Tom Marshall is a name that is spoken with sincere reverance by those Western fans who were fortunate enough to see this legend in action. In fact, even 45 years after finishing his career on the Hill, Marshall still brings to mind awe-inspiring memories for those longtime Hilltopper fans. He is almost unanimously considered one of the top three players in Western history, and many, without so much as a second thought, still proclaim him to be THE greatest player to ever don the red and white.
Marshall arrived on the Hill in 1950 as a highly sought-after prospect from Mt. Juliet, TN, and his impact was almost immediate. His place in the WKU record book is indicative of the impact that he had on Hilltopper Basketball…..the 3rd all-time scorer with 1,909 pts. and a career average of 19.09 ppg; the 2nd all-time rebounder with 1,225 rebounds and career average of 12.3 rpg, including the all-time single-game high of 29 rebounds in a 1953 contest versus louisville. He was also a two-time All-American, and to this day is still one of only three Hilltoppers to ever be named as a consensus All-American. An honor which was bestowed upon him in 1954 when he was selected as a second team All-America choice.
The teams he was member of from 1952-54 were some of the greatest in Western history, as they compiled a three-year record of 80-14! They also participated in three straight NIT Tournaments, then college basketball’s true national championship event. Unfortunately, as has been the case down through the years for Western, injuries and bad breaks cost those teams at least one national title.
Following his remarkable career on the Hill Marshall took his talents to the NBA. After a promising rookie year with the Rochester Royals however, he was drafted into the military. An occurrence that unfortunately helped to cut short a career that many say could have made him one of the true early legends of the game.
Today, Marshall is retired and living in Florida. For the last year however, he has been battling to overcome a serious illness. Fortunately, the character and resolve that he displayed during his playing career on the Hill has helped him to overcome this setback and he is now on the road to full recovery and ready to hit golf course once again! It has been nearly four decades since Mr. Marshall has returned to the Hill and I think I speak for Western fans everywhere when I say that it’s time we brought him home again. It’s been a pleasure to get to know Tom and his wife Betty and I hope to get to meet them soon. He is truly indicative of the type of class player and person that Mr. Diddle and Western has produced over the years.
This phone interview was conducted on Monday, March 15, 1999, with a total time of around one hour. For the most part, the interview has been transcribed in its entirety and it should give Western fans everywhere a chance to finally get to know the story of this Hilltopper legend.
HH: Well, to start out with…..you’re originally from Mt. Juliet, Tenn., is that right?
TM: Yeah, I went to high school there but originally I was from a little town called Coldwater, Tenn. A little town about 100 miles south of Nashville. We moved to Nashville when I was about 10 years old and I went to a school in Nashville called Cohn. I went there as a freshman…..and back then Bruce I was really involved in golf and I used to go up there and caddy a lot where I could make me enough money and then I could play the rest of the day. And then I kind of got into trouble….my parents owned a grocery store in Nashville and they worked long hours so I would go to my homeroom in the morning and check right out and go right out the backdoor and go to the golf course and caddy and make me enough money and play the rest of the day. That was my freshman year in high school and I was on the varsity basketball team then and I failed every subject because I wasn’t going to class. So, I had an older sister that was principal of this high school outside of Nashville….Mt. Juliet. So they sent me out there to live with her and her husband and then I would go to school with her in the morning and come home with her in the afternoon [Laughs]. So that kind of straightened me up there. I went to school under her for about two years and then she went back into what they call the Nashville system….Davidson Co., and I went on and finished my high school out at Mt. Juliet.
HH: When did you really start playing basketball?
TM: I guess I started about the fourth grade.That was back in Coldwater, Tennessee. We had a little team there and when we moved to Nashville I played on what they call the junior varsity and it was pretty competitive. Like I said, I made the varsity….I played my freshman year out there and had a pretty good year when I was a freshman in high school. And when I transferred and went out to Mt. Juliet I had to lay out one year. My sister was principal so I used to go down there…..I had the keys to the gymnasium and I would go down there and practice, practice, practice. Then I came along my junior year in high school……..Tennessee basketball is not, I don’t think, nearly as good as Kentucky or Indiana, like that, but we had a fairly good team. Nothing to brag about.
HH: Do you remember what your averages were in high school?
