Florida Gulf Coast University rides the wave to national prominence
DUNK CITY, Fla. -- Florida Gulf Coast coach Dave Tollett fired up his computer the morning after the Eagles became the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Page after page of unopened e-mails greeted him.
"Four hundred eighty-nine," Tollett said, smiling.
That might not seem so unusual, except that Tollett coaches FGCU's baseball team. The bulk of those e-mails came from high school players or their parents. Across the nation, they had watched on television as the Eagles dunked their way to wins against Georgetown and San Diego State. They had seen the photos of FGCU students marching from their dorms for an impromptu beach party. Less than three days since the basketball team from a relatively anonymous directional school in southwest Florida took the court against Georgetown in Philadelphia, seemingly everyone wanted to play in that magical place known as Dunk City -- regardless of sport. "In 72 hours," Tollett said, "the university has changed."
As the men's basketball Eagles prepare to continue their ride Friday night against No. 3-seed Florida in Arlington, Texas, FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanagh and his staff must make the most of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to raise awareness of the athletic department and the school. "This is our 15 minutes," said Denise Anderson Da Silveira, the director of corporate partnerships and marketing for FGCU athletics. "Now we've got to capitalize on it."
Da Silveira's daughter works as a media buyer in Chicago. On Monday morning, she called to check on her suddenly very busy mother. "She said, 'Mom, do you have a handle on this?'" Da Silveira said. Indeed, everyone in the department seemed to be managing the Eagles' sudden fame. The moment FGCU point guard Brett Comer tossed a no-he-didn't-just-do-that alley-oop to Chase Fieler in the waning minutes of the Georgetown game, the Eagles became a bona fide phenomenon. They had a coach who married a model. They ran. They dunked. They threw alley-oops with no apparent regard for potential negative repercussions. And when they finished, star Sherwood Brown shook the announcers' hands. Then, against San Diego State on Sunday, they did it all over again. This time, student manager Dan Thomas burst into the locker room with a dance that by Monday morning had captivated the blogosphere. Seemingly everything FGCU did hit the sweet spots of the Twitterati who drive social media in this country. Through television first, then through the second screen of Twitter and Facebook, the Eagles flew into the zeitgeist.
According to figures released by the school, FGCU.edu had 230,985 unique visitors on Monday. Meanwhile, FGCUAthletics.com had 117,113 unique visitors on Monday. A month earlier, those totals were 49,143 and 3,856. Meanwhile, the student bookstore saw a year-over-year increase of $28,550 (521 percent) in women's apparel sales and $100,246 (686 percent) increase in men's apparel sales for the period of March 1-25. ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi and his crew, who had been called away from covering Tiger Woods, set up a base camp in Alico Arena. Kavanagh saw one of Rinaldi's hits and noticed that the school's floor logo and other assorted marks were being broadcast to millions of viewers. "What if we had a commercial?" Kavanagh said. "How much would we have to pay for that same type of opportunity?"
Awareness is precisely why former FGCU president William Merwin wanted to start an athletic program. The school opened in 1997 and served primarily as a distance learning center. As the century turned, Merwin decided to change that. He wanted FGCU to give students a more traditional college experience. He wanted a robust campus life. He wanted a Greek system. He wanted sports teams. One of the first athletic department hires was Butch Perchan, the senior associate athletics director for external affairs. Perchan had come from Southern Colorado to live in the warmth of the Sunshine State. He got the full Florida experience. The athletic department was housed in trailers as the school worked to clear the surrounding swampland to make it suitable for facilities. "Three beautiful trailers," Perchan joked. Kavanagh, who wouldn't arrive in Fort Myers until 2009, isn't sure he could have handled the pioneer life Perchan enjoyed so much. "Snakes were being moved," Kavanagh said, "so they could create something." One of Perchan's first hires was Tollett, who received $3,500 for the first year he spent recruiting a team.
