Abilene Christian's Journey From the ‘Worst Division I Team’ to Becoming the Stars of March

Author:
Publish date:

Eight years ago, Abilene Christian barely resembled a Division I basketball program. ACU struggled to fund all 13 scholarships as allowed by the NCAA. The office for one assistant coach was a storage closet. Its center stood just 6' 4".

ACU was, as head coach Joe Golding described it, “the worst Division I team in the country.”

The first year moving up from Division II to Division I would be challenging for any school, but it was even harder for an ACU program that hadn’t exactly lit the world on fire in D-II. The program had finished above .500 just nine times since 1980, and only once in the 12 seasons before Golding took over in 2011. So when the school decided to make the move to D-I beginning in 2013, few had any fantasies the program could have success at that level, let alone beat the University of Texas in the NCAA tournament.

That is, except for people who knew Joe Golding. Golding, an ACU alum and son of a coach, had a way of making people believe.

“Everything he touches turns to gold,” Ted Crass, a former ACU assistant under Golding, says. “Everything I’ve ever seen Coach Golding do—he has found a way to win at it.”

Abilene Christian has quickly risen from D-II to NCAA Tournament Cinderella.

But before becoming March darlings, Golding and Abilene Christian had to endure a brutal season of losing that would lay the foundation for the program he wanted to build. ACU opened its first D-I season with five “guarantee games,” one-off road games against higher-level competition ACU received a check for playing. Those included road trips to Iowa, Maryland, St. Bonaventure and Xavier.

“We were basically on a fundraising tour,” Brian Burton, an assistant coach for that team, says. “We were just trying to find a way to play the biggest schools that would pay you the most money.”

One thing they were raising money for: scholarships. At a private school with a total cost of attendance around $50,000 per year, adding the three scholarships from the D-II allotment of 10 to D-I’s 13 costs the basketball program an additional $150,000 per year. That was money the program didn’t have, so the team hit the road in search of a check, even if it meant losing to Iowa, 103–41.

WOO: Luka Garza's College Legacy Speaks for Itself. Will It Matter in the NBA?

“We were outsized and outmatched, but Coach Golding kept it positive and took ownership of everything that happened,” Parker Wentz, the team’s leading scorer that season, says. “He never pointed out the obvious that some of the other teams had better players or bigger players; he always took the hit.”

Through the struggles came reasons for optimism. While the Iowa game wasn’t pretty, ACU led at the half against Maryland and hung tough for 30 minutes against Xavier before eventually getting blown away. Chris Mack, then the head coach at Xavier, told Golding and the ACU staff postgame they “did a heck of a job coaching and have a really great defense, you just need to get some players,” according to Burton.

The architect of that defense: Brette Tanner, now the associate head coach of the Wildcats. He joined Golding in Abilene prior to the school’s first season in D-I. Tanner was immediately tasked with working with the defense and eventually took over for a unit that has become one of the nation’s best. The swarming, high-intensity unit that forced Texas into 22 turnovers began its development on a team that won just two D-I games in its opening season at that level.

“You can get anybody to play defense. Anybody. With enough time, and if you’re bought in, guys can play defense,” Tanner says. “We believed in what we were doing. We just knew that as much as we loved these guys, we had to get bigger, faster and stronger.”

So Golding and his staff set out to do just that, but with a distinctly Golding twist. According to Crass, who served as the team’s recruiting coordinator while on staff, Golding’s first question about every single recruit was, “Does he play hard?” ACU set out to build a program with primarily four-year players, a stark contrast from many programs in the Southland Conference, which heavily recruits two-year players from junior colleges. They looked for players that, in many cases, were seen as fringe D-I/D-II recruits they could develop. Take current starting center Kolton Kohl, a 7-footer who played less than five minutes per game in each of his freshman and sophomore years before blossoming into one of the conference’s best players as a senior.

Finding those diamonds in the rough also wasn’t easy given the program’s budget constraints. Crass says the coaches did almost no recruiting during the season since assistant coaches were occupied doing operations work traditionally handled by someone solely dedicated to that job—things like booking team travel and meals. There was also almost no budget for recruiting originally, so the staff had to get creative.

“The message was, ‘Eat at McDonald’s, stay at a friend’s house, figure it out as best you can,’ ” Burton says.

Slowly but surely, the efforts paid off. ACU got bigger, faster and stronger. With that, the Wildcats started to win games. After just two conference wins in that forgettable Year 1, ACU won four in Year 2 and eight Southland games in Year 3. With those wins came more belief inside the program that what they were doing was working, that Golding’s unrelenting vision for ACU could actually come to fruition.

“Each year there was a little bit more buy-in,” Tanner says. “Guys in the D-I transition, they were the ones who set the tone, and then it just kept getting a little bit better over time.”

Even as Abilene Christian rose from the cellar of D-I into a respectable program that contended for Southland championships, the tough, blue-collar identity first forged on the road that first year continued. When ACU made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 2019, it clinched the bid without a pair of key contributors who were suspended. It didn’t matter. ACU just kept winning without them.

“We realized that at this level, you can just play harder than everybody else and win,” Crass says.

ACU certainly played harder than Texas on Saturday. The Wildcats outrebounded the Longhorns 36–31, including hauling in 18 offensive rebounds against a Texas team that was bigger and more athletic than them across the board. There was no secret formula to forcing 22 turnovers: Tanner told his team in the week leading up to the game to “throw away” everything they had been taught defensively and play free.

“We were going to fly around and we are going to speed them up and we were going to make them turn that damn thing over,” Tanner says. “I’m still not quite sure how, but we were able to do it.”

From the outside, what Abilene Christian pulled off Saturday seems virtually impossible. A program 10 years removed from not even being a good D-II team being 40 minutes away from the Sweet 16 seems like a story so insane Hollywood would pass on it. But it doesn’t stun those who were around Golding, whose unwavering belief in the program, process and principles are the reason ACU is where it is today.

“You’re not going to believe me, but I would have said, Man, that might actually happen,” Tanner says when asked if he could have ever seen this coming. “It’s because of Joe Golding. He’s easy to believe in. I don’t know if I would have told you it was going to happen this quickly. But I did believe it was going to happen.”

After grinding through that brutal first season of D-I, Burton still can’t quite comprehend how far the program has come.

“Abilene Christian should build a statue for Joe Golding.”

SI’s tournament newsletter analyzes everything you need to know about the Big Dance: what just happened and what’s happening next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.