TM: No. Gosh, I want to say around 18 or 19. I broke what they call the N.I.L. That was the Nashville Interscholastic League record.. It was only around three or four hundred points or something like that Bruce. It’s been so long ago I can’t remember, but I broke that record. Of course someone came along right after me and broke my record. They don’t last long these days (Laughs).
HH: What schools recruited you the most when you were in high school and what made you choose Mr. Diddle and Western?
TM: I signed a grant-in-aid to go to Vanderbilt. That meant that no other school in the Southeastern Conference could touch you after you signed that. So Vanderbilt courted me pretty well and treated me real nice and everything. Then Western and Louisville…..Tennessee Tech, I had several offers.What got me on Western……what Vanderbilt did, when I was in high school I had a sprained ankle, I mean it was real bad, and the Vanderbilt trainer filled me full of Novacane….we were in a district tournament then and I played on that ankle….and of course my sister, the principal out there then, she didn’t go for that at all. And that’s one reason…..she didn’t like the way Vanderbilt treated their athletes…..we kind of frowned on that. Then there was a guy who was an official, his name was Hickman Duncan, a basketball referee there, and he was also a basketball official in the OVC and he got to telling me about Western. So one time they invited us up and my sister and I went up, and I went to two or three of their home games and I just thought there was nothing like that and I got to comparing. They had the old fieldhouse there
(Red Barn)….it seated what, 4,000 or something like that? But at the time, Vanderbilt was playing their home games in a high school gym…….East High School in Nashville. So, I just liked the crowd and the people up there at Western and that’s one reason I decided to go up there. Hickman, he said there was nothing like that conference…..so it was big time back then.
HH: I guess Mr. Diddle played a big part in that too?
TM: Yes, and my parents were crazy about him.They really enjoyed him. They came to just about everyone of my home games when I was up there and Mr. Diddle was always giving my mother and dad a big hug and everything….so they really went for that. He was a good recruiter himself. He didn’t come see me play when I was in high school, Mr. Hornback came down….to a couple of our games. I remember one time I sprained an ankle in a game when Mr. Hornback was there and I went up and talked to him and everything. After I signed that grant-in-aid with Vanderbilt, I don’t know, I just decided I wanted to go to Western. So, as soon as I got out of high school I went up there the first summer…..I didn’t enroll in school, but they gave me a job in the parks and recreation there. I had a little job that summer….and that’s how I got started up there.
HH: Now did you play freshman ball?
TM: Yeah. Back then Bruce, I think Western belonged to the NCAA but a lot of the other schools that we played did not. I could play…..the freshmen could play against the ones that didn’t belong to the NCAA but the ones that did, they couldn’t play. I think I even started….I know I did, I started one game as a freshman. In fact it was at Eastern.
HH: So you were actually playing some varsity games as a freshman?
TM: Yeah, right. It was just certain games we got to play in. Then we would travel with them. Like we used to go down to Miami and Tampa and play those teams every year and he would always take the freshmen along on those trips. I don’t think we could play against Miami or Tampa either one but he would take us with him just in case.
HH: What was it like to play for Mr. Diddle? What kind of a coach was he to play for?
TM: I enjoyed him. Mr. Hornback did a lot of the coaching but Mr. Diddle always put on a good act and everything [Laughs]. I remember one time, you hear a lot of sayings about him and so forth, but I remember one time when I believe I was a sophomore and we played at Evansville. It was one of the first games of the year and I started, and right away I sprained an ankle again and then I went over and had to sit with him on the sidelines…..and he gets real excited and everything, so he’s hollering or something like that, so he takes his teeth out and then puts them in his back pocket and sits on them and of course he broke one of them [Laughs]. So, it was stuff like that…..I enjoyed playing for him.
HH: That’s one thing I was going to ask you. Everybody has a story, do you have a favorite story on Mr. Diddle?
