Bethany Lutheran College coach Dave Balza (left) recruited FGCU star Sherwood Brown.
By JOAN NIESEN FS North
You've seen it, even if you've watched only a few minutes of March Madness.
The frenetic, blue-and-green blurs. The dunks and the dreads. The tongue-wagging. The chicken-dancing and the victory celebrations.
In fact, if you've heard anything about sports in the past week, you’ve heard about Florida Gulf Coast University, the first 15-seed to advance to the Sweet 16 that has turned into the best story in the NCAA tournament overnight.
But what you don’t know is how the hell this happened.
Dave Balza does.
Balza, the Eagles’ former coach, built the program from scratch. He was there when the team made the leap to Division I in 2007 and for its four-year transitional period. When he hears that Sherwood Brown, one of the team’s breakout stars, is a walk-on, he chuckles. Sure, he and his staff convinced Brown to play at a school in Fort Myers that no one had heard of and that was not yet eligible for postseason play — and pay
FGCU to do it.
But it wasn’t because they didn’t want to give him a scholarship. They wanted him, and badly, but the Brown situation was just one example of the roadblocks FGCU faced in getting to where it is today. You see, when the 6-foot-4 guard from Orlando was choosing which school to attend for his freshman season in 2009, FGCU was in the process of transitioning from Division II. Division I programs have 13 scholarships to allot, but due to a strapped budget and the nascent change, Balza's team had only 10. And they already were taken.
Somehow, though, the coaches managed to get Brown to walk-on, despite the fact that he'd have to pay his way for a year and that his team wouldn't be eligible for postseason play until his junior season. But convince him they did, with that beautiful beachfront campus and an athletic department that for some unknown reason believed it could do great things despite its players being older than the school.
The team that will take the court against Florida on Friday night is the product of new coach Andy Enfield's energetic, above-the-rim style of play. That's how the Eagles beat second-seeded Georgetown and then seventh-seeded San Diego State, becoming miniature Harlem Globetrotters and the darlings of college basketball.
But Balza set the table. His system involved a similar athletic, high-energy style of play, he says, making the transition to a new coach almost seamless. He provided the men, and now Enfield has made it work in a big way.
"I don't know that anyone envisioned it being quite this quick or quite this impressive, being a No. 15 seed making the Sweet 16," Balza said, laughing.
What's most striking about FGCU is not its seeding but its history. The basketball program wasn't born until 2001, when Balza was hired, and the school held its first classes just four years before. In fact, the initial plan was for the university to be a sort of new-age educational program in which students took classes online without much of an actual campus. The fact that it boasts a Division I basketball program just 10 years after classes began is almost preposterous.
Credit Balza, but if you ask the coach, who now holds the head job at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minn., he'll tell you it was easier to establish the team than it was to transition from Division II to Division I beginning in 2007. The Eagles were a powerhouse in Division II, though, with a .745 winning percentage in their five seasons at that level, and so when Division I came calling, they couldn't say no.
Balza compares the phenomenon to having a perfectly adequate date to the prom and then having the homecoming queen invite you. You've got to ditch that first date.
"It was amazing to me how quickly we went to Division I, because that wasn't really part of the original plan when I took the job," Balza said. "It kind of happened out of necessity, because we had a ton of success in Division II.
"It hadn't really been planned. It was kind of a quick jump, so we were still really on a shoestring budget; D-II budget."
For several years during the transition, the logistics were tricky. The team never had a winning record in its four seasons in Division I play with Balza at the helm. There were situations like Brown's, with not enough money leaving open a chance for a coveted player to bolt. There also was the obstacle of luring players to campus when they knew they'd have a four-year ban from the postseason during the transition.
Whereas before all Balza had to do was bring a kid to campus for him to be sold, now there was real wheeling and dealing necessary to attract the kind of talent the Eagles wanted and needed.
But slowly, things got easier. With one year of the postseason ban down, the coach could promise players a chance at a tournament berth their senior year. Two years down, and there were guys like Brown, with a real option of making the dance in their junior and senior seasons. Things were getting back to normal, and when Balza and other coaches brought players to campus and drove them around in golf carts to take in the resort-like setting, it was almost easy again.
One recruit, Swiss guard Christophe Varidel, turned to the coaches on his trip and told them immediately that this was where he wanted to live. Recruiting isn't a beach, after all.
Despite these successes, Balza was fired at the end of the 2010-11 season. "I guess when you win 23 games at a Division II level…" he says, trailing off. (Balza's team went 10-20 in his final season). Even so, the coach says he couldn't be happier for the players he recruited and the program he built.
Numbers and logic said they shouldn't still be playing, this rag-tag team of names few had heard before last weekend. They were just 15-17 last season before surging to 26-10 this year and winning the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament, but suddenly Eddie Murray, Brett Comer, Chase Fieler and Brown are on the big stage. Suddenly they're the best story in college basketball.
As his former players take the court on national television, Balza would like to correct one popular misconception: that Florida Gulf Coast does not belong. Sure, one look at the other teams playing in Texas this weekend, Florida, Michigan and Kansas, and it's a rudimentary case of "one of these is not like the others."
At least, that's what you see. Balza, however, sees three teams FGCU played in nonconference games during its transitional period. He sees three losses, sure, but also three tapes to watch, three highlight films, three nights that somehow contributed to how his guys got to where they are today.
So yes, they belong, even if it's in the most abstract of senses. Even if it's just to bust some brackets.