BOCA RATON, Florida — The registration for Johnell Davis‘ summer camp in Gary, Indiana, had already closed. But the phones kept ringing.
The folks on the line wanted to know if they could still bring their kids to take pictures with the Florida Atlantic Owls star who had helped steer the team on a miraculous run to the 2023 Final Four in April.
Even when the camp began, a crowd stood outside the gym waiting for a chance to meet their local hero. Davis couldn’t believe it.
But he knew then his life would never be the same.
“There were people coming up to you telling you how good you did and how great the team was,” the FAU guard told ESPN. “We were just being celebrities in the city. And we were celebrities back home.”
As Florida Atlantic’s players returned to campus 2 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, it did not take long for them to recognize the enormous impact of their run to the Final Four in April.
Wins over 8-seed Memphis, 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, 4-seed Tennessee and 3-seed Kansas State had propelled the 9-seed Owls to full Cinderella status, as they followed past underdogs who’d enjoyed a similar path to the last stage of the college basketball season. Although they’d lost to San Diego State in the national semifinals, the Owls returned to Boca Raton, an hour north of Miami, as rock stars.
“Now, we can support our families,” said guard Alijah Martin, who withdrew from the NBA draft and returned to FAU over the summer to a flurry of NIL deals. “It’s less stress. We’re not trying to go and get a pro contract as fast as we want to. You can help mom with the bills. You can send mom on a vacation.”
For college basketball’s elites, a Final Four run is just confirmation of their status in the sport and a return on investment. For the underdogs — no team lower than an 8-seed has ever won the national title — a trip to the Final Four can change an entire university. Admissions rise. Donors give more. Facilities improve. Schools ascend on the lists of rankings for universities, as the pedigree of faculty and students improves. National profiles expand. Regional schools can become household names, such as George Mason in 2006, after millions of Americans watch their Final Four journeys on TV.
But in a sport that defines itself by a team’s results in a three-week stretch in March and April, the same measure of success that turns underdogs into darlings has also complicated their futures.
“It’s even harder when those expectations are now there,” said Butler president James Danko. The Bulldogs reached back-to-back national title games over a decade ago, so Danko knows what FAU might experience. “You’re already kind of disadvantaged by your size and your financial resources. It puts a lot of pressure on the program. There are a lot of expectations. It’s kind of the delusion of sports.”
Thus far, school officials told ESPN, FAU’s best evidence of the impact from its Final Four run is the 300% increase in donations to the athletic department since April, thanks in part to local residents — some of whom live in multimillion-dollar oceanfront mansions — opening their checkbooks. A study commissioned by the school showed it also received $1.9 billion in media exposure during the NCAA tournament.
School officials understand the school’s potential to build on last year’s run, academically and athletically, as a result of its Final Four run — even if the significant boost in applications and other spoils have not yet arrived. If history says anything, though, they will.
“When you can walk down the streets of New York with a shirt that has a picture of an owl and people are yelling, ‘Go Owls!’ … that’s huge,” said Stacy Volnick, FAU’s president. “We didn’t have that profile before. It was that ‘We’re small, we’re in Boca Raton, our students come from the tri-county area and stay there.’ And now we’re getting that national attention. That’s significant. That will change everything.”
BRADFORD BURGESS TRIED TO keep his cool in a room full of the superstar athletes he admired. It was a challenge for the former VCU Rams star who helped the Rams make history as the first 11-seed to reach the Final Four in 2011, and three months later was at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles to accept the “Best Upset” award with his teammates at the ESPYs.
Former NBA champ Amare Stoudemire and former tennis star Maria Sharapova presented the award to the Rams. Former NBA champion Ray Allen asked Burgess to recreate the viral, celebratory dance he did when VCU upset 1-seed Kansas in the Elite Eight. And Burgess wondered if he’d imagined bumping into Serena Williams. (He hadn’t.)
In the 12 years since his team’s run to the Final Four, Burgess — who returned to his alma mater in May as its director of student-athlete development — has seen the campus and program change.
In the 2010-11 season, four of the Rams’ regular-season games were nationally televised. In 2022-23, 15 were on national TV. Applications from prospective students increased by 20% following the Final Four, too.
But possibly the greatest illustration of the Final Four’s impact is the Basketball Development Center, which opened in 2015. The 62,000-square-foot practice facility features matching courts for VCU’s men’s and women’s teams, a hydrotherapy room and a dining hall for team meals. Two wealthy boosters paid $14.5 million of the $25 million price tag after VCU’s Final Four trip.