TM: That’s one of them. Then another one Bruce, was the first year I was up there….like I told you, I didn’t enroll in class, but I was there and hadn’t signed anything. But this guy from Nashville, who worked with one of the Nashville papers, called me up and said that the people at Murray wanted to talk to me. So I made arrangements…..I didn’t say anything to Mr. Diddle, no one knew about this and this guy he came up to Bowling Green and picked me up, this was on a Sunday early in the morning and we drove to Murray…..and it was hot then and the only place air-conditioned was the bank, so we went in the bank at Murray and we talked things over a little bit and everything. In fact, they had this guy there then, Dick Rosenthal…..he was the athletics director at Notre Dame for years. Before that I had met Rosenthal at…… I played in the high school game…..Murray used to have this every year, the North and South, and I represented Tennessee, this was about 1949. Then Rosenthal was from Missouri and we were on the South team and we got to be pretty close friends. Anyhow, I didn’t know he was going to be at Murray and Murray they made him an offer and they made me an offer and we talked this over. He went on to Notre Dame and we talked it over that day at the bank and I went back to Bowling Green and got in late that night. And I don’t know what time of the night it was, but somebody awakened me, I was in the Diddle Dorm. He gave me a room back there, and it was Mr. Diddle, he woke me up, he said he had a dream. He dreamed that those “peckerwoods” from Murray were up here trying to steal me. [Laughs] Now I don’t know how in the world…..because I never said anything, I don’t know how he knew that [Laughs]. Then another time, there was another player and I…..it was our freshman year up there. I don’t know, things weren’t going right for us or something so both of us thought about going…..I kind of wanted to play football……Dan King was the other guy’s name, he was from Tennessee, and we both liked to play football in high school. So we didn’t like the way things were going there at Western for a while so we called up Memphis State and wanted to know if we could come down there. And somehow Mr. Diddle found out about that [Laughs]. Then he took us out and wined and dined us a little bit. He didn’t wine us but he dined us quite a bit, so everything got to be alright. He just had a knack of finding out things. I don’t know who…..the telephone operator told him or what??? [Laughs] He was a fine man. It was the recruiting that he was known for.
HH: He was really the recruiter and motivator right??
TM: Oh yeah, right. Hornback would go all over the offenses and defenses you’re gonna run and all that and then Mr. Diddle would say, “Are you ready,” or something like that, and everybody would just jump out of their uniforms. He was the one that got us ready for the game.
HH: Describe yourself as a player. What were your strengths?
TM: Well, I always thought my rebounding……I always had it in my mind that everytime the ball went up on the board that it was supposed to be mine, I’m going to get it. I did all the rebounding I could. I didn’t know that I took so many shots……that was in those statistics that was in that article on the internet. I didn’t know that I had taken that many shots and so forth. [Laughs] I didn’t know that I had a record for that. I wasn’t very fast and I couldn’t jump very high either. [Laughs] I could dunk the ball, the only reason was because I had big hands and I could palm the ball and all I could do was just get it over the rim a little bit.
HH: Were you a pure shooter or a good driver?
TM: I practiced a whole lot. Yeah, I drove a lot and I got a lot of free throws. Then because of my hands I guess I could handle it pretty well. A lot of times I would play the pivot if I had some guy who was my size……we had a good center then, Art Spoelstra was his name, and sometimes when I thought I could beat the man in the middle I’d take over. Then I had a move or two that I could put on them in the pivot because of my hands. Then like I said, I shot a lot of free throws. Then a lot of that was because of the rebounding. I’d get the rebound and get fouled on a lot of those.
HH: Well, tell me about some of the teams that you played on. They were among the best-ever teams at Western and probably as good as any in the country at that time. Do you feel kind of cheated that you guys never won the NIT?
TM: Yeah, and I’m sorry that we didn’t because Mr. Diddle and Mr. Hornback, they hadn’t ever won one and that’s what we were all……worked our butt off really, to get up there, and we had a good team……it’s just the breaks went against us. I can remember that, we went to New York. We played Bowling Green of Ohio the first round (1954 NIT) and we blew them out pretty good. The next round we played Holy Cross and we had Holy Cross beat bad, I mean in the first half, and then Jack Turner, he was one of our starters, he got a busted ankle and we got some bad officiating also in that game. But Jack went down and then they came back and beat us. They had Tommy Heinsohn and then they had another guy named Togo Palazzi. He was another guy that I played against in that North-South All-Star Game I was telling you about in Murray, and he was their big scorer then. Heinsohn was their rebounder and Palazzi was their scorer. Palazzi got real hot and he pulled them through late……I think we were up 10 or 12 points or so in the second quarter, blowing them out, and that’s when Turner got hurt and we just didn’t have anyone that could take his place. Then they went on won the tournament. I think they beat Duquesne the following night in the finals. That was a big, big disappointment because I thought sure we going to win it that year. We only had the one loss that year and that was to Eastern. I don’t know why we didn’t beat them, that was our only loss that year going into the NIT and we had beat them by I think 40-something points at home and went up there the following week and they beat us by about ten on their court. In my four years there, we never did beat Eastern up there. Of course they never did beat us at home either. On a neutral floor we could handle them real well but up there there was something about it, we couldn’t win. But like I said, the NIT was the big thing back then……
HH: So you think you had the best team?
