Walk inside head basketball coach Bob Marlin’s office and you will see an array of pictures, press clippings and awards accumulated over his career.
The pictures depict game winning shots, news articles acknowledging conference championships and awards highlighting championship seasons.
Nearing completion of his 27th season as a coach, with a National Junior College championship and Southland Conference title on his resume, the process and the experiences have made this Tupelo, Mississippi native a very fortunate man.
What it takes to be the man
Having a passion for the game from an early age as a starter in both junior high and high school, basketball was always part of Marlin’s life. Yet after high school, the future Bearkats head coach decided to pursue something different: a degree in Business from Mississippi State University. But after only one year, the game of basketball lured him back and Marlin made the move to a major in physical education with the possibility of one day becoming a basketball coach after completing his first degree in 1981.
Marlin’s first exposure to collegiate coaching came after he decided to continue his education by earning a Masters at Northeastern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Monroe).
At each step in his educational and early coaching years, Marlin flourished under a variety of coaching styles and philosophies, all of which he credits with shaping his coaching today.
“I was a graduate assistant for Mike Vine for two years (1981-83),” Marlin said. “Mike always had a very good relationship with his players; they were always in his office, talking with him. I learned some things from him, being my first boss.”
Following his second graduation, Marlin continued his career as an assistant coach at Houston Baptist University, coaching alongside then-head coach, Gene Iba. While under coach Iba, the Huskies were able to obtain a berth in the Division I tournament in 1984. In that same year, HBU led the country in field goal percentage, with the national champion North Carolina Tar Heels, led by Michael Jordan, trailing them at second.
“I was fortunate to work with a guy who had a great basketball mind,” Marlin said. “He was a very good defensive coach and offensively, and probably the majority of my coaching philosophy comes from Gene. That was certainly a learning experience.”
When Iba left for Baylor University, Marlin remained at HBU. With the new head coach came a new style of dealing with players. Under Iba, Marlin said he was a coach the players seemed to fear, yet with the arrival of new head coach Tommy Jones came a drastic difference in dealing with players.
“I learned how to treat people and deal with things on campus,” Marlin said. “Tommy was really good a person, a good coach and a good family man.”
Following the Huskies’ decision to move the basketball program to NAIA, Marlin traveled to Marshall University, serving under now Creighton head coach Dana Altman. While in Huntington, West Virginia, Marlin gained insight into one of the most pivotal components to the long-term success of any college basketball program.
“I really learned how to recruit,” Marlin said. “It was a different type of recruiting than we had done at Houston Baptist. Dana did a good job in that aspect of teaching me how to recruit, but also taught me a little bit about his zone defense, which I had never used before, because we had used man-to-man everywhere I was.”
Rise to prominence
Marlin earned his first head coaching job at Pensacola Junior College, and it was there that Marlin was able to take all he had learned in previous years as an assistant and use the experience to begin forming his own coaching style.
Marlin remained at Pensacola for five years, accumulating a 123-35 record, including the 1993 National Junior College “Coach of the Year” award. Though he claimed a national championship in only his third year as head coach, it was a bit of bad luck in his second year that helped set-up the national championship run.
“The second year (1991-92) was a bit similar to this year (2007-2008),” Marlin said. “We started off 14-0 at Christmas, we were number #2 in the country, but we finished 24-7, tied for the conference championship and got beat in a three-way playoff. It was very disappointing. We had to live with that all summer and we came back and won a national championship.”
In his third year (1992-93), they claimed the Junior College National Championship, finishing the year with two All-Americans in Paul O’Liney (also National Junior College “Player of the Year”) and Chris Davis.
“We had an explosive team,” Marlin said. “We could score, we could defend, and we could rebound. We had do it all and if we played well, we would be in good shape.”
Though they appeared stacked with talent, the Pirates faced problems with the eventual runner-up Butler Community College.
“We led most of the game but they took the lead with about five minutes to go,” Marlin said. “It went back and forth. We took the lead with a couple of minutes remaining and won the game.”
With the 79-74 victory, Marlin achieved his first junior college men’s basketball championship and was bestowed with the honor of having a book written about the team’s success, “Florida’s First.”
After two more years at PJC, and with the birth of his son, Matt, Marlin decided it was time to move on. He accepted an assistant coaching position on David Hobbs’ coaching staff at the University of Alabama, in the same conference (Southeastern Conference) as his alma mater.
Having already won one championship, Marlin continued to improve himself while on the SEC bench.
“It was quite an education,” Marlin said. “I grew up in that league, but defensively I learned a lot from Dave. I learned a couple of new tricks that have certainly helped me here at Sam Houston State.”
Turning it around
Meanwhile, the Sam Houston State men’s basketball team had fallen on hard times.
Following head coach Jerry Hopkins seventh consecutive losing season at SHSU, newly hired athletic director Bobby Williams sought out a new head coach for the floundering program. The Bearkats had failed to produce a winning season in nearly 15 years. With a program that transitioned from Division II to Division I with its arrival in the Southland Conference from the Lone Stone Conference in 1987, failing to place no higher than 3rd in the conference in its inaugural season, the program had fallen into the “perennial loser” category.
As a former Red Tide assistant coach recently let go due to the departure of Hobbs, Marlin was the man for the job.
