Brian Eggleston, St. Bonaventure class of 2003, cheered every basket of Sunday's Atlantic 10 championship game along with about 60 friends and fellow alums at the Relief Pitcher in Binghamton. Jim Gould, class of 1980, said he and his family were "hooting and hollering" from their home in Pittsford. Frank Aielo, a Bonnies season-ticket holder since the late '60s, got choked up Monday just talking about his team's berth as the No. 14 seed in the East Region.
Every fan of every team in this year's NCAA field of 68 is excited this week, but the tournament may mean the most to those who support the tiny Franciscan school in rural Olean, N.Y. Nine years ago they saw their program and community torn apart by unthinkable scandal, and they've spent many of the dark years since wondering whether moments like Sunday's tourney-clinching upset of Xavier would ever return.
"Basketball means everything to our small community," St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said Monday. "Because of what happened in 2003, what happened [Sunday] was bigger than most people that saw their names come on the board."
What happened in 2003 gave St. Bonaventure an unwanted national stigma. At the behest of then-coach Jan van Breda Kolff, the school's president, Robert Wickenheiser, circumvented university protocol to admit juco center Jamil Terrell -- who, it turned out, had not earned his associates degree but rather a vocational welding certificate. Terrell was ruled ineligible late in the season, and when the A-10 banned the Bonnies from the conference tournament, the players boycotted their final two games. Mass firings, resignations, player transfers and NCAA sanctions soon followed.
But unlike in the wake of recent sanctions at Ohio State, USC and elsewhere, the school and its fans made no attempt to spin the situation, defend the transgressions or accuse the NCAA and media of some grand conspiracy. Instead -- as I found out when I visited the roughly 2,000-student campus two years later -- the students, professors and alumni felt betrayed and devastated that corruption had infested their proud school.
"I remember coming into class the day after [the scandal] broke, it was like a grieving process," said Eggleston, now a federal government employee. "The teachers asked if you wanted to talk about it. That's how close everything is up there."
The locals take considerable pride in Bonas basketball, which achieved its high point when future NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier led a run to the 1970 Final Four. The school has made five NCAA appearances and won the 1977 NIT.
But when I visited in 2005, the Bonnies were in the late stages of a 2-26 season under second-year coach Anthony Solomon, who went 8-19 and 7-22 the following two seasons before getting the axe. (He's now in his second stint as an assistant at Notre Dame.) Empty seats were aplenty at the 5,480-seat Reilly Center. A group of seniors I met at a nearby bar afterward said they used to wake up early and tailgate for home games, but were only vaguely aware there'd been a game that night. An angry professor told me he doubted the program would recover within five years.
Against that depressing backdrop, Schmidt, formerly Robert Morris' head coach and a longtime Xavier assistant before that, arrived in the spring of 2007.
"When I first got the job, I did an alumni [event] in Buffalo," said Schmidt, who played for Gary Williams at Boston College and coached under the late Skip Prosser at Loyola (Md.) and Xavier. "An old lady got up and said, 'Coach, winters up here are cold and long, but the last four years, they've been really cold and really long.'"
Schmidt, who inherited just three scholarship players, went 8-22 his first year, finishing last in the A-10. By then, however, he'd signed his first recruit: a late-blooming big man from Ontario, Canada named Andrew Nicholson. Behind the 6-foot-9, 225-pound A-10 rookie of the year, St. Bonaventure began a gradual improvement to 11th place in 2009, eighth place in 2010 and seventh-place last year, finishing with a 19-11 record and CBI berth.
The 2011-12 season started ominously when sixth man Marquise Simmons tore his ACL in the season opener against Cornell. Senior starter Michael Davenport suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in early December. Still, behind eventual conference player of the year Nicholson, the Bonnies finished 10-6 in the league to earn a first-round bye in last week's tournament. After surviving St. Joe's (71-68) and UMass (84-80), they earned a date against perennial power Xavier in Sunday's CBS-televised final from Atlantic City.
Behind Nicholson's 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocked shots, the Bonnies (20-11) jumped to a 37-24 halftime lead, then survived a second-half scare to win 67-56, earning their first A-10 tournament title and first NCAA trip since losing to Kentucky in double overtime in the first round of the 2000 Dance.
"I wanted to go to a school where I could make a difference," said Nicholson, a likely NBA pick this spring. "We did it."
The Bonnies' bus back from Atlantic City returned home at around 2:30 a.m. Monday, where a police escort and several hundred cheering fans awaited. Roughly nine hours later, Schmidt was still beaming through the phone.
"The most satisfying thing as a coach is watching their faces -- the crowd, the alumni, the kids, with their big smiles -- to see them finally realize something we've been working to bring back, to see it become reality," he said. "The players don't understand the impact they've had on the community, but I do."
Gould, whose four daughters all have either graduated from, currently attend or are about to attend St. Bonaventure, is traveling to Nashville for Friday's game against East Regional third seed Florida State.
"As an alumnus, this allows us to turn the page," said Gould, an investment advisor who previously served on the school's board of trustees. "Every time that Bonaventure basketball is discussed in the media it's always back to the crisis of 2003, and what's sort of comical about that now is we know what a mini-crisis it was compared to some of the things that have happened at Penn State and Syracuse University, for example. Now we have this much more positive thing to be associated with.
"The visceral response is: This is just so much fun."
Adding to the celebration, the 29-3 women's team received its first tourney berth Monday night.
For Aielo, a Olean native who saw Lanier in person and is now a sales manager for a local beer distributor, the Bonnies' dual Dance trips are a welcome payoff for sitting through years and years of bad basketball at the Reilly Center. It's also great for business.
"There's a lot of parties being planned," Aielo said. "Every place has got a happy hour scheduled."
For Eggleston, a huge sports fan whose Binghamton alumni group takes an annual bus trip to at least one Bonas home game, Sunday's A-10 championship was a cause for pride.
"Not to be overdramatic, but it's a tiny school, and the 2003 scandal was pretty hard to take for a lot of people," Eggleston said. "Just having the lull point they had over the last 10 years makes it a little extra sweet than some other school that makes a run every once in a while. Everyone's very proud, very excited."
After what St. Bonaventure and its fans have suffered through, they certainly deserve to be.