WSU baseball head coach Donnie Marbut motivates his team in the dugout during its game against Arizona State University on April 28 at Bailey-Brayton Field in Pullman.
WSU baseball head coach Donnie Marbut talks with his team . “You recruit,non-stop. If you stop recruiting for one day, it’s like not shaving, you look like crap,” the coach says.
WSU baseball head coach Donnie Marbut talks with sophomore outfielder Jason Monda. Marbut has the Cougars’ coach for eight years.
A wall-length poster of TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., the home of baseball’s College World Series next month, adorns Donnie Marbut’s office at Washington State University.
It represents a Holy Grail of sorts for the Aberdeen High School graduate.
In his eighth season as WSU’s head baseball coach, Marbut has already restored the luster to the Cougar baseball program. His teams have won more than 200 games and twice made NCAA Tournament appearances.
The College World Series, however, represents an objective yet to be fulfilled.
“My goal is to go to the College World Series and play for a national championship,” Marbut said.
“I don’t think it’s even (just getting there),” Cougar assistant head coach Gregg Swenson added. “It’s winning it. I think that’s what gets him out of bed every Monday. He’s thinking, ‘what do I have to do to win a national title?’”
Marbut isn’t entirely single-minded in that pursuit. He’s a devoted family man who makes repeated reference to his two daughters.
“He spends the majority of his time on baseball, but he absolutely adores his girls,” said Aberdeen chiropractor Cy Dohrmann, an Aberdeen High classmate and longtime friend.
Marbut acknowledged, though, that his interests don’t extend much beyond job and family. He even regards College World Series tapes as his favorite baseball movies.
family and coaching are his life
“People ask what my hobbies are. My hobbies are my coaching and my kids,” Marbut said.
The 38-year-old Marbut is usually in his office in the Bohler Gym athletic complex by 6 a.m. (“I’m just not a big sleeper,” he said). Even on days when the Cougars aren’t playing or practicing, he usually hits the road in the early morning for recruiting trips to Western Washington.
Yet Marbut revels in the routine.
“I love work,” he asserted. “I love my job and I’m not sure many people do what they love to do.”
While not necessarily foreseeing his future profession, some of his former teammates and coaches recall that Marbut had the necessary qualities to be a successful coach even in high school.
“Donnie was one of the smarter players I coached as far as understanding not only his job but the other players’ jobs around him,” ex-Aberdeen football coach Rob Lonborg remembered. “In football, he used his scouting reports and instincts as well as his athleticism to make plays.”
“I definitely saw leadership skills,” Dohrmann said. “He always rose to the top, especially at game time. Most of us looked toward him, to see which way he was going, to see how the direction of the team was going.”
It took Marbut a few years following his 1992 AHS graduation, however, to recognize that college coaching was his calling.
In an era of outstanding Aberdeen High athletes (his football teammates included future University of Washington and National Football League tight end Mark Bruener and Washington State and Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman Jason McEndoo), Marbut ranked among the most versatile.
He earned all-Black Hills League recognition in three sports — football, basketball and baseball — and established a school record in football for interceptions.
His fierce competitiveness is reflected in one of Lonborg’s favorite stories. A Mount Vernon player broke free and appeared destined for a touchdown during a tightly fought Bobcat non-league game. Despite having a poor angle on the play, Marbut took off in pursuit and eventually made the tackle on Aberdeen’s 3-yard line.
“He didn’t give up on the play,” Lonborg related. “As luck would have it, they didn’t get in the end zone (on that possession) and we wound up winning the game in overtime, largely because of his unwillingness to give up on the play.”
A middle infielder, Marbut went on to play baseball at Edmonds Community College and Portland State University.
After toying with the idea of becoming a professional baseball scout, he considered a career as a high school teacher and coach.
Started at Capital
His first baseball coaching assignment was as an assistant at Capital High in Olympia. In his only year there, in 1998, the Cougars won a state championship.
Marbut then accepted an assistant coaching position at Bellevue Community College.
“Once I was at Bellevue, I knew I wanted to be a Division I (college) coach,” he remembered.
Bellevue was also where he met his wife of 12 years, Jennifer.
Before reaching the major college level, Marbut spent four years as the head baseball coach at Edmonds Community College. He won two conference titles during that tenure and doubled as the school’s athletic director during his final two years.
“Junior college is a good learning environment,” Marbut said. “I learned what to do and what not to do. We had a lot of success there and it gave me the opportunity to coach (at WSU).”
Despite that success, Marbut jumped at the opportunity to join the Cougar baseball staff in 2003. After one year as an assistant, he was elevated to head coach following the resignation of Greg Mooney in 2004.
At 29, he was the youngest head baseball coach in what was then the Pac-10 Conference and one of the youngest Division I coaches in the nation.
A perennial conference and national power under legendary coaches Buck Bailey and Bobo Brayton, the Cougars had slipped into a decade of mediocrity following Brayton’s retirement in 1994.
Marbut was unfazed by the challenge.
“I don’t know what the expectations were (from other people),” he said. “The expectations were my own. The expectations were to put WSU on the map and be a national contender.”
He was able to convey that vision to his players and coaching staff.
“There’s an underlying idea that we’re going to have the best program in the league,” said Swenson, whose family lived in Raymond. “The culture has changed because of that.”
“There’s one thing that Don doesn’t lack and that’s confidence,” Dohrmann related. “When Don enters a room, he definitely draws people’s attention, most of the time for the good.”
Yet Marbut now admits that some of that early confidence was misplaced.
