Before we examine Bob Marlin and the games he’s won; the men he’s molded; the hardware he’s hoisted; the plays he’s diagrammed; the pep talk clichés he’s recycled; and yes, even the refs he’s chewed out, it’s imperative to rehash the pivot point from which his adult life took shape, leading him here, to the Cajundome sidelines – because if Mom doesn’t say yes, Marlin might be selling Mercurys.
Our story begins more than 30 years ago with a series of three phone calls, all of them made in a nondescript, cramped dorm room at Mississippi State. Marlin, then a sophomore majoring in business if for no other reason than his dad owned a car dealership in Tupelo and he could probably land a safety net job if he asked nicely after graduation, was taking five classes. Accounting. Economics. Business Law. Statistics. Marriage and Family.
“And frankly, I wasn’t really happy in any of them,” Marlin admits. “And I didn’t want anything to do with that car lot. I didn’t want to sit around all day and try to sell people vehicles. It wasn’t a passion of mine. Really, my interest was in basketball.”
Grounded enough to recognize his physical limitations in playing the game, Marlin thought about coaching instead and solicited the opinions of what he thought would be sympathetic ears – his high school basketball coach, Byron Leyman, and his high school baseball coach, Terry Brumley.
Both men gave the same advice: Don’t do it. There’s no money in coaching.
“So that only gave me one place to turn,” Marlin says. “I called Mom, and Mom gave me the best career advice. She said, ‘Follow your heart.’ And I did.”
The irony, of course, is that the man telling this story – a story he loves to recite when recruiting potential players – will be paid more than $1 million throughout the course of his initial contract at ULL. For that hefty price, athletic administrators are banking that Marlin can replicate the success accrued at his previous post, Sam Houston State, and wipe away the malaise that’s bogged down the Ragin’ Cajuns program since its last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2003.
He’s done it once before. When Marlin inherited the Sam Houston State job in 1998, the Bearkats were a perennial pushover. When he left for ULL in 2010, the Bearkats were fresh off another NCAA Tournament appearance, a third Southland Conference championship and a fourth 20-win season in five years. Cajun backers witnessed a condensed example of Marlin’s uncanny ability to shift a program’s fortunes last season as ULL rebounded from a miserable 3-14 start to finish the regular season with 11 straight wins.
“We won a couple of games, and we kind of developed a taste for it,” Marlin says. “We fought and competed, and we might have even overachieved a little because that’s a pretty good run when you can get through January and February without losing.
“During this span … one thing became clear: Acadiana is a basketball community; there’s no doubt about that,” Marlin continues. “Our fans proved that last year. I mean, you have to remember, for the entirety of our run, we were still a below .500 team, and the crowds we drew were enough to lead the league in attendance. That’s just incredible.”
Marlin actually witnessed the intensity of a ULL crowd firsthand decades before signing on as the Cajuns’ coach. As a 23-year-old graduate assistant at present-day UL-Monroe (then Northeast Louisiana) Marlin scouted the Cajuns courtside at Blackham Coliseum – a tedious, sometimes thankless routine that online video sharing has now made extinct. Marlin traveled everywhere and anywhere, to all the tiny Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi towns on the schedule, scouting such players as Joe Dumars and Karl Malone while NBA talent evaluators did the same.
“You talk about a wonderful opportunity to learn the game; I would take things from opponents that I liked,” Marlin says. “If they ran a play that I liked, I’d diagram it, copy it and put it in a folder. I got files still to this day. I guess they need to be transferred to a drop box or whatever you call them. But you take a little bit from each person you work with, and my identity goes all the way back to even my eighth grade coach, Mickey Lender. In the end, though, you have to be true to yourself. I love coach [Bobby] Knight, but I can’t be coach Knight – we’re totally different. You have to be your own guy.”
Inheriting players he didn’t recruit, Marlin and the Cajuns meandered through the first half of the 2010-11 season, stubbing their toes against perceived lesser opponents more than once to a concerning 3-14 record. Marlin says he “demanded things that weren’t demanded before” and was unwilling to bend those requirements for the sake of a few extra wins. A little more than midway through the season, though, the players found comfort in Marlin’s system and didn’t lose again until the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament – a more-than-month-long winning streak that heightens expectations for this year.
“Some of the lessons we learned were learned in private, and some were learned in front of a few thousand people,” Marlin says. “But we learned them. I can’t quite pinpoint one thing that caused the turnaround. To me, coaching is coaching. The game is beautiful, but it’s also pretty simple. We, as coaches, tend to complicate it.”