Before the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s basketball team was building up a national bandwagon, the Eagles’ bus was breaking down on a road trip to face Derek Waugh’s Stetson University squad.
Prior to FGCU running past Georgetown and San Diego State, it was a punching bag for Tony Ingle’s Kennesaw State teams.
Much of the excitement surrounding this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament stems from a No. 15 seed from Fort Myers — which most bracket pickers didn’t give a puncher’s chance — reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time.
But for Ingle, Dalton State College’s men’s basketball coach, and Waugh, the Roadrunners’ athletic director, it’s this specific underdog from the Atlantic Sun Conference that piques an interest.
“No. 1, I coached in the (Atlantic Sun Conference) and it shows people the A-Sun can play basketball,” said Ingle, whose first Dalton State team will take the court next school year. “Knowing the kids, who they had and watching them and how they’ve matured and grown (makes it interesting). They have so much confidence. And I’m pulling for them. I told my wife to put a lock on the cabinets because I get nervous when watching these games.”
Both Ingle and Waugh faced the Eagles. Both won against the Eagles. Both coached against some of the same players who gave a history-rich title contender, No. 2 seed Georgetown, the ill-fated pink slip and a boot out the bracket castle for good measure.
And now, both are watching FGCU garner the limelight reserved for only the prettiest of Cinderellas.
A Cinderella run
FGCU’s last loss was on Feb. 22, an 80-71 defeat at the hands of Stetson. Since then, the Eagles (26-10) have won seven straight games, including a conference tournament championship and two NCAA tournament games. This past Friday, they beat a perennial powerhouse, No. 2 seed Georgetown, 78-68 to advance to the round of 32. On Sunday, No. 7 seed San Diego State was the victim, falling 81-71.
FGCU is just the seventh No. 15 seed to advance to the round of 32 and the first to reach the Sweet 16. Due to the team’s ability to pull off highlight-reel dunks and the Youtube videos that followed, the program earned the moniker of “Dunk City” — the city of Fort Myers even changed its website to reflect the nickname. A rap video by Black Magic featuring Bambi highlights all the big plays. It was posted on YouTube Saturday, and as of Thursday night it had more than half a million views.
On Monday, after the team returned to campus, there was a pep rally held inside the gymnasium. According to a Fort Myers News-Press report, some 4,000 fans packed the arena. According to a Naples Daily News story, ESPN filmed the event. Immediately following the win against San Diego State, Florida Gulf Coast was the top-trending item on Twitter.
It goes beyond Fort Myers, too. Well-known rapper Lil’ Wayne asked on Twitter why one of the team’s alley-oop dunks didn’t make SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays this past Friday.
In short, and even if for just the brief time period allowed between rounds in the NCAA tournament, FGCU has become more than just a school with a student body of 13,000 that most didn’t know about — former NBA star and tournament analyst Charles Barkley asked on air where the school was located.
“They’re not a juggernaut,” Waugh said. “They just got on a hot streak.”
Next on the docket is tonight’s 9:57 tipoff in Dallas with an in-state foe, No. 3 seed Florida (28-7). The winner advances to the Elite Eight to play the winner of tonight’s game between Kansas and Michigan. FGCU, obviously, is the highest-seeded team remaining in the tournament. The only other double-digit seed left as of Thursday night was No. 13 seed La Salle.
“Everyone thinks Florida will beat the snot out of them,” Ingle said. “I’m a believer. I think they are going to give them a run for it.”
Waugh coached Stetson Univer-sity’s men’s basketball team from 1997 to 2011, taking over as head coach in 2000. And he may have some direct influence on FGCU success.
When he resigned as Stetson’s coach — a year later becoming Dalton State’s athletic director to lead the school’s relaunched sports programs — he got a call from Andy Enfield. Formerly involved in the start of a health care software company once estimated to be valued at $100 million, according to a USA Today report, Enfield was an assistant at Florida State University. He called to inquire about the Stetson opening and an opening at FGCU, Waugh said, and received blunt advice.
“I told him if he was thinking of taking the Stetson job, then he was crazy,” Waugh said. “I told him to take the Florida Gulf Coast job because everyone considered it a diamond in the rough. ... Right at that point, both programs had a lot of good, young players. They were both seen as good jobs. (FGCU) has got 13,000 students. It didn’t have the academic requirements that Stetson did. It has a beautiful arena. Collier County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state.
