That’s the popular motto at Florida Gulf Coast University right now, but technically, that’s incorrect. The best way to put it would be “Started as a swamp now we here,” since just 21 short years ago, when the site for the FGCU campus was chosen, this was all swamp land. Where I live today, in North Lake Village, a collection of apartment style dorms, some of which overlook a beach, was once nothing but swamp land. Where swarms of news reporters have flocked to see what this previously unknown school is all about… it was once nothing but swamp land. Now we’re the fastest growing Division I school in the entire country and much to the surprise of everyone across the nation, in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. We started as a swamp now we here; busting brackets, stealing the headlines from all of the traditional college basketball powers, and becoming America’s team… only 21 years later after being just a swamp.
I heard about FGCU back in 2009 when it was time that I had to start looking at colleges. At that time I was debating whether to move out of state for college, or stay close to home (Elba, New York) to try to play Division III basketball. My aunt and uncle live in nearby Punta Gorda, Florida, and my aunt, a graduate of FGCU, was putting a lot of pressure on me to make the move down south to Fort Myers, Florida. My parents, who had been looking for an excuse to move to Florida since I was four years old, were completely on board with the idea of me becoming an FGCU student, and suddenly I was only getting mail from FGCU. Apparently all of the other colleges lost interest in me or their brochures were getting lost in the mail. I got an FGCU basketball t-shirt for Christmas in 2009, before I had even officially decided to apply to the school, but at that point it was a forgone conclusion that I was going to end up being an Eagle. So in the summer of 2010, my parents and I left Elba and moved to Fort Myers so I could go to FGCU, a school that I knew very little about besides the fact that my aunt went there about ten years prior, and a good portion of campus still contained wildlife (snakes, alligators, wild boars… you know, totally normal, non-threating animals).
So let’s fast forward two and a half years down the road. I’ve enjoyed my time at FGCU. I’ll spare you most of the details, but I’ll sum up my time at FGCU like this—I’ve met a lot of cool people, played a ton of pick-up basketball on our outdoor basketball courts, done reasonably well in school, and live with the two best friends I’ve made since I moved to Florida. Life is great, absolutely no complaints, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I couldn’t imagine things being better. But somehow, things got a whole lot better in only two days. Not just for me. For the entire University.
March Madness is interesting for a variety of reasons. The four month season leads up the genocide of thousands of trees which are turned into blank brackets, a 68 team field is assembled, a few days of sports media speculation consumes everyone, an endless amount of brackets get filled out in a million different ways, and then those aforementioned brackets are busted. Powerhouses cement themselves as the favorites of the tournament, a few upsets occur, and occasionally an underdog story starts gaining steam, which in my eyes is always the most interesting part. North Carolina State, Villanova, Gonzaga, George Mason, Davidson, Butler, VCU… there is a large collection of teams in the past that have forced people to throw their brackets in the trash and let go of the dreams of winning office pools. And now in the NCAA’s 75th men’s basketball tournament, my school has entered that discussion with the Gonzaga’s, George Mason’s and Butler’s of the college basketball world. What the hell is going on here?
FGCU established a Division II basketball team only eleven years ago… and now we here? Five years ago we entered Division I basketball… and now we here? I’m starting to believe we’re all just puppets, and Walt Disney is the puppet master of this incredible story, because this whole tournament run seems more like a future Disney movie than real life. In just our 2nd year of full Division I membership, and the 2nd year of coach Andy Enfield’s tenure, my FGCU Eagles are THE story of the NCAA Tournament. It’s surreal.
If you look at the team itself, it’s not a shock that we are indeed shocking the basketball world. The pieces to the puzzle are in place for an extended tournament run, only nobody thought to look at an upstart school like FGCU as potentially the greatest Cinderella story of all time. A young, smart, players’ coach who has NBA experience? Andy Enfield is our guy. Plus he’s married to a freaking supermodel. A crafty point guard who passes the ball with Maravich-esque flair who throws lobs like he is doing his best Chris Paul impression? Meet Brett Comer. One of the peskiest defenders in the country who has stepped up offensively in the tournament, and also happens to be a classmate of mine in non-verbal communication? Let me introduce you to Bernard Thompson. A ton of long, athletic and energetic big guys who love being thrown lobs, which works out extremely well since after all we do live in Dunk City, USA? Say hello to Chase Fieler, Eric McKnight and Eddie Murray. A Swiss guy who runs off screens, buries threes and looks like Sasha Vujacic? Yeah, we have one of them. His name is Christophe Varidel. And we also have Sherwood Brown. But no introduction is needed for Sherwood. Everybody knows Sherwood, and everybody loves Sherwood. Collectively, the FGCU Eagles are a team that boasts the ball movement and continuity of a savvy group of 40 year olds who play in an old man’s league together, the swagger of the Miami Heat, a highlight package that is similar to a slam dunk contest, and the belief that we’re better than everyone else.
The final piece to that puzzle is a fan base that adores the team, and on Sunday night, I witnessed this firsthand for the first time. After we beat San Diego State to become the first 15 seed to ever make the Sweet Sixteen, students (including myself) rushed into the center of North Lake Village and held a controlled riot. News stations taped us as we screamed “FGCU,” “Cinderella,” “Eff your bracket,” “Sweet Sixteen” and every other chant we could think of. Then we stormed the beach. We can do that because we have a beach on our campus. Yes, we are Cinderella, and we have a beach on campus.
It doesn’t even matter what happens in Dallas when we play the University of Florida. We’ve already captured the nation’s imagination and become America’s team. We’ve taken over ESPN, Facebook, Twitter, and every other media outlet you can name. In the process, FGCU has redefined what Cinderella tournament runs are all about. It’s about schools in their first NCAA Tournament who go into every single tournament game with the belief that we are the best team in the country, even though conventional wisdom would say otherwise. Luckily, the NCAA Tournament isn’t about conventional wisdom. It never has been, and it certainly isn’t now. Would conventional wisdom say that a school that’s only 15 years old could make a run to the Sweet Sixteen? I seriously doubt it. I’ve thrown conventional wisdom out the window. I believe in FGCU and that’s a belief that is echoed across the FGCU campus. Let me tell you this: after the pep rally that was held on Monday night, every single person on the FGCU campus believes we can and will win the National Title. Yeah, you heard me; National Title. We started as a swamp now we here. Why would we believe an NCAA Championship is out of the question?