By Sean Fitz-Gerald
A frigid March wind hits the basketball players as they step off the bus and into the ankle-deep slush of the plaza parking lot. Without a word, they crowd around their coach, awaiting instructions on how much time they have to grab a bite before the five-hour ride back to Toronto.
“You guys have 45 minutes and then we’re outta here,” Ryerson head coach Terry Haggerty tells his team before they scatter into the small cluster of restaurants on the outskirts of Sudbury.
Slowly, they leave the parking lot. Fatigue from the afternoon’s loss by more than 20 points to the Laurentian Voyageurs has left the men tired and snarky.
Ten of the players choose an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet across the street.
One player reaches into his pocket and finds his wallet empty after he walks through the restaurant’s door. Unfazed, he taps assistant coach Bob Marsh’s shoulder.
After two days on the road, the $15 per diem given to each player by Ryerson’s athletic department has begun to run out.
“Yo Marsh, can you spot me some cash, man?” the university student asks.
Marsh says nothing. Craning his neck to meet the player’s eyes, he nods and pulls a $20 bill out of his wallet and hands it to the player.
The player looks down at Marsh, whose short curly hair barely reaches the player’s shoulder, and flashes a grateful smile.
Marsh joined the Rams after leaving an assistant coaching job at Durham College in March, 1998. He helped coach Durham to become national collegiate champions, thanks in large part to his ability to attract top-notch players and win their loyalty. But his success raised the ire of several of his rivals.
In his final year at Durham, the Ontario Collegiate Athletic Association levelled 48 allegations of recruiting violations against him, which included allegedly paying players to play. Marsh was acquitted of all but one allegation — holding a recruiting camp Durham. Coaches have to bring in a sponsor because they’re not allowed to host camps themselves. The OCAA, which is the governing body of college sport, refused to comment on the allegations.
Marsh, 44, doesn’t look like an average basketball coach. His short, stocky physique gives away the fact he has never played basketball. Instead, Marsh spent his youth as a professional boxer from 1970 to 1984 at the Lansdowne Boxing Club.
He didn’t get into basketball until his daughter Chantell, now 23, began playing as a child. Marsh started a club team that practiced in a rented school gym in Ajax. Chantell went on to play every year in high school. And she was part of a team that won a championship at Durham College in 1997, where Marsh had taken a job as an assistant coach on the men’s team.
Before Marsh arrived at Ryerson, the Rams never made it to the provincial finals. But in his first season, Ryerson finished with 10 regular season wins and captured the OUA East division title. With the players he recruited, the Rams advanced to the national championship tournament in Halifax for the first time in the school’s 50 year history.
“He certainly seems to have contacts with everybody,” Laurentian head coach Peter Campbell said. “He keeps them thinking about Ryerson.”
This season, Marsh can lay claim to the fact that three of Ryerson’s starting five players are at the school because of his recruiting efforts. One of those players is towering six-foot-seven forward Bill Crowdis. He was an academic all-Canadian at Durham College last year and was a member of Marsh’s 1996-97 Canadian championship squad.
A first-year public administration student, Crowdis says Marsh is a good recruiter because he thinks of players as people first.
“Once you’re on the court, he’s your coach,” Crowdis says. “Off the court, he’s your friend and he’ll help you out any way he can.
At the beginning of this school year, Marsh opened his Ajax home up to a couple of first-year students who couldn’t find a place to live.
“All of the kids here, I have a special relationship with,” Marsh says. “If they give you their word, you’ve got to give them yours.
Sometimes, however, he still find himself haunted by the allegations he faced at Durham.
In an exhibition game against George Brown College last month, the college players walked up to Ryerson players and asked how much they were getting paid to lay for the Rams.
Marsh, who was paid an honorarium of $1,500 a season for his efforts at Durham, said he was offended by the allegations.
“I basically out-recruited everybody on the players,” he said. “They started spreading rumours that I was paying guys $600 a week and buying them new cars and all kinds of ridiculous stuff.”
At both the college and university levels, recruiting is usually looked upon as an important, but burdensome responsibility. Many coaches recruit players in the summer months, and occasionally during the busy OUA season.
Marsh gets potential players to watch Rams’ practices, games and meetings. He visits them at home and talks with them as much as he can.
“Ryerson’s got a guy who recruits like crazy and that’s Bob Marsh,” says Ken Babcock, Durham’s director of athletics. “He spends more time than most people can to attract kids.”
Babcock doesn’t think the allegations played as big a role in Marsh’s departure from the college ranks as the gossip did.
“He felt hard done by the OCAA and thought the CIAU would treat him a little better,” Babcock says.
But Marsh’s recruiting style continues to raise some eyebrows around the province.
“[Ryerson] almost sounds like an American system where an assistant is in charge of the recruiting,” says Queen’s University head coach Scott Meeson. “But if it is, more power to them.”
Meeson says getting players into a program is essential to keeping a team’s talent level high in the competitive university system.
However, enticing players to come to a specific university takes a lot of time, sometimes more than many coaches are able to sacrifice, he says.
“There is certainly a big scare going around that there are people running around 24 hours-a-day recruiting,” Meeson says. “If you have a family, you’re not going to do that.”
Even though he runs his own riding stable in Pickering and is married with two children, Marsh says he couldn’t be just a part-time coach.
“I’ve always done everything as a professional,” he says. “If I was the janitor here, I would do the best job I could do.”
Ryerson head coach Terry Haggerty said he had to hire Marsh when he heard he was leaving Durham because he knew his work ethic would help the Rams.
As for holding a recruiting camp in violation of the rules at Durham, Haggerty said it wasn’t even his fault because Durham’s athletic department read the OCAA rules wrong.
“Canada’s kind of a strange place,” Haggerty says. “When someone works really hard and they actually get people, people have this tabloid mentality of, ‘well, what’s going on here?’”
Now, with Ryerson ranked eighth in the country and favoured to go to the national championships again, Marsh is looking forward to go to a career in Canadian university basketball.
“You’ll find guys who’ll say, ‘Marsh is an asshole,’” he says. “But to me, they weren’t stand-up guys. I believe we’ll be a dynasty.”