and animated, Marshall would chew out a Winthrop player in front of the whole team. Grant would then sidle up to the player and calm him down, but also reiterate Marshall’s point with a different delivery. Harris said Marshall needed Grant as a foil, and that’s why Grant followed the head coach to Wichita State in 2007. He joined Brad Brownell’s staff at Clemson in 2010, before taking over the Charleston program in 2014. His Cougars won nine games the first season, then 17, then 25 last year. The current squad is 26-7.
Marshall’s impact on Grant can be seen in how the protege coaches his teams to play on defense and how they attack loose and bouncing basketballs. Multiple times during Tuesday night’s CAA final, Grant, in his suit, crouched in a defensive stance on the sidelines, his arms spread wide.
Gaynor, who lives in nearby Goose Creek, watched all the CAA tournament games from the North Charleston Coliseum stands, including the final. He felt the lift from what was essentially a Cougars home crowd.
“It kind of brought back goosebumps of when we played at Winthrop,” said Gaynor, who worked closely with Grant, Winthrop’s point guards coach. “Having the crowd out there and the students rushing the floor, those are times you’ll never forget.”
There were other things Grant watched and learned from Marshall, like how to handle a tragedy. Winthrop basketball player DeAndre Adams’ tragic death in a 2007 car accident still sticks with Grant, even though he and Marshall were already at Wichita by that point. He has a framed picture of Adams in his office and says he devoted this season -- privately -- to Adams’ memory.
“The tenacity, no complaining-type of mentality, underdog,” said Grant. “Everyday I see him, I look at the picture in my office and it reminds me of that.”
When the horn sounded on Charleston’s CAA championship win, Grant didn’t hop up and down like Adams used to. But his extended bear hug with a Cougars player was captured by TV cameras.
“When you try to get there and finally get over the hump, it’s fun to watch,” said Harris. “Him and one of his players hugging and crying it out at the end of the game, I saved that video in my phone. It’s blood, it’s sweat and tears when you try and try and you’re almost there.”