“A little-known fact, they are the only Division I school in the state of Florida that does not have another Division I school within a two-hour radius. Miami is the closest. That might not seem like a lot, but there’s so much talent in Florida.”
Enfield became FGCU’s new coach. He replaced Dave Balza, who didn’t survive the transition from Division II to Division I. The same happened to Ingle, who was fired after the 2010-2011 season.
“I’m rooting for them, and I feel sorry for the coach who got fired from there,” Ingle said.
In 2011-12, Enfield’s first season coaching the team and the school’s first with full Division I postseason eligibility, FGCU went 15-17, losing in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament championship to Belmont.
Now he is the hot topic of the coaching carousel sector of college basketball. The Naples (Fla.) Daily News reported Monday the school planned to increase Enfield’s salary from $157,000 annually to $300,000 after the season. But both USA Today and the Los Angeles Times ran stories endorsing UCLA trying to hire Enfield. The Bruins recently fired head coach Ben Howland.
“I root for coaches I know and like,” Waugh said. “And I root for Andy. He’s a good guy all around.”
Knowing them first
There are other connections.
Brett Comer, the sophomore point guard who recorded a personal-best 14 assists and lofted up alley-oop after alley-oop in the team’s third-round win against San Diego State? Waugh said he was verbally committed to Stetson just before Waugh stepped down as the program’s coach.
“He was coming to Stetson before I left,” he said. “A verbal is a verbal. It’s not like he had signed.”
Sherwood Brown, the senior guard who scored 17 points against San Diego State after recording a team-high 24 in the second-round win against Georgetown?
“Sherwoon Brown played on Olympia High School in Orlando with five Division I players,” Waugh said. “He was considered out of the five the least likely Division I prospect. He came to our (team) camp at least two years. ... We wanted him to walk on because we were out of scholarships, but Florida Gulf Coast is cheaper than Stetson.
“When we played against (Brown), he was never really more than a seventh or eighth man,” Waugh said.
Brown, Eddie Murray and Chase Fieler are the three players who were on the 2010-2011 FGCU team and faced Waugh and Ingle.
In a 69-68 Kennesaw State win that year, Brown played 12 minutes and tallied seven points. Murray, now a senior, played three minutes and missed his only shot. Fieler, currently a junior, started as a freshman in that game, playing 36 minutes but only scoring three points.
Ladaris Green, who played for Kennesaw State, reunited with Ingle when he committed to Dalton State, scored 14 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in that game. He scored the same amount and tallied 13 re-bounds the other time they played that season, an 81-70 Kennesaw State win.
“Sherwood Brown was special,” Ingle said. “Four of their top seven players, I coached against. I knew that they were good, but at the same time we had young guys, too.”
Bus ride blues
Ingle’s Kennesaw State squads were 6-2 against the Eagles. Waugh’s Stetson teams were 4-4.
“We couldn’t have done it without the referees,” Ingle joked, although noting Florida Gulf Coast was not the Atlantic Sun team he thought would make such a run.
And even this season, why would he or anyone else? The Eagles’ losses include fellow Sweet 16 member Duke, tournament dropouts Virginia Commonwealth and Iowa State, the Big East Conference’s St. John’s and mid-major pretenders Lipscomb (twice), Maine, Mercer, Stetson and East Tennessee State.
“If anybody predicted this, that’s like picking the guy who will win the $338 million lottery or picking the Kentucky Derby,” Ingle said. “No one predicted them, and if they did, someone needs to give them a saliva test.”
Additionally, FGCU only has been in existence since 1997. And the school’s athletics has been competing in Division I just since 2007 — and this is the Eagles’ first year since with a winning record. Waugh even had a “funny story” about FGCU’s transition to the highest NCAA division.
Waugh said Fort Myers to DeLand, Fla., where Stetson is located, is a “three- or four-hour drive.”
“Whatever year we finished third in the conference, they bused up to us the day of the game for budget reasons,” he said. “They broke down in Tampa. Normally, any Division I program will travel the night before a game, but they were making a transition and their bus broke down. So that game started two or three hours late.”
It once was a broken-down bus. Now it’s a national phenomenon that keeps rolling along.