“It’s probably one of the better practice facilities on the East Coast, if not the country,” Burgess said.
“The Siegel Center [VCU’s home court] has undergone renovations. Businesses have come to Richmond just to be a part of the scene. There have been so many buildings built on campus. We’re getting invited to the Maui Invitational and all the holiday tournaments because VCU has a brand and it’s recognizable around the country.”
Loyola-Chicago raises Final Four banner
Before playing its season opener, Loyola-Chicago raises a banner to commemorate the Ramblers’ magical run in the 2018 NCAA tournament.
The influx of cash can change the footprint of a campus for an underdog, but it is the perception of the university that has the most extended effect. Prior to the 2018-19 school year, for example, Butler had received 16,431 applications, a record. This year, the private school set a record for most in-state freshmen (600) in school history.
Following 11-seed Loyola Chicago‘s appearance at the national semifinals in San Antonio in 2018, the university released a report showing a 1,676% boost in social media engagement, a 91% increase in traffic to the school’s website and a 660% increase in donations compared to the previous year.
During the 2004-05 academic year, the George Mason campus bookstore made $625,000 off school merchandise. In March 2006, the 11-seed blew through opponents, including 1-seed UConn, and reached the Final Four — and the bookstore earned $800,000 in a single month. The school also launched a $100 million fundraising effort that year. Excited donors gave George Mason $132 million.
“When I first got to George Mason, nobody was wearing George Mason gear,” said Jim Larrañaga, who coached the Patriots from 1997 until he left for Miami in 2011. “You’d see Georgetown. You’d see Maryland, but you never saw George Mason. When the trucks pulled up with the T-shirts [after the Final Four], they never made it into the bookstore. The students were buying right off the truck.”
Robert E. Baker, a George Mason professor, has studied the tangible value of Final Four runs for his school and others. He estimated that George Mason — the largest public research school in Virginia with 40,000 students — received the equivalent of a $677 million publicity campaign throughout the NCAA tournament.
Baker told ESPN there is a direct link between the school’s ability to reach R1 status, the top mark from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, and the university’s trip to the Final Four 17 years ago, too.
“We achieved it more quickly than any institution ever has,” he said. “I don’t think we would have gotten there in the same way, and maybe not gotten there, had we not had that exposure.”
IN THE EARLY 2000s, former Butler coach and current athletic director Barry Collier approached a local Indianapolis-based TV network about airing Butler’s basketball games when the school was still a member of the Horizon League. The station agreed to air three, but Collier would have to pay.
“I remember the number $15,000, which is probably an indication of what those segments of TV were worth back then,” Collier said. “You know, that’s how small the station’s reach was.”
Thanks in part to Butler’s back-to-back run to the national title game in 2010 and 2011, the school now gets a cut of the Big East’s annual revenue of $81 million — where it has been since 2013. Collier said the athletic department’s overall revenue has quadrupled over the past 15 years.
But the school has missed the past four NCAA tournaments.
Most of the players Butler is recruiting today were in preschool when Gordon Hayward heaved a half-court shot that almost found the rim and nearly sealed an upset over Duke in the 2010 national championship game. That time gap affects the relevance and value of the team’s consecutive Final Four runs, Collier said. Recent developments, such as the COVID-impacted season and the transfer portal, haven’t helped either.
It’s not just Butler. Final Four underdogs have all faced challenges in the aftermath of their runs.
George Mason has had its name called on Selection Sunday just twice since 2006 and has missed the last 11 NCAA tournaments. Loyola Chicago recorded back-to-back 25-win seasons after its 2018 run, so last year’s 10-21 finish was a disappointment. VCU has been a frequent NCAA tournament participant since its Final Four trip in 2011 but has not returned to the second weekend.
For those schools, as well as Villanova — perhaps the original Cinderella when the 8-seed Wildcats beat top-seed Georgetown in the 1985 national championship game — and Butler, switching leagues after its runs (FAU makes a similar move this season) meant facing tougher competition. Plus, the transfer portal era means there is always the risk of a good player being enticed to leave for a Power 5 standout.
However, the biggest challenge for those schools, in all likelihood, is potentially losing their coaches to programs that can offer more money and prestige.
When VCU president Michael Rao first met Shaka Smart in 2009, he knew the energetic coach wouldn’t retire there.
“I said, ‘I need you to give me five years’ when we hired him and he gave us six,” Rao said.
