The prospect of his 500th career coaching win had hung around Ruskin head basketball coach Gerry Marlin’s neck for weeks. The anticipation of the moment weighed like an albatross.
The weight increased with losses in two of three games at the Culver Classic; became almost unbearable after the Golden Eagles let a seven point lead slip away at home last Tuesday against Central.
Last Friday night, when Marlin finally recorded his 500th career win with a 65-50 victory over Park Hill, the weight rolled off his shoulders, replaced by a wide grin and an overwhelming sense of relief that the saga was over.
“This is the number right here by which high school coaches are judged,” said Marlin in the moments after the milestone win. “So I feel relieved. I’m glad to finally have the monkey off my back.”
It was a moment 26 years in the making for Marlin, who began his career in Gainesville, Florida, before taking over the Ruskin program 11 years ago. After the final buzzer sounded Friday night, his memory was flooded with the players and coaches that came before; the many smaller moments that had led him to this incredible accomplishment.
Like most basketball coaches, Marlin once had hoop dreams of his own. An accomplished high school player, Marlin had split his career between parents, playing in Florida while living with his dad during his freshman and junior years and in Iowa with his mom during his sophomore and senior years.
Marlin was good enough to be named All-State during his senior year in Iowa, talented enough to play at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida after his high school career. But he still remembers the moment when he realized that his mark would be made on the sidelines instead of the court.
Marlin was trying out for the University of Florida men’s basketball team. Although he had a chance to make the roster as a walk-on, the writing was printed clearly on the wall.
“I tried out for the University of Florida,” remembers Marlin. “Everybody there was bigger, stronger, and quicker than me. So I gave up. I started concentrating on my coaching classes, and got my degree.”
According to Marlin, the coaching circuit was not for the faint of heart.
“Everybody helps out volunteer-wise first, and then you’re hired for peanuts, and you work your way up from there,” he recalls.
Marlin started out working under a coach in Gainesville named Greg Meade, initially volunteering his services. But a long conversation with the coach during a road trip afforded the young coach his first opportunity to run a team.
“The head coach and I talked a lot, and he was impressed by my initiative, I would guess, because I didn’t know much at the time,” admitted Marlin. “But by the time the trip was done, I had been named the junior varsity coach.”
During that time Marlin operated like a sponge, soaking up his first coaching lessons from Meade.
“He showed me practice organization,” says Marlin. “By virtue of me being around and watching him work, I learned the importance of the off-season programs, and the importance of the feeder programs.”
While appreciative of his time under Meade, Marlin had to move on to his next job to get his first varsity coaching experience. The opportunity was in Louisiana, as the top assistant at North Caddo High School. When the head coach was forced to sit out with an illness, Marlin took over as coach for his first varsity roster. In that season, Marlin realized that this was exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
“He kind of had to hand the reins over to me,” says Marlin of the opportunity. “We went on a tear, and we ended up winning twenty games. I realized that, hey, I can do this.”
Still, though, Marlin never thought about his place in history. He just kept working with kids, building successful teams, and moving up the coaching ladder wherever he went. When he came to Ruskin High School in 2002 to coach the boy’s varsity team, Marlin put his reputation on the line. He had come to a program that was badly in need of rebuilding.
“We totally changed the image of the program,” said Marlin about his first years at Ruskin. “We had kind of a zero tolerance policy for behavior problems in the school. We kind of cleared house, and re-steered the program in the right direction.”
Matthew Ramsey was a part of Marlin’s first team at Ruskin. Ramsey, himself now coach of Ruskin’s sophomore team, remembers how Marlin quickly grabbed control of a disheveled program.
“We quickly realized that he knew what he talking about,” said Ramsey, a freshman during Marlin’s first season. “He can be pretty hard, but when you see the results, it makes you appreciate what he put you through.”
Despite some initial struggles, the direction of the program was undeniably positive. Marlin had taken Ramsey’s freshman class under his wing, and begun the hard work of transforming the Golden Eagles from a basketball team into a family.
“(Ramsey’s) class was the first class that we had that had been raised by me,” says Marlin now. “I think we were very vocal with them early on. They were going to be the group that changes the culture of Ruskin basketball.”
Marlin successfully sold that message because he believed it wholeheartedly, and his young team couldn’t help but embrace the coach who had shown such faith in them.
“By the time they were seniors, we had our first 20-win season,” said Marlin. “And then we had four in our next five years.”
All the while, Marlin just kept marching toward that illustrious milestone. If he’s to be believed though, Marlin didn’t realize how close he was getting until the magical 2007 season in which Ruskin won their final 29 games to take home the Class 4A state title. During that year’s state tournament, the Missouri State High School Athletics Association (MSHSAA) asked each participating coach to provide their career win total. At that point, Marlin realized that he had less than 100 more victories until 500.
“Honest to god, I didn’t even notice,” says Marlin now. “It just kind of creeps up on you.”
Instead of worrying about his personal victory count, Marlin was more concerned with sharing that championship with the former players who had helped build the program during his early years at Ruskin.
“When we won state, that whole group came down there with us,” says Marlin of Ramsey’s class. “They had laid the groundwork for that. Without them, we never would have gotten to the top. They are always welcomed back here, and they know that.”
Over the past few weeks, as the 500-win milestone crept closer, Marlin heard from many of his former players. A few even spoke to the team after particularly tough losses. Those closest to the program knew that, despite their former coach downplaying the gravity of the moment, the weight of that albatross was growing more burdensome by the day.
And then came Friday, the day that the weight of the world disappeared amid a flurry of smiling embraces. The extended Ruskin family could finally enjoy the moment Marlin had been building since he came to the school eleven years ago looking to incite a program to reach greater heights.
“It means the world to me, I’m so happy for him,” said Ramsey. “I know he’s happy that it’s over right now.”
Although Marlin was happy, he was not content. He still hopes for another state championship, another milestone to celebrate with his Ruskin family. Before the conversation ends, his mind shifts to the future, and he talks excitedly about the talent coming through the pipeline in the next couple of years. It is clear in that moment that Marlin is in fact living his hoop dreams, and that nothing will take him away from the passion he’s found for coaching.
“They’re going to have to make me stop,” says Marlin about his future. “I don’t know how long they’ll let me go. If I ever stop, I wouldn’t even know what to call myself.”