FGCU's teams began play in the 2002-03 school year in the NAIA. They moved quickly to NCAA Division II, then reclassified to Division I. One major donor was Ben Hill Griffin III, who has a street named for him on one side of campus and whose agribusiness company's name is on the arena. It was Griffin's company that donated all the land on which the university sits. If that name sounds familiar even to sports fans who aren't familiar with the citrus industry, it's because Griffin's father, Ben Hill Griffin Jr., donated so generously to the University of Florida that the school named the football stadium after him. (Ben Hill Griffin III also remains an active donor at Florida.) Another major FGCU donor was the late Duane Swanson, who owned a large building supply company. Swanson befriended Tollett and became one of the program's biggest benefactors. Once, Swanson became so irked that he couldn't buy a hot dog during FGCU baseball games that Tollett convinced him to fund the construction of a concession stand. Feeling bold, Tollett then suggested the project should also include a baseball locker room, baseball clubhouse and an office building for the baseball, softball and soccer coaches. Swanson funded all of it. "He'd shed tears over this," Perchan said of the Sweet 16 run.
Last year was the first for the men's basketball team as a full member of the NCAA's Division I. But it is a vast gulf between FGCU's end of Division I and the one occupied by the Eagles' Sweet 16 opponent. While FGCU and Florida are considered equals in NCAA Division I legislative matters, the Eagles bear no financial resemblance to the balance-sheet juggernaut from Gainesville they'll see Friday. According to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, FGCU spent $1.1 million on men's basketball last season against $1.16 million in revenue -- and much of that revenue comes from a whopping $16.79-per-credit-hour fee that all students must pay regardless of whether they care about FGCU sports. Florida, meanwhile, spent $8.47 million on men's basketball against $10.19 million in revenue and charges a $1.90-per-credit-hour athletic fee. (Florida's athletic department, which reported $74.12 million in revenue from football last year, also makes a $6 million annual contribution to the school's general fund.)
Kavanagh would eventually like to be the kind of athletic department that can kick money back into the university's general fund, but he knows that will take time and sustained success. The university is working to copyright "Dunk City," but no one will want to buy "Dunk City" T-shirts if the program doesn't keep winning. This year's run likely will make Eagles coach Andy Enfield -- whose salary is $157,500 -- a hot commodity. If Kavanagh can't raise the money to keep Enfield, he'll have to make another brilliant hire to keep the momentum. Kavanagh has studied the programs at Butler, Creighton and Gonzaga, which have parlayed NCAA tournament success into more robust athletic departments. Butler has managed to raise enough money to keep coach Brad Stevens. After losing Dan Monson to Minnesota, Gonzaga has managed to hold on to Mark Few. The ability to raise money will be key in either keeping Enfield or hiring his successor. That's why it's so important to cash in on this moment. "I'm definitely not a surfer, but surfers wait for that wave to really get the best it can and ride it all the way to the beach. Well, the wave is basically here for us right now," Kavanagh said. "We don't want to fall and crash right as we get on the board."
More success might allow Kavanagh a chance to keep Enfield, but it also would allow him to more fully fund the athletic department, where only four of 15 teams offer the full complement of scholarships allowed by the NCAA. It also would allow him to get closer to fully staffing his department. As an example, Kavanagh cited basketball operations directors Joey Cantens (men) and Mel Thomas (women). Kavanagh said each receives $20,000 a year with no benefits. "They're basically interns," Kavanagh said. A competitively equivalent mid-major, Kavanagh said, would offer at least $30,000 plus benefits for a similar position.
So the Eagles will take the court Friday with an entire athletic department and an entire school on their backs. Like quarterback Doug Flutie for Boston College or forward Gordon Hayward for Butler, the notoriety they generate can lead to increased applications, a deeper talent pool of students and more revenue for the athletic department. How does that happen? One person at a time. Tuesday, 14-year-old Kaylie Lewkowski arrived from Naperville, Ill., to visit her grandmother, Joan, who spends six months a year in nearby Naples, Fla., and six months in Dowagiac, Mich. Joan asked if Kaylie wanted to visit the campus of FGCU, where the basketball team had become famous during the weekend. Joan then quizzed Kaylie on what the acronym represented. "Florida Gator Control Unit?" Kaylie guessed. Tuesday afternoon, as Kaylie stood outside the arena next to the dorm with its own beach, she learned the letters stood for Florida Gulf Coast University.
The school that makes its home in Dunk City.