As wrenching as others might have found the video coming out of Houston this week, it was just a little more so to Donnie Marsh.
And as touching as others might have found some of the humanitarian gestures made in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, they hit far closer to home with him as well.
The former Franklin & Marshall men’s basketball star is fast approaching his first season as the head coach at Alabama A&M, the 12th stop in his long odyssey in the profession. (“Is it that many?” he asked during a phone interview Thursday. “Good gracious, man. … That’s a lot of frequent-flyer miles, though.”)
This week he has understandably found himself thinking a great deal about stop No. 11, at Texas Southern. He spent four years on the staff of head coach Mike Davis at the Houston-based school before assuming his new position in April.
Marsh has reached out to Davis, under whom he worked for 12 years at three stops altogether, and found that while his former boss was able to ride out the storm on the upper floors of the high rise he calls home, he has been unable to go anywhere.
Other friends and former colleagues have also been fortunate, Marsh said. And TSU’s campus has by all accounts suffered relatively minor damage.
According to ABCnews.com, the storm dumped nearly 52 inches on the Houston area. Forty-five people have lost their lives. Thousands have been displaced. And Marsh, now safely in Huntsville, Ala., has felt a jumble of emotions.
“The first thing is kind of being somewhat grateful that I wasn’t there anymore,” he said, “but then there’s a sadness that comes over you, too.”
The two areas of town where he lived while in Houston – Meyerland and Braeswood – were flooded. Friends began calling to see if he was OK, not realizing he had moved. And in the meantime he watched the televised images from Houston and was alternately troubled and awed.
“I just couldn’t imagine 50-some inches of water and trying to survive that,” he said. “Your concern goes to families, first of all, losing life, and then you lose all your possessions. You lose everything. And trying to think about the possibility of rebuilding and the timing of rebuilding, all those kinds of things.”
But then there are the rescuers, swooping in by boat or helicopter. Carrying the very young or the very old to safety. Doing what needs to be done, hour after hour and day after day.
“People were doing that to try and help somebody they didn’t even know,” Marsh said, “and that’s one of the encouraging aspects about this whole experience, especially in light of some of the other things that have gone on through the course of the few weeks prior. I’m encouraged incredibly by seeing stuff like that.”
Same for the work of folks like Houston Texans star J.J. Watt, who through Friday had raised over $15 million to aid victims of the storm. Or University of Houston men’s basketball coach Kelvin Sampson, who asked that coaches throughout the country, on all levels, send along 20 T-shirts emblazoned with their team’s logo and 10 pairs of shoes, also for those in need.
When reached Thursday afternoon, Marsh said he had no fears of the hurricane – Huntsville is far inland – but there were some tornado warnings in the area.
“I’m running some errands, trying to get some things done before it gets in this direction, if we get some,” he said.
The 61-year-old inherited a program that went 2-27 in 2016-17, the last of six seasons under Willie Hayes, who resigned in March. The Bulldogs also haven’t had a winning season since ’04-05.
Marsh nonetheless welcomes the challenge, having not served as a head coach since going 31-84 from 2000-04 at Florida International. He was also the boss at Elizabethtown in 1988-89, going 12-13, and for four years after that at The College of New Jersey, going 64-41.
He knows the league in which A&M plays, the SWAC, since that is also the one Texas Southern calls home. TSU, in fact, has won the regular-season or tournament title each of the last four years, and played in the NCAA Tournament three times.
The other thing is, Marsh’s wife of 31 years, LaRoyce, had remained in Birmingham while he headed off to Houston, the couple having established a home there while Donnie served on Davis’ staff at Alabama-Birmingham from 2006-12. After last season he hoped to reunite with her.
“I was even prepared at that point – and most people don’t know this – if I had to, to step out of coaching,” he said, “to become an AD or in the commissioner’s office or do something along those lines, to get back closer to her. That was my prayer, and it was amazing how this situation opened.”
A 1979 F&M graduate, he is arguably the greatest player in school history, having been drafted out of college by the Atlanta Hawks. He began his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater in 1980. Besides his head-coaching stints he has also served as an assistant at Florida State, Virginia Tech and Indiana, the latter for two years under Davis. Marsh followed him to UAB, then Texas Southern.
And in many ways he has been with him this week as well. Among others.