“I believe it was the first of May when I called Jerry Hopkins. I had known Jerry for a while and he wasn’t very positive of the situation, obviously,” Marlin said. “He said there were a lot of things not right, and first he said, you don’t want this job. Then said “you don’t have a job”, which I thought was fair. I knew they [SHSU] had struggled, but I felt like we could recruit, get some good coaches and work it out”
During his interview with Marlin for the head coaching vacancy, the Bearkats’ rookie athletic director saw something special in the assistant out of Alabama.
“We seemed to get along very well,” Williams said. “We both had the same philosophy for what was needed to turn the program around. It just seemed like a good fit. During the interview he was very professional and we had a lot of the same ideas. It seemed like we would get along very well.”
The first year was nothing but havoc.
Hired in August just prior to the start of school and with the program already faced with what Marlin called a “bad schedule”, nothing went right the first couple of games under his tenure. With two blowout road losses on different sides of the country in the span of three days, Marlin saw something special with the team in only their fourth game as the Bearkats claimed a victory over the Clyde Drexler-led Houston Cougars.
“Our players bought in to what we were teaching. That taste of success started our program, right there,” Marlin said.
“I remember after the game David Amaya was crying in the locker-room, one of our juniors. I went up and asked him, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said ‘I’ve never been .500 before.’ You just don’t forget stuff like that.”
Despite finishing under .500, the players continued to believe in the coaching staff and saw a dramatic turnaround in Marlin’s second year. After finishing the 1999-2000 season first in the conference (22-7, 15-3 SLC), the Bearkats were regular season SLC Champions for the first time as a Division I program.
With the graduation of senior stand-outs Boney Watson and David Amaya, the Bearkats’ stay as the conference’s elite team was short-lived as the program fell once again to mediocrity, finishing the next two seasons at 16-13, 11-9 SLC and 14-14, 9-11 SLC while finishing no higher than fourth at the end of the year regular-season standings.
Yet rather than settle for continued mediocrity, the Bearkats were ready for a come-back season in 2002-2003.
The Bearkats had their finest campaign, finishing the season 23-7, 17-3 SLC and picking up another SLC regular-season championship. Led by two-year star Donald Cole, the Bearkats and Marlin were able to acquire something they missed out on in Marlin’s second season, the conference tournament crown.
Led by Cole, the Bearkats took home their first and currently only conference championship, with a thrilling 69-66 victory over rival Stephen F. Austin in-front of the largest crowd at Johnson Coliseum, 5,068.
Though the program has failed to duplicate the post-season success the ’02-’03 team accomplished with the closest coming in 2006 when the Kats fell 95-87 in the finals against Northwestern State, the program has remained strong.
This year, Marlin became the first head basketball coach in SHSU history to earn three straight 20-win seasons (five as head coach). With 179 wins, Marlin is only ten away from tying former head coach Archie Porter for most all-time wins at SHSU.
“I think coach Marlin does a good job of getting the most of the players on the court,” Williams said. “That’s a big part of coaching. He’s also provided a consistent winner for us. We may not always win championships, but he’s always provided a winner. I think that’s a big part, consistently winning over a long period of time. Then you start to become more prominent out of conference.”
Yet Marlin remains modest on making an assessment on his tenure at SHSU.
“We have made a difference in the lives of some student athletes and changed the culture of SHSU basketball,” Marlin said. “A lot of people have been involved in the process with good players and good assistant coaches.”
Molding young men
As much as fans and members of the media want to put valu on on-the-field accomplishments, including a 16-6 record over rival Stephen F. Austin, 44-game home non-conference winning streak and the second most wins in the state of Texas since 2000, Marlin notes that basketball, and, for that matter, athletics aren’t the be-all and end-all in the world.
“The most important thing and the reason I coach is that we’ve helped young men grow along the way and be part of something special while they are there,” Marlin said. “When you leave here, you’ll leave here with a degree, some experiences and maybe a few conference championships.”
Marlin emphasizes that he makes this philosophy known to prospective student-athletes and their parents alike.
“When we take your son, we can promise you three things: We will do everything we can to make him a better student, a better player and a better person,” Marlin said. “And at the end of his time here, we want the same thing you want, and that is for him to walk across the stage.”
With his graduation imminent, senior guard Jeremy Thomas acknowledges through his four years here how important Coach Marlin has made on him maturing as an individual.
“I think he’s set a good foundation for the college life,” Thomas said. “I mean, he separated different things for us, putting things in hierarchy with school, religion and basketball, where they all go and told us what’s important.”
Marlin has helped his players excel both on and off-the-court, as evidenced when senior forward Ryan Bright earned Southland Conference men’s basketball “Student-Athlete of the Year” in 2007, and while at Pensacola Junior College, when Eddie Samuels earned the NJCAA “Student Athlete of the Year” in 1993.
With each of the current seniors having already earned their bachelor’s or in the case of Bright and Thomas both preparing to earn theirs and further their education through the Master’s program, they have witnessed how much of a positive impact Marlin has done for them in four short years in Huntsville.
“He’s the reason we are all here, he’s the reason we’re all on scholarships and graduating,” said senior forward Ryan Bright. “We have a lot to be thankful for and he has helped us each become men as well as student athletes. We all have a lot to be thankful for.”