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Upstart FGCU's victory at NCAA shocks country — and itself

Florida Gulf Coast Eagles fans celebrate during the second round of the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

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Florida Gulf Coast Eagles fans celebrate during the second round of the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

FORT MYERS — J.J. King inched to the edge of his plastic computer chair. He bounced his knee and gnawed his thumbnail.

He and four friends, stuffed into a dorm room just big enough to fit a compact car, crowded around an 18-inch TV screen. Florida Gulf Coast University, a 15-seed in the NCAA tournament, was minutes away from the grossly improbable: beating national powerhouse and second-seeded Georgetown University.

But the lead grew. Time dwindled, then disappeared. Final score: Gulf Coast 78, Georgetown 68. Stunned, King and his friends screamed and jumped and high-fived. Then, they looked at each other and wondered the same thing: What now?

At this 12,000-person university, where students must routinely explain to people that their school is a real place located in Fort Myers, few had imagined such an outcome.

This was a school entirely unprepared to be somebody.

Around campus, people did what they thought they should do — what they had seen other schools do. They ran through the streets. They carried each other on their shoulders. They got in their cars, stuck their heads out windows and blared their horns.

They repeated one lone chant — F-G-C-U — because, well, the school doesn't have a fight song, or at least one that anybody knows. They don't even have a fight gesture. No chomp. No chop. No wing flap.

In their overnight note, campus police referred to the celebration as an "unusual occurrence."

"Florida Gulf Coast won first game of the tournament," it said. "No property damage reported. Just lots of noise."

Couches remained unturned and cars stayed upright. Tree limbs went free of toilet paper.

Zero arrests.

After about an hour, the noise petered out.

"We had no idea what to do with ourselves," said Jamie Stout, a 22-year-old senior who was among the revelers. "At all."

But really, it's hard to blame them. Gulf Coast is new. It's so new that, students say, some people in Fort Myers don't know it's a four-year university. It's so new that the sidewalks show no chips and the dorms smell like cars fresh off the lot and most of the young palm trees planted along the roads remain squat.

Consider the comparisons with the team it beat.

Georgetown, founded in 1789, is 208 years older than Gulf Coast. The Hoyas won a national championship more than a decade before the Eagles even existed. More than 60 Georgetown players have made it to the NBA. Exactly zero from Gulf Coast have done the same.

It costs seven times more to attend the school in Washington, D.C., than the one in Fort Myers.

Notable Georgetown alumni: King Abdullah II of Jordan, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and former President Bill Clinton.

Notable Gulf Coast alumni: two members of the Florida House of Representatives, retired baseball pitcher Don Carman and monster truck driver Courtney Jolly.

"It's really not a college town. If anything, it's a retirement town with a college in the middle of it," Stout said. "I think that's about to change."

Friday's win, the students believe, was a watershed moment for the school. Their man on the moon. The first day of the rest of their lives.

Before Friday, the number of "Salt Life" bumper stickers outnumbered the ones saying "FGCU." No more, students say.

At a charity event on campus Saturday, members of Tri Delta sorority showed off tweets from celebrities who had mentioned their school. One from Lil Wayne seemed to be the most popular.

Even a Twitter hashtag had gone viral: #FloridaDunkCoast University.

Earlier that morning, people had lined up at the campus bookstore two hours before it opened.

Kyle Short is 25 and a junior at Gulf Coast. He was still in the Marines when he started looking at colleges years ago. His mother recommended Gulf Coast.

"Where is that?" he asked.

Now, he thinks, maybe Gulf Coast will have a football team in a few years. Applications, the students are convinced, will boom. Next time, they'll know how to celebrate. Surely, they'll get their fight song.

Then again, the experts don't expect Gulf Coast to make it past their second-round game against San Diego State University. Maybe the Eagles will lose and Friday's moment will fade. Maybe nothing will change. Maybe in a month or two, when this tournament of Cinderellas is a distant memory, students from Gulf Coast will still have to explain where they're from.

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. Fast facts

Florida Gulf Coast University

Opened: Aug. 25, 1997, on land donated by Florida citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin III.

Enrollment: 11,279 undergraduates; 1,376 graduate students. Ninety-two percent are from Florida.

Other sports: Baseball; softball; men's and women's cross country, golf, soccer, tennis; women's volleyball, sand volleyball and swimming and diving.

Degrees offered: 52 undergraduate, 30 graduate, two doctoral.

Notable alums: Chris Sale, pitcher, Chicago White Sox; Courtney Jolly, pro monster truck driver; Matt Caldwell, Florida state representative.

Home court: Alico Arena, which has 4,500 seats and two concession stands.

Upstart FGCU's victory at NCAA shocks country — and itself 03/23/13 [Last modified: Sunday, March 24, 2013 1:12am]

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