Monday, December 18, 2017
Sports

Just who is Florida Gulf Coast?

ESTERO — Two weeks ago, they played in relative anonymity, a team whose mascot you probably didn't know, representing a school you couldn't find on a map of your own state.

Today, the nation's sports fans can't stop talking about Florida Gulf Coast University, whose dunking, dancing Eagles are the first No. 15 seed to reach the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.

Up next? A showdown with third-seeded Florida on Friday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

"It's surreal," said FGCU senior Eddie Murray, a 6-foot-8 forward from nearby North Fort Myers. "Four days ago, nobody knew who we were. In just a couple of days, we won over Philadelphia, and now we've won over the nation. You watch the news, and everybody's pulling for us to beat the Gators. The whole nation wants to see the Cinderella story continue. It's an amazing feeling."

Cinderella has never been so young: The school's first students enrolled in 1997, which makes USF (founded in 1956) look like Harvard (chartered in 1636). And never so fun to watch, its games a wild mix of alley-oop dunks and bench celebrations.

With just two wins this past weekend, FGCU has exploded on the national consciousness. Web traffic on Sunday for the Eagles' sports site, fgcuathletics.com, was 50 times what the site normally gets on a Sunday.

The attention, while welcome, is a distraction from the basketball that got FGCU where it is. Coach Andy Enfield and his players arrived home from Philadelphia around 4 a.m. Monday, and the coach slept about 90 minutes before a busy day of appearances on national TV and radio shows.

"I've been in circus mode all day today," Enfield said Monday night at a pep rally that drew about 4,000 fans to the Eagles' modest home, Alico Arena, nearly double the average for a home game. "This is a day to try to get FGCU's name out there and really cherish this accomplishment for our university and community."

Enfield appreciates that one reason fans have so embraced his team is the players' personalities, much looser and freer on the court than in more restrictive schemes and systems. The former NBA assistant admits he does most of his coaching in practice, trusting his players — especially point guard Brett Comer — to follow their instincts during games.

"There were times in these two games in Philadelphia where I just stopped coaching and sat back and watched our team play," said Enfield, now being mentioned as a candidate for national coaching openings as big as UCLA. "They do it out of instinct now, because we've done it so often in practice. I was just enjoying our team play. I was having as much fun as everyone in the stands. They don't have to be coached on every possession."

The most common national question, of course, is "Just who is Florida Gulf Coast?" NBC's Jimmy Fallon mentioned FGCU in his late-night monologue Monday, joking that the school was so obscure that the University of Phoenix asked who they were.

That's fine with athletic director Ken Kavanagh, who sees tremendous value in the positive exposure this brings to his school. Kavanagh recognizes that his program operates at a much different economic level than the Gators do, but he sees this as a potential step to slowly narrow that gap.

"University of Florida does so well with all their resources that they hand money to the university every year, millions of dollars," he said. "We're among the vast majority that don't do that. We're an investment by the students, the school, the donors. We need to show we're deserving of those resources."

Kavanagh said his school is still young enough that the exposure and name recognition value of FGCU's success this week can help its graduates land jobs down the road.

"We hope we're growing your resume, so when somebody sees it in Atlanta or Indianapolis or Los Angeles, when they read that resume, they don't say 'Florida Gulf Coast? Where are they from?' (They say) 'I know about that school. I've heard all about them,' " he said.

College basketball knows who the Eagles are, and they don't lack for confidence. This is a team that beat Miami in November, after all, and knocked off Georgetown, so their next opponent isn't so daunting to stop players from holding up signs Monday night that said "I SMELL GATOR BLOOD."

"We're not afraid to play against anybody. If we had to suit up against the Heat, we would," guard Sherwood Brown said.

The Eagles aren't completely surprised by their success. They may take over another arena and convert more fans Friday night, so it's hard to know just when their magical postseason run will end.

"Did we think we were going to the Sweet 16 the first time we made the NCAA Tournament? No," Kavanaugh said. "But we also didn't start any game thinking we were going to lose."

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