Sometimes you just get lucky in life. Mel Thomas, the former UConn point guard, the noted author and three-point shooter, is in the midst of building her administrative career in women’s basketball at this tiny, little start up school in Ft. Myers, Fla.
You may have heard of it? Florida Gulf Coast? Great men’s basketball team, now in the Sweet 16. Bye-bye Georgetown and San Diego State?
Yes, that one.
I saw Melanie at the Paradise Jam Tournament in November. She was doing what the director of basketball operations for the Florida Gulf Coast women’s team does – administering to the small details than pave the path for the players and coaches.
And on Sunday, after the Eagles beat the Aztecs in the second-round, I asked her if she would be willing to write the Courant a little story about what it’s like to work in the men’s basketball capital of the nation.
Melanie said yes.
“I woke up yesterday morning, unsure if it was all a dream. A team from a no-name university makes history, becoming the first 15-seed to ever reach the Sweet 16. Then I started to see the fury of headlines: “Cinderella With Serious Swagger”, “The Darlings of March Madness”, “Is FGCU America’s Team?”
I realized I was no longer in Ft. Myers. I woke up in a high-flying, fairytale world known as Dunk City. It just seems too good to be true. Eleven years ago, the athletic department consisted of trailers. Basketball practices were held outside. Now after just two years of NCAA eligibility, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, softball, men’s golf, swimming, and diving have already made appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s an athletic department filled with coaches, sports information directors, and athletic trainers who are all best friends. A basketball program led by a [former] NBA coach with a supermodel wife. Players with dorms overlooking the beach. Guys with unexpected athleticism not only dunk, they fly. I’m talking Sports-Center-Top-Ten-Kind-of-Dunks.
A walk-on becomes a household name, shaking his dreads on every possible media outlet. A music video of an eagle being dunked into a nerf hoop. A sequel filmed at a pep rally. Why are Eagles doing the chicken dance? No one really knows, but it all seems to fit perfectly into this unthinkable dream. They click their heels like leprechauns each time they make a 3. Goggles up, tongues out. Is this for real? Things like this don’t really happen, do they?
These guys are wild. They’re crazy, and they’re enjoying every second. This is what college basketball is all about. A team full of guys playing the game they love with the people they love. And everyone can feel it—the passion, the emotion, the excitement. They have captured America’s hearts because they follow the simplest philosophy imaginable—they have fun. Too often people get caught up in the politics and the pressure, and they forget the true meaning of the sport. It’s a game. Games are meant to be fun. Stick out your tongue. Yell. Shake your dreads. Click your heels. Dance like a chicken. Who cares? Have fun. Believe in yourself. Believe in each other.
Yesterday wasn’t a typical day at work. I pulled up to a parking lot full of media frenzy. I gave a campus tour to a recruit, but it was no ordinary tour. I had to weave the golf cart between wires and media trucks. We visited a bookstore packed wall-to-wall with crazed fans chanting FG-CU. Sales up 1000%. As I answered questions about our academic programs, kids sprinted by blowing vuvuzelas. Then we saw campus police escorting players out of a crazed mob.
This has been one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Before my eyes, my little, no-name school has transformed into a national phenomenon. A group of guys with a little bit of swagger have become celebrities overnight.
I went from playing at one of the most renowned programs in the country to working for one of the least. Well, that is, until now. I no longer think I will have to answer the frequent questions: “Oh, where is that?” “Is that a community college?” or “Did you say ‘Golf’—like the sport?” After playing for a powerhouse like UConn, I was accustomed to crushing Cinderella’s dreams. But now I’m living them.
They have shocked the world, and our school will never be the same.
It’s a dream at FGCU…and no one’s ready to wake up yet.