Two years later, after Smart led VCU to the Final Four, he emerged as a top candidate for openings at notable programs, such as UCLA and Illinois. Each time he received an offer, VCU would find enough money to match, and Smart stayed. His annual salary increased from $300,000 to $1.8 million by the time he left for Texas in 2015.
“The expectation stays high. It doesn’t go away,” Rao said. “And we just keep working at it. We basically look for a coach and say, ‘Who’s going to get us to the Final Four?’ That’s how we look at it.”
Alijah Martin flies in for two-handed flush as FAU win C-USA
Florida Atlantic defeat UAB to win the C-USA conference title and advance to the NCAA tournament.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC PRACTICES ARE loud, even in the offseason.
During one session this summer, the sound of sneakers squeaking across the Eleanor R. Baldwin Arena floor, basketballs kissing backboards and teammates talking trash to one another blanketed the building.
“Yeahhhhh!!!!” yelled junior forward Giancarlo Rosado to his teammates during a heated intrasquad scrimmage. “Keep going!”
The Owls have returned every key player from last season’s team, including its top three scorers: Davis (13.8 PPG), Martin (13.4 PPG) and Vladislav Goldin (10.2 PPG). Combined with the hunger that took FAU to a 31-3 finish entering the tournament and then to the Final Four, it’s not entirely surprising to see this program on the list of candidates to make a run in 2023-24 again.
The players all believe their chemistry is an advantage over their competitors.
“We know each other and we know how we play and we know how [coach Dusty May] wants us to play,” Goldin said. “It helps a lot for us to be together again.”
Florida Atlantic officials have connected with previous underdogs to learn how they utilized their Final Four runs to help their respective programs and universities. They want to capture the pros and avoid the cons.
Something that’s already in effect: The run will cost fans more cash this season. The school recently announced donation requirements for season tickets, which are sold out this season. And prices have risen. For $100 seats, fans had to pay an additional $250 per seat. For the $1,000 seats, a donation requirement of $2,000 per seat was required this season.
They also hired someone who knows something about success: New deputy athletic director for brand and communications Mike DeGeorge, who previously served as Duke’s sports information director in Mike Krzyzewski’s final years and Jon Scheyer’s first season.
Before the Final Four run, there were plans to build new dorms and move away from the “commuter school” tag. And new donor gifts to the athletic department totaling $10 million, secured before the Final Four, will now help renovate its basketball arena, which holds 3,000 students, according to school officials. There is also talk of building a practice facility.
There is an expectation that FAU, like the other Final Four underdogs, will experience an increase in applications and attention. The goal is to understand how that translates to the school’s long-term goals and attract the top students and athletes in the area and beyond.
“I would say that this run is our tipping point,” said Brian White, FAU’s athletic director. “We’ve talked for a long time about how we just need to get to the point where we are recognized as the hometown team for this area, which has as many high school recruits and talented high school prospects as any area of the country and has as much wealth as any area in the country.
“We want to build a national brand and we are, without a doubt, a nationally recognized name. The cliche that we’ve been put on the map? That’s all true. We’ve accomplished that. Now, it’s maintaining it and continuing a rapid rise. It’s very realistic for this place. I think this place has unlimited potential. And this run shows that for all sports.”
Right now, men’s basketball is Florida Atlantic’s beacon, so its head coach is a critical element of the school’s ability to reach those goals.
Coach May silenced the rumors he might leave for a bigger school in the summer, when he signed a 10-year deal to remain in Boca Raton. He lives 3 miles from campus and bikes to work. Since FAU does not have a practice facility, his office is tucked into a corner of the arena. But the fancy perks of a more prominent job don’t appeal to him.
“In our business, it’s so common for that to happen, everyone kind of expects it,” May said. “Guys were walking in and saying, ‘Hey, my coach said you were leaving,’ or ‘My mom heard this.’ And my message all along was that my family, we love it here, and I’ve never been around a group of guys that I love more or enjoy being around. I love the staff. I think they know I’m not necessarily driven by money. As long as I’m having a blast and around guys [who work hard] every day, it’s hard to leave that.”
College basketball history suggests May will leave one day. When that happens, FAU will face the same hurdles as its predecessors: How do you keep the party going?
Florida Atlantic’s players aren’t concerned about their place in school or college basketball history. They play on a campus that’s just 1.8 miles from the beach and they’re more famous now than they’ve ever been. The last six months have been fun for them. And they hope the next six months end even better.
“I don’t think that we could have imagined what this would have done,” Volnick said. “And I don’t want to say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Because we’re going there next year, too.”
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