TM: I think we did. Let me tell you Bruce, I don’t know if this has ever been equaled or not, but on our team that year I was the number one draft choice of the Rochester Royals; Jack Turner, he was the number one choice for the New York Knickerbockers; we had Art Spoelstra, he went with me on up to Rochester; Dan King played with the Baltimore Bullets that year, they folded up about the middle of the year……but we had four of our players that played in the NBA. I don’t know whether any college team has had two players as a number one choice or not. I don’t know whether that’s a record or not? But yeah, I thought we should have won it all that year.
HH: Yeah, that’s one thing that’s kind of disappointing I guess for everyone….all those years Western came so close to always winning the championships but something always happened…..bad breaks or injuries.
TM: Yeah. I watched it on TV. Who was it, Haskins and those guys? I think they got some bad officiating didn’t they when they were in college?
HH: Yeah, the Michigan game in ’66.
TM: Yeah, yeah.
HH: So you think you guys were the best team in the country that year?
TM: Yeah. I thought so. We went to New York with only the one defeat and of course we blew that game against Holy Cross, which we should have won that. That knocked us down so bad I think we even got beat in the consolation game. By Niagara I believe. They had a good team, they had Larry Costello, he played in the NBA for years and years, and he coached…..I think he won a championship when he had Lew Alcindor at Milwaukee. And they Ed Fleming, he played in the NBA for several years.
HH: In 1952 when you went, you got injured is that right?
TM: Yeah, I believe it was against Louisville. Towards the end of the game, it was pretty close and we had an out of bounds play and I drove under the basket and just as soon as my feet left the floor somebody undercut me and sent me up in the seats. I cut my knee somehow on a chair and layed it wide open and also got a bad ankle out of it. Then the next night I just couldn’t walk. I tried the next day and…….I believe it was St. Bonaventure, we played them the following night. They had us beat pretty bad and Western really came back, we put on a big rally. We had a freshman, he could have won it for us…..he missed the last shot of the game, I forget what his name was. But I’m not sure who won it that year
HH: I think we lost that game (70-69)
TM: Yeah, we could have won it. We had a good shot at it. I forget what that boy’s name was who took that shot…..it really hurt him too. Then one year Duquesne beat us. (69-61 / 1953) They were just too big for us. They had Dick Ricketts, he played professional. They had another boy who was from Kentucky, I forget his name….Jim something. Hugo Green…..I coached him later on at Cincinnati. They had a better team than us. I think they went on to the finals. I don’t know whether they won it or not.
HH: Didn’t you have a couple of seven-footers on some of those teams that you played on that never really played too much? (Jerry Weber & Frank Wallace)
TM: Yeah. Now Art Spoelstra, he was 6’10″ I think. Then another big boy at the same time there was Frank Wallace. He was big, big but he just couldn’t…….I don’t know, he had real small hands. He had what we called bad hands, like he played with his boxing gloves on or something. Now when Art came there, he was from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he had never had any coaching hardly at all and Mr. Hornback took him over and he really groomed him. He spent a lot of time with him and he made him a really good player. We went up together the first year to Rochester. We were both seniors that year. I was the first draft choice and I don’t know what order they picked Art but we both made the squad that year and we went up there and played. That was my first year in the pros. Then I finished that year and I had to go in the Army for a couple. And then I came back….well, Art was still there, then they traded him to Minneapolis I believe. Then that’s when we moved the franchise from Rochester to Cincinnati.
HH: Is there any one game that stands out for you at Western?