“When I first got the job, I thought I was prepared,” he said. “I thought I was ready and I wasn’t even close. I’m still not the coach I should be. I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to be a better leader or manager.”
Despite that admission, Marbut oversaw dramatic improvement almost from the outset of his WSU career.
By his second season, the Cougars posted a winning record. In 2009, they qualified for the NCAA Tournament and tied a school record with 19 conference victories. The following year, they advanced as far as the NCAA Regional finals.
This year’s club has experienced an up-and-down season, with five wins over Top-10 teams on the road but also what Marbut calls some bad losses at home.
Due to the strength of the Pac-12 Conference, Marbut believes his team would receive another NCAA tourney bid with a .500 conference record. A sweep dealt by nationally ranked Stanford last weekend, however, leaves the Cougars five games under .500 in the Pac-12 entering the closing stretch of the regular season.
Before orchestrating the turnaround, Marbut endured a difficult off-field experience.
During his second year at WSU, he was the subject of a Seattle Times article alleging that he had padded his resume and, as athletic director, had been involved in improper rentals of the Edmonds baseball field.
Marbut doesn’t like to publicly discuss that incident, but said he was able to refute the allegations.
“It was an unfortunate situation and I’m glad there’s been vindication,” he said.
There’s little doubt that Marbut has set the bar high in his expectations for WSU players, coaches and himself. He is frequently described as demanding, a reputation he doesn’t deny.
“I’d say I try to be firm but fair, but firm is probably an understatement,” he reflected. “We have a saying here that we’re not interested in good, we’re obsessed with great. I’m assuming I’m pretty difficult to deal with … I tell the players to listen to the message, not the delivery. Sometimes the delivery isn’t very good.”
“He’s intense and has high expectations,” Swenson noted. “He doesn’t allow guys to have an off-day. He likes to say, ‘The only easy day is yesterday.’ “
Cougar outfielder Derek Jones says the players accept that message, in part because Marbut is equitable in his criticism.
“He’ll get on you,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a senior or a freshman. He has no favorites. He’s good in that regard.
“He doesn’t care what people think of him,” he added. “He just wants to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s winning on a Little League field or a big-league field. He loves the team and we respect him.”
Unlike some college coaches who tend to be more CEOs than instructors, Marbut is very much a hands-on leader. He continues to work one-on-one with Cougar infielders, coaches third base and pitches batting practice. Swenson said that, in football terminology, Marbut serves as his own offensive coordinator.
Marbut also does much of his own recruiting, a part of his job that keeps him constantly on the road during the summer.
“You recruit non-stop,” he asserted. “If you stop recruiting for one day, it’s like not shaving, you look like crap.”
College baseball recruiting is complicated by the Major League Baseball draft in June, which often forces coaches to re-recruit prospects they believed they had already landed.
During a coaches recruiting meeting last month, Marbut fretted about the possibility of losing Chehalis High School pitcher-position player Mitch Gueller.
The Evergreen 2A Conference Most Valuable Player award recipient, Gueller (whose parents both hail from Grays Harbor) signed a letter of intent with the Cougars last year. Marbut, however, is fearful that a professional team might make Gueller an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“He could change our program,” Marbut said. “We think he could be the best player in college baseball.”
Because of Pullman’s remote location and frigid winters, Marbut faces recruiting challenges that are not found in many other conference locales.
“I don’t think there’s a tougher job in the Pac-12 in baseball,” Dohrmann maintained. “Recruiting for Washington State has got to be stressful, but he manages.”
Marbut brushes off such reservations.
“We’re not necessarily trying to get the best guys. We try to get the right guys — sometimes the best guys are the right guys,” he said. “Sure, there are probably easier places to recruit. There are challenges, but that’s why I like the job.”
Coincidentally or not, the right guys tend to resemble Marbut as a player — blue-collar types who perform in more than one high school sport. During the recruiting meeting, Marbut expressed reservations about one prospect who played only baseball, saying he might lack the proper competitive instincts.
Although he hasn’t lived in this area for 20 years, Marbut maintains strong ties to family and friends on Grays Harbor. His mother, Connie, still lives in Aberdeen and he continues to phone Dorhmann, among others, on a regular basis.
“Rarely does he start out a conversation about baseball,” Dohrmann said. “He always asks me about my family.”
“I always have and will continue to appreciate the support and encouragement I have always received from Harbor people,” Marbut said. “I love and miss all those people very, very much.”
Pullman also seems to be a good fit for Marbut. He likes the small-town atmosphere that gives him an opportunity to unwind with his family.
“You can’t coach many places and be able to take out five minutes and pick up your daughter for lunch,” he said. “There’s something special about being a Coug.”
He’s also active in promoting the program in the community.
“Donnie sells more than Cougar baseball,” said WSU Associate Athletic Director Mike Marlow, a Hoquiam High graduate. “He’s a good ambassador for Cougar athletics overall.”
“I’ve had opportunities to go into professional baseball and I don’t see that happening,” Marbut said. “I don’t think I’d be a very good fit there. College baseball is about development and I like to put my time into seeing things grow. In professional baseball, you’re sort of a nomad. You’re on the road and away from your family all the time. I don’t see that happening for me.”
While not closing the door to another college job (“I don’t want to say absolutely”), Marbut doesn’t dismiss the possibility of making Washington State his final career destination.
“I wouldn’t mind being here forever,” he said.
Except, perhaps, for one week every June, when he’d rather be in Omaha.
Rick Anderson, Daily World sports editor, can be reached at 537-3924, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org