by Leigh Klein / @leighalanklein
Cattle and swamp once defined the land bordering Lake Como, FL, now known as “Dunk City.”‘ What used to be no man’s land was the talk of the college basketball world last spring.
A school of 12,000 students, two decades removed from being a place with no roads and no utilities, athletics has put Florida Gulf Coast University on the map. Last year during the NCAA Tournament, FGCU had an improbable run as the No. 15 seed all the way to the Sweet 16—the first ever run of its kind in the NCAA Tournament’s history.
Now the program tries to go one step further on it’s 15 minutes of fame and be a program that can sustain success like a Butler or Virginia Commonwealth. The direct financial impact on “Dunk City” can be felt throughout the school with increased tickets sales, merchandising, alumni contributions and admission applications.
Very few double-digit darlings outside of the BCS conferences return to taste success the next year, and they attempt to do so without head coach Andy Enfield, gone for USC. The school did bring in longtime Kansas assistant coach, Joe Dooley, a strong national name to fill the vacated spot. Dooley’s last stint as a head coach was at East Carolina where he was five games over .500 in four years.
SLAM caught up with him and FGCU.
SLAM: Why Florida Gulf Coast, what inspired you to make the jump?
Joe Dooley: It’s been 14 years between head spots. I thought this was a good fit with a good nucleus returning. I was perfectly content at Kansas but I felt this was a special opportunity with a good quality of living for my family.
SLAM: What are your expectations for the program?
JD: Our expectations are to win the league and make the Tournament. What people don’t realize is how tough that really is. There are good teams in the league. The conference is very well balanced. Part of the misconception, is the win-loss record of the teams, it doesn’t take in account the money games, the imbalanced schedule with several road games to open the season against BCS-level opponents.
USC Upstate won at Virginia Tech and at South Carolina. Mercer’s beat Seton Hall and Ole Miss. At the end of the regular conference season last year, it was Mercer who was the first-place team. Mercer is currently in first in the standings they have seven seniors that returned from last year.
SLAM: Has it changed, being the hunted…instead of being the hunter?
JD: We have four starters back from last season’s team. The spike in attendance has been incredible. We are everyone in the conference biggest road draw. You become everyone’s biggest game and that’s a new experience for these kids. At Kansas, that’s business as usual. You win the National Title and now you must rev it up again and compete. That’s the experience I am trying to convey to our squad.
SLAM: Are the guys content with what was accomplished last season or are they hungry for more?
JD: In the beginning they thought that everything was a given to be good. But they have figured out. They have to work and that last season was last season.
SLAM: Have you been making the progress you had hoped?
JD: We have gotten better this past month. We are at the half-way point. We have a lot of room to improve and we are gaining quickly. Our offensive numbers are behind last year because we have faced a few adjusted pace opponents and we were without [Bernard] Thompson due to injury and [Eric] McKnight due to suspension. We had been playing with the equivalent of three of last season’s top seven. With McKnight and Thompson back our offense should round into shape. For us to be successful, we have to guard. Our field-goal defense needs to be the best in the league.
SLAM: Tell us about the core of this team, what makes it tick?
JD: This is an incredibly proud unit, that has high expectations. Comer and Thompson set the tone, they bring the energy. McKnight is a presence and could be a difference-maker. We have some depth as well that should help us as the season wears on.
SLAM: Is Dunk City still alive and well?
JD: I believe so. We have seen a 35 percent increase in school applications. We are averaging over 2,000 more fans per game, a 114 percent increase from last year. We have much better name recognition. It has had a positive effect on recruiting, we were able to sign three players in the early signing period. For the area and the University, “Dunk City” is something to hold on to and build with. They were able to see what one instance has done for the school and they want to stay relevant.
The landscape for double-digit darlings outside the BCS conferences is incredibly difficult. The Eagles were the first ever No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16. When you look at history you find 14th-seeded Cleveland State that advanced to the Sweet 16, knocking off Bob Knight and Indiana to get there behind Mouse McFadden and coach Kevin Mackey. It took the Vikings, 29 years before they returned to the Tourney.
For Tennessee Chattanooga, who in 1997 took down Georgia and Illinois on their path to the Sweet 16, it was eight years before they danced again.
In discussing whether it can happen again for Florida Gulf Coast, Dooley pointed out how no one knew who Gonzaga was 15 years ago. They wore the glass slipper, had some success and invested in their program (to the tune of over $6 million per year). Now Gonzaga is a national program and power.
Dooley and FGCU believe they can be more than a folk story that gets told every March.