TM: Well…….I guess the one where we beat Louisville in the finals up there on their court when we won the K.I.T. I think we won the OVC my last three years there…..’52, ’53, and ’54…..all of those games, I enjoyed those. I remember when Art Spoelstra, he set that record for the most points in one game. We were playing Morehead I believe and he was having a good game but I had a good rebounding game then and I kept feeding the ball to him and he’d miss a shot and I’d go get it and bring it back and we’d start all over again. I don’t know how many rebounds I had in that game. I remember that because he set that record that night. Then I had a pretty good night against Eastern at home one time. That was my senior year.
HH: Is that the one where you scored 44 points and had 22 rebounds?
TM: I guess, something like that. [Laughs] But the thing about that, we went up there the next week and they beat us at Eastern. I think I hit the first shot of the game and I don’t know whether I hit another one after that or not, I got in foul trouble early in the game and had to sit down until the second half. I never did foul out but………I don’t know, we just couldn’t play up there for some reason……
HH: Probably the refs I’m sure.
TM: Well, we had a LOT better team than them but…..they had a good coach, Paul McBrayer, I believe was his name. We could beat them easy on a neutral court or anything like that but they just had that homecourt advantage and they used it on us.
HH: He just passed away a few months ago.
TM: McBrayer did? Oh….gosh, he was up in the years then wasn’t he?
HH: He was probably around 90 maybe.
TM: Is Mrs. Diddle still living?
HH: No, she died just a few years ago.
TM: Okay. I didn’t know.
HH: Mr. Hornback died 2 or 3 years ago maybe.
TM: Yeah, I heard about that.
HH: Well, are you disappointed maybe that your pro career wasn’t more successful than it was?
TM: Yeah…..I went up there my first year……as I said, I had a pretty good year. I think I averaged about eight points or something like that. I didn’t train as good…..as I should have, like I did in college. When I went up there, I tell you, the people on that team were a lot older than me. They had Odie Spears, remember that name?
HH: Yeah. ( WKU All-American, 1948)
TM: Jack Coleman, he was from the University of louisville. They had played in the pros for years. They had another guy that went to Ohio State but he was from Kentucky….Arnie Risen. He was just voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield not long ago. And all of those guys were older and everything and they drank beer and stuff like that and of course I had to be one of the boys…..and I just didn’t train. I think I could have been better but I just wasn’t in the condition I was when I was at Western. Like I said, I had a good rookie year and then I got drafted in the army and I went in there and I got kind of lazy. And when I came out I just never did do that much good. Then we moved the franchise to Cincinnati……I remember in training that year, the first year in Cincinnati, I think I was the leading scorer in the training season and then I busted an ankle again. Then they would play whether you were hurt or not and I had to play hurt a few games and I just didn’t produce and he put somebody else in there for me and then I just gradually went downhill after that. My oldest sister, the one who was a principal, she got pretty sick and I got a phone call, they wanted me to come home. So I got permission from the club to go home and I stayed a couple of days. She got better, so I went back to Cincinnati and I called the office and asked them where the team was and they said, “Haven’t you heard? We sold you to Detroit.” So just like that……so they said, “We’ve got your paycheck and your ticket out here and Detroit is in Philadelphia.” So I went on up and played with Detroit. I didn’t play many games with them but I was up there almost a half a year. Then at the end of the year Cincinnati bought me back. Then the following year, about the middle of the season…….well, they asked me several times if I would coach the team, and I didn’t want to. But the other coach that was there, Bobby Wander was his name, I played with him up in Rochester when he was a player, and then they moved him up to head coach. So, I wasn’t getting to play much so finally I told them I’d take the job. So right in the middle of the year they fired him and hired me. So I was a player/coach for several games and then towards the end of the year I had to get the roster down to a certain limit of players, so I took my name off as a player/coach and then I was a head coach. Then the following year they wanted me to come back so I did, one more, and that’s when I wound it up. I might have beat ‘em to the punch [Laughs] I tell everyone I beat ‘em to the punch, I resigned before they fired me [Laughs]. My wife says there’s no truth to that. [Laughs] The last game I coached, it was 1960, we got married that afternoon and I coached my last game that night, it was the last game of the season.
HH: I know a lot of people said that you could have been one of the all-time greats.
TM: Maybe I just didn’t have it upstairs or something, I don’t know. [Laughs] The Pros…..I don’t know…..you just don’t have the team spirit up there….like I said, I joined those old-timers and they’re mostly individuals Bruce, they weren’t in it as a team. As long as they get their points that game, whether we won or lost, they were happy. I just didn’t like that. We were a winner at Western and I wanted to stay that way. We won a few up there but we just didn’t have that winning spirit like we did in college.
