Wichita State Athletic Director Eric Sexton sits in his spacious office on the second floor of Koch Arena on the Tuesday after he watched the Wichita State men's basketball team earn its first trip to the Final Four in 48 years. But while he's clearly happy about the achievement, he also makes sure to mention that this is a place that Shocker basketball has been before.
"It was pretty exciting to be with Coach Marshall and our young men, to win the West Regional, to earn the right to go to the Final Four," Sexton says. "And it's pretty exciting to get back to where we've once been."
Whether it's this pride in the university's basketball tradition, or whether he's bought into the attitude the players on the team have taken toward this historic run, Sexton also doesn't seem to feel like this story has reached its end.
"The team did great, they're very excited, but, at the same time, the term I would use (is), 'pleased, but not satisfied.'"
The Heart and the Legs
A number of the Shocker players have compelling personal stories, but two who serve as shining examples of just what some of these guys have gone through to get to this point are seniors Malcolm Armstead and Carl Hall.
Armstead had just set the single season steals record at the University of Oregon-- for the second time-- in 2011, when it became clear to him that he wasn't getting what he wanted from the school. So he sought out Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who had recruited Armstead previously, and assistant coach Greg Heiar who had been Armstead's coach in junior college. The problem was, Wichita State didn't have any available scholarships at the time. Armstead came anyway.
"He chose to come to Wichita State, and paid his own out-of-state-tuition way, for a year... because he wanted to have an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament," Sexton says.
Hall, on the other hand, had nearly hung up his basketball shoes for good just a few years earlier.
"He had a heart condition that he was appropriately concerned that the thing that he loved to do-- which was to play basketball-- was going to be taken away from him," Sexton says.
After some time away from basketball, during which he worked in a factory, Hall decided that he couldn't stay away.
"He had to work through some very personal issues to be able to understand that his heart condition was not going to be a limiter to his ability to come back to play basketball," Sexton says.
"I'm so glad that he's here, because he's the heart, as well as Malcolm Armstead is the legs, of a great Shocker men's basketball program."
Watch Us Believe
No one can say that this, or any, basketball team is perfect. The Shockers lost their top five scorers from last season, four of this year's starters spent some-- or nearly all-- of the year out with injuries, and the team has occasionally (some would say, "often") struggled with its offense. Still, here they are, in the Final Four. Sexton says there are some good reasons for this.
"A lot of it goes to Coach Marshall and his leadership and how he recruits character," Sexton says. "But the one thing I would say is that: watch us believe. That's the most simple thing, is that they have developed a belief in themselves and each other that, when there are things that need to be done, whatever that is, they've stepped up to do it."
Sexton says that it's not just the play on the court that has made this Final Four run possible, it's also the kind of people these players really are.
"It's about the character of being able to believe in each other," Sexton says.
A Bigger Front Porch
It's hard to imagine that anyone would argue this Final Four won't have some kind of effect on Wichita State's athletic department. And Sexton agrees that more exposure is good. But he's also very quick to point out that this is not the only success story.
"Of course, success begets success," Sexton says, "but I would argue that (Track and Field) Coach Rainbolt had four All-Americans before the men's basketball team had their run... Coach Lamb's women's volleyball team made its Sweet Sixteen run in the NCAA (tournament) prior to those two things. So we have worked as a unit across our sports department, our athletic department, to create that environment of success."
Still, Sexton acknowledges that this level of publicity offers a much larger stage.
"Will this act as a broader window, a bigger front porch, that will allow folks to see what Shocker athletics is about? Of course," Sexton says. "As well as, it will act as a window to the University-- it's something that we've always known, we've always known that Wichita State is a great place."
Winning Social Media
The truth is, though, that Sexton and his department have been pretty good lately at getting the word out on their own about Wichita State Athletics. When he said "watch us believe," he was talking about the character of the Shocker basketball players, yes, but it was no accident that he used that phrase. The #WatchUs social media campaign has been wildly successful, crossing multiple platforms and giving fans an opportunity to connect with the University and each other across all of Wichita State's sports.
"Historically, what athletic departments sometimes do is they go, 'we market volleyball, we market baseball,' but what we said we were going to do this year is we were going to have a marketing campaign that acted as an umbrella across all of our sport programs," Sexton says. "And the #WatchUs provided that linking to try to brand Wichita State athletics in a very unique and different way that we hope will pay dividends to connect people to each and every one of our sport programs."