FGCU has become ultimate Cinderella story

March 26, 2013

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The opening moments of what led to an unlikely Cinderella story included a promise, one of new starts, one of no memory.

That day in spring 2011 was an appropriate time for Andy Enfield, Florida Gulf Coast’s new coach, to offer his message. He was about to be introduced as the second coach in program history, in a little-known place tucked under palm trees in southwest Florida that prepared to enter its first season of NCAA tournament eligibility.  

Athletic director Ken Kavanagh stood close by and listened to Enfield address the team in a locker room on campus. The former Florida State, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics assistant preached a fresh beginning for what would be the program’s 10th year of existence. A young university – Florida Gulf Coast admitted its first student in 1997 – had turned to a first-time head coach to lead in a time of potential but also great unknown.

“I’m here,” Kavanagh recalls Enfield saying. “We’re going to start tomorrow. I’m not looking at any film. Everybody starts from scratch.”

So much about the Eagles’ Sweet 16 run in the South Regional – they play Florida on Friday in Arlington, Texas – is evidence of what can be done with little more than belief and ambition. Almost nothing about the Eagles as one of 16 teams left in the country makes sense. Two of their 10 losses came to Atlantic Sun Conference foe Lipscomb, which finished 12-18. They play in an arena that holds 4,500 people. Although there rarely is a full house. Before last week, Florida Gulf Coast was more known for its women’s basketball program, which finished as the runner-up in Division II in 2007.

But here they are, these loose, high-flying, status-quo-defying “Dunk City” residents who are eager to take their act to JerryWorld and further energize the nation. History? It’s already been made – no No. 15 seed has come this far in six previous tries – so additional steps will only add to their show.

“I feel we’re coming out and playing with a chip on our shoulder,” said sophomore guard Brett Comer, who leads the Eagles with 237 assists. “We have nothing to lose. The teams above us have everything to lose. They lose to a team like Florida Gulf Coast, everybody’s like, ‘Well, what is Florida Gulf Coast?’ But I feel like we put our name on the map now, and people will have to respect us.”

Remaining contenders, much less the Gators, should respect them by now. They’re an eclectic mix of diamonds in the rough who were all but invisible to Sunshine State powers coming out of high school.

Take Comer, a high school teammate of Austin Rivers in Winter Park, Fla., whose options included Florida Atlantic and Massachusetts before signing with Enfield. Take senior guard Sherwood Brown, a native of Orlando, Fla., and the Eagles’ leading scorer (15.6 points per game) and rebounder (6.6 per game), who considered programs such as Florida Southern and the University of Tampa. Take sophomore guard Bernard Thompson, a native of Conyers, Ga., and the Eagles’ second-leading scorer (14.5 ppg), who almost attended Tennessee State.

“I was an assistant at Florida State, and I didn’t recruit any of these kids,” Enfield said. “At the mid-major level where we are, it’s important to get good players that you think you can develop. … Our program is so defined, and they spend so much time on their skills that they’ve made unbelievable jumps.

“They didn’t have those skills six months, eight months, a year ago. Yeah, they were developing them, but it’s all about making players better. If you make individuals better, your team becomes better.”

Florida Gulf Coast has become better in a stunning, short amount of time. The complete reason for this is complex – a combination of sustained work, quality vision by Enfield and his staff, along with key signings (Comer and Thompson were among the first recruits to make official visits during the Enfield era).

But on the surface is a simpler answer: Florida Gulf Coast flat-out believes. The attitude is a reflection of their coach, who Kavanagh has said instills confidence in others around him. It’s why they’ve done more for their profile than any other program in the field of 68. It’s why they’ve changed their campus forever.

Where else would a practice end with a dunk contest, three days before the largest game of their lives? Where else would Cinderella strut with attitude, but do so in a way that makes them appear cool, not callous? Where else would pressure seem non-existent because a coaching staff has introduced the thought that there was none to begin with?

“We’re just as athletic as any team,” Thompson said. “We have great shooters, great drivers. We have all the parts to beat anybody. All we have to do is play team ball, and we should come out with a win.”

That’s the delicious part. What if this is only a start?

Comer had such a thought, standing under a goal on Tuesday at Alico Arena, where blue-and-green NCAA tournament banners for baseball, softball, men’s golf, men’s tennis and women’s tennis were displayed on a wall across the way. Soon, another sport will be added.

“We’re going to be dangerous the next couple years like this too,” he said, “because we know what we can do.”

This Cinderella story started with a promise, with belief. It continues as a threat.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.