Saint Mary's recalls distant sports glory

MORAGA, Calif. — It has been eight decades since Saint Mary's got so much attention for traveling East to beat a national power.

Long after Slip Madigan loaded his Galloping Gaels onto trains for cross-country trips to face football's elite, the basketball team is making its mark.

Led by center Omar Samhan and five Australians, the 10th-seeded Gaels are in the round of 16 for the first time since 1959 — when the tourney had 23 teams. After stunning South Region No. 2 seed Villanova on Saturday, Saint Mary's gets time to celebrate before facing No. 3 seed Baylor on Friday in Houston.

The national spotlight is new for a program that often fights for attention at home. Overshadowed by California and Stanford plus six major pro teams in the area, the school of about 3,500 students, about 10 miles east of Oakland, is in the limelight once again.

"With a small community you know everybody," Samhan said of a small but vocal group of SMC fans who made the trek to Providence, R.I., for the first two games. "I'm happy for them that they're able to experience it with us and I'm happy we were able to do this for Saint Mary's."

The scene on campus was almost as wild, said Diana Diaz, co-president of the Gael Force student supporters. Students screamed out their dorm windows or honked horns on campus. Diaz also got to ring the bell on campus.

"Supposedly the last time it was rung manually was when the pope died," Diaz said. "It's kind of a big deal."

The basketball team is gaining fans as quickly as the football team did long ago. Madigan, a football center for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, turned the Gaels into a power, beating USC, UCLA, Stanford and Cal in the 1920s. Then through the '30s the team took yearly a cross-country train rides to face powerhouse Fordham at New York's Polo Grounds, including a 1930 win that broke the Rams' 28-game winning streak.

Saint Mary's dropped football in 2004.

PLUSES OF STAYING: Northern Iowa athletic director Troy Dannen has an important task: keeping his coach.

Ben Jacobson's resume reads like a one-way ticket to a major-conference job. In four years at UNI he is 89-42, and his stock has never been higher after his Panthers knocked off No. 1 seed Kansas on Saturday to earn a berth in the Sweet 16.

But persuading Jacobson to stay might not be as hard today as it once would have been, thanks to Northern Iowa's decade-long stint as its state's best program and the cases of coaches who fared better outside the six power conferences.

"I gave my coach a five-year extension last year, and I need to find a way to incentive him to stay," Dannen said. "I can pay him a third of what Iowa can pay him, but I can give stability. And while the expectations are high (here), they're not unreasonable. Making $350,000 to $400,000 in Cedar Falls means you can live a pretty good life."

PENDERS RESIGNING?: According to media reports, Houston coach Tom Penders plans to resign. KRIV-TV and the Houston Chronicle said Penders, 64, decided to step down after a meeting with athletic director Mack Rhoades and will make the announcement today. The Cougars made the NCAAs for the first time since 1992 but lost in the first round.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "That was a middle-school move. He was doing a lot of cheating. … He's a dirty player and the whole world knows it, especially after tonight." — Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins of Wake Forest's Chas McFarland, who late in Saturday's game drew an intentional foul by hitting Cousins in the face as Cousins put up a shot

Saint Mary's recalls distant sports glory 03/21/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 22, 2010 1:13am]

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