FORT MYERS, Fla. — They play in the newly chartered Dunk City. They play on a campus that’s only been open since 1997. The oldest alums are in their early 30s. They play in the Atlantic Sun Conference. They are the lowest-seeded team (15) in the history of the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
And now they belong to the universe.
Florida Gulf Coast University is the home of the hottest sports story in the land. The Eagles just routed Georgetown and San Diego State in the Philadelphia sub-regional. Friday night they’ll play the University of Florida in Arlington, Texas, for a shot to advance to the Elite Eight. Not bad for a school that didn’t exist 20 years ago.
There never has been anything like this in sleepy Fort Myers. This is bigger than Deion Sanders. It’s bigger than the opening of Mike Greenwell’s amusement park. It’s bigger than Lou Gorman serving as grand marshal of the City of Lights Festival parade. It’s bigger than Red Sox vs. Twins in the rubber game of the Mayor’s Cup Series.
Sunday night in the Fort was electric — no small statement given the fact that Fort Myers was the winter home of Thomas Edison. Walking around the Bell Tower shopping center off Route 41, one could hear roars coming from Shoeless Joe’s bar in the Crown Plaza, the World of Beer adjacent to Bistro 41, and the Blue Pointe Oyster Bar.
Monday night there was an old-timey pep rally at the Eagles’ 4,500-seat Alico Arena. Fans chanted “We want UF (thankfully, the Gators don’t go by ‘Florida University’)!’’ More than 3,500 attended the rally, which was in part broadcast live by ESPN. Tourists and students scooped up FGCU merchandise at the campus bookstore. The school’s athletic website crashed under the weight of record traffic. Online admission inquiries are up tenfold.
Everyone here thinks it’s amusing that FGCU has drawn Florida in the Sweet 16. The Eagles tried to scrimmage the Gators before the start of the regular season, but were told, “No thanks.’’
Red Sox sluggers Dustin Pedroia and Johnny Gomes, caught up in the FGCU mania, talked about the Eagles vs. the Gators the clubhouse Monday morning.
Pedroia: “Don’t you love that? Florida wouldn’t even scrimmage them?’’
Gomes: “Yeah. ‘No thanks, guys, come see us when you’ve been in Division 1 for more than a season.’ ’’
The Eagles are coached by Andy Enfield, who is married to a model (she may be a supermodel by the end of the tournament). Do any Celtics fans remember him? Enfield served under Rick Pitino with the Celtics from 1998-2000. He was Paul Pierce’s shot doctor during the early days of Pierce’s career.
FGCU didn’t win its league this season. The Eagles finished second to Mercer. They lost twice to Lipscomb (12-18, RPI 236). They also lost to Stetson (15-16), East Tennessee State (10-22), and Maine (11-19).
Famous former FGCU students? Try White Sox pitcher Chris Sale. And don’t forget former professional monster truck driver Courtney Jolly.
Florida is the hoop capital of the universe at this hour. The Miami Heat are in the middle of their 27-game winning streak. Enfield says his team would love to play the Heat. Sherwood Brown, the chicken-dancing, telegenic Atlantic Sun player of the year, told USA Today, “If we had to suit up against the Heat, we would suit up against the Heat.’’
The Eagles did suit up against the University of Miami this season and beat the Atlantic Coast Conference titans. The “U” will play Marquette in the East Regional Thursday, but it’s the FGCU-Florida game that’s getting most of the attention in the Sunshine State.
Dunk City is more than a nickname.
Dunks accounted for 18.5 percent of FGCU’s successful field goal attempts against Georgetown and San Diego State. They had 36 assists in the two games. They made 13 of 33 threes. The Eagles run and attack the rim. They rarely need the full shot clock. They love the no-look pass, almost as much as the alley-oop. They dunk in the layup line during warmups. Chase Fieler throws it down hardest.
Last weekend CBS studio analyst Charles Barkley asked Enfield, “Where the hell is Florida Gulf Coast at?’’
Now we all know.
Florida Gulf Coast’s 760-acre campus is very near the Southwest International Airport where snowbirds from Melrose and Hopkinton have been arriving to watch the Red Sox for the last 20 years.
FGCU is a commuter school; half of the 13,600 students are from southwest Florida and more than 90 percent are from Florida. All of the basketball players live in the same dormitory. The school mascot is Azul the Eagle.
The first graduation was held in May of 1998, a class of 81. The school was accredited in 1999, but it didn’t become eligible for the Division 1 NCAA Tournament until last year.
“I’m glad we put FGCU on the map,’’ senior forward Eddie Murray told the crowd at the Monday rally. “We are no longer in Fort Myers. We are in Dunk City!’’Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.