PHILADELPHIA — Build a state university in the swamplands of south Florida. Move the athletic program to the highest level in college sports and hire a self-made millionaire basketball coach. When his team makes the NCAA tournament, say in Year 2 of its eligibility, beat a tradition-rich opponent like a Georgetown.
That is Florida Gulf Coast University’s formula for success.
It took 16 years, and now the school from south Florida is the talk of March Madness.
“Fort Myers is kind of rocking and rolling right now,” FGCU forward Eddie Murray said Saturday, less than 24 hours after the No. 15 Eagles beat second-seeded Georgetown 78-68. “They’re really excited. This is a big thing for the city and I’m glad we could deliver this.”
It was one heck of a delivery.
Suddenly, a school with an enrollment of about 12,000, whose first graduating class wore the caps and gowns in 2001, is getting national attention because of a basketball team loaded with players whose best recruiting offers were from conferences like the Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley.
The teenagers bought into the pitch from Andy Enfield, a coach who made millions starting up a document imaging and contract management company in the health care industry, and who happens to be married to former supermodel Amanda Marcum. They have three children.
Hard to argue with that kind of salesman.
“Yes, we sold this vision,” said Enfield, who has also spent time as an assistant coach in the NBA and at Florida State, and has been a shooting consultant for several NBA players. “It wasn’t play San Diego State in the (third) round on a Sunday in Philadelphia, it was a vision of success, it was a vision of ... what they could expect in the classroom, off the court and on the basketball court. That’s the vision we sell, and I think that’s most recruiting. You have to let players know what they should expect from you during their time at school.”
Enfield’s motto is simple and he’s lived up to it.
“I aim for the stars,” he said.
Right now he’s taking the team and the school with him.
“The biggest thing he’s given me has just been confidence,” Murray said. “There have been things technique-wise but the biggest thing has definitely been confidence.”
The Eagles (25-10) put on a classic performance against Georgetown, putting on an offensive display unlike any seen against the Hoyas this season. Their 21-2 run in the second half stunned and delighted the sellout crowd at the Wells Fargo Center, and their ability to hold off final charge by the Big East team, sold the fans on the legitimacy of the win. They play San Diego State today.
“Early on in the game I kind of thought that more people would be going for the underdog, but they weren’t really too vocal in the beginning,” Murray said. “As we started getting a couple of dunks here and there, knocking down a couple of 3s and going on a big run against Georgetown, the crowd really started to erupt, become more vocal. The place really started rocking there for a while. Yeah, all these people in Philadelphia have really come to like our team and are rooting for us.”
So is a lot of the country, despite the Eagles shattering bracket sheets.
“I’ve received congratulatory message and advice from other coaches, people in the media, family, friends, people I haven’t seen or heard from in 20 years,” Enfield said, estimating his phone had 450 text messages — and counting.
While Fort Myers and nearby Naples may be known for their retirement communities, the area also has some good golf courses, wetland areas — and the wildlife that comes with them.
“You would see wild animals crossing the road,” said Murray, a local who grew up about 20 miles away from the FGCU campus. “Personally, I’ve seen everything from wild boar, bobcats and, of course, alligators.”
That didn’t deter the students — and basketball players — from attending school on a campus just a few minutes from the Gulf of Mexico that has dorms overlooking a beach on a lake.
“I’m from Orlando, so even being from Florida, a lot of people that I’m close to, they didn’t even know where Florida Gulf Coast was or they never heard of it,” said Sherwood Brown, the Atlantic Sun player of the year, who led the Eagles against Georgetown with 24 points.
One person who knows something about FGCU is Steve Fisher, the coach of San Diego State (23-10), which will face the Eagles with a berth in the Sweet 16 at stake. A No. 15 seed has never made it to the regional semifinals, while the Aztecs are looking to do it for the second time in three seasons.
“I probably knew more than any coach in America about them because I’ve got a condo that I’ve had from my days in the Midwest in Fort Myers Beach, a stone’s throw from Florida Gulf Coast,” said Fisher, who coached Michigan to the 1989 national championship and two other Final Four appearances.
“I read all about them starting sports. I went over to the campus. I’ve been on the campus. I’ve toured it.
“They’re good. I think it’s legitimate.”
Fisher said the low seeding and the short history has nothing to do with this team.
“If we were playing a shirts and skins game with all 64 teams and you brought all the teams out there and watched them warm up, you’d be hard pressed to say, ‘Well, this is a team that’s not supposed to win,’” he said. “They’re good. They’re talented. They’re well-coached. And they played terrific last night.”
The Aztecs broke open their 70-55 win over Oklahoma with a late run behind Jamal Franklin, who leads the San Diego State in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
“We can’t get ahead to the Elite 8 or the Sweet 16,” Franklin said. “Tomorrow is Sunday and that brings Florida Gulf Coast in our path and we’ve got to worry about playing a good team and we’ve got to worry about getting that win.”