HH: So were you pretty good friends with Odie Spears?
TM: Yeah, yeah. Real, real good.
HH: He was a heck of a player too wasn’t he?
TM: Yeah, he was real good. Odie kind of looked out after us the first year we went up there. Me and Art and Jack Coleman…..Odie had his wife and family up there. Then Jack Coleman, Art and myself and couple of others, we all had an apartment in Rochester we shared together. But yeah, Odie was a good ballplayer. He played several years up there…..and I read about him passing away several years back. Then Jack Coleman passed away also.
HH: What did you do after your playing career ended?
TM: We went across the river there in Newport, Kentucky, and my wife and I, we opened a bar and restaurant. We lasted about three and a half years, and then my family was down in Tennessee so we sold our bar and we went back to Huntsville, Alabama. I worked there with PPG…. Pittsburgh Plate Glass. It was a new factory there and we built windshields for airplanes and I retired from there.
HH: So how long have you been in Florida now?
TM: I retired in 1986. We really enjoy it. I did a lot of fishing and everything for a while, until I got sick, then they said I couldn’t be in the sun or for over a year. We had a boat and everything and we took a lot of trips on it. Now, where we’re moving to is on a golf course and I’m going to start playing golf again now. I used to play a lot of golf and I just got out of it for several years and now I kind of look forward to getting back into it again.
HH: When’s the last time you ever came back to Western?
TM: Oh, let’s see…….about 1957.
HH: That’s the last time???
TM: Yeah. [Laughs] I came back one time….that’s when Betty and I had that bar. We played down at Bowling Green High against the Harlem Magicians. Rascoe was there at that game I believe. No, that was about 1960. It was after we were married and had that bar, so it had to be about ’60 or ’61. We played the Harlem Magicians. I knew a lot of those guys because I had played against the Globetrotters back when I was at Western. They used to have that thing they called the “World Series of Basketball.” They’d take the college all-stars and play against the Globetrotters on a tour around the country and I made that tour in 1954. But anyhow, these were some of those guys that formed their own team and they called them the “Harlem Magicians” instead of the Globetrotters. And we played there……Monie Beard, Dan King. I believe Rascoe was there and I forget who else.
HH: So why have you stayed away so long? Why have you never come back?
TM: Well……I just never had any reason……..for going back I guess. I don’t know.
HH: There’s a lot people around that would like to see you again and a lot of people that would like to meet you.
TM: Well, maybe one these days if I live much longer I’ll get back up there. The thing about it, I don’t like to fly, I was always scared to death to fly and it’s such a drive up there by car and everything. Of course when I was playing pro we had to fly all the time but I was scared to death the whole time. [Laughs] And once I got out of that, I told my wife, “Never again, I’ll never fly anymore.”
HH: In the near future we may start retiring some jerseys and numbers of former players and start hanging them inside of Diddle Arena……..
TM: Bruce, I’ve never been to Diddle Arena.
HH: Well, I’m sure you’ll be one of the first ones we do. Do you think you could make it back for that if that happens?
TM: Well, I’d try. My health……I’ve had a rough year. But I’m getting better now. So I’d like to get back up there one day. I’d like to see Diddle Arena. How old is it now?
HH: It was finished in 1963.
TM: [Laughs] ’63?? No……I hate to say that but I’ve never been back.
HH: Do you ever catch any of Western’s games on TV?
TM: I saw the football team play one time recently against one of the Florida teams down here.
HH: Yeah, that was probably South Florida.
TM: Yeah, and Western beat ‘em.
HH: Well, I guess you’d probably like to take a break Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
TM: I sure appreciate it. It’s been good talking to you. If you ever get down this way I’ve still got a lot of my friends down here that go fishing, so I’ll make arrangements to take you fishing somehow if you ever come down and see us.
HH: I’d love to. I’ll try and make it down there one day. When I get the interview completed I’ll let you know so that you take a look at it.
TM: Well, I enjoyed it. There’s a few more things I could have talked about but we won’t discuss that.[Laughs] If you need anything else feel free to get in touch with us. It’s sure been good talking to you.