Thursday, March 27, 2008

This Feels Eerily Familiar

While all of the Davidson historians among us have been quick to look to the 1960's for a context for this Davidson run and its subsequent ridiculousness, I want to argue that maybe Davidsonians can also look to a more recent example of a watershed moment in Davidson athletics for some context on this Sweet 16 experience.

In 1992, Davidson College was selected to host the National Semifinals of the NCAA Men's Soccer championship. Little did Davidson know that they would be playing in those very same national semifinals (The Final Four!) on their home field by the end of the year. That was a year when things stopped at Davidson...students could hardly focus on class...newspaper reporters seemed to pop up behind every oak tree, and the Wildcats just seemed to keep on winning despite improbable odds. Davidson beat UNC-Charlotte and Coastal Carolina on penalty kicks before knocking off N.C. State in overtime to earn a berth in the Final Four. Although the Wildcats did not reach the national title game, the legacy of those years still lives on.

When I ran into Matt Spear, Davidson's current men's soccer coach and member of that 1992 team, in the athletic complex today, the parallels between the two teams hit me before either of us could get a word out.

"There are definitely some huge similarities but differences too," Spear said. "Rob Ukrop and Stephen Curry are very similar in my mind in that they were really under-recruited and very talented. They both have an incredible humility about them and quick to put the team first in everything. They are once-in-a-generation players who are tailor-made for these watershed moments."

Ukrop was an All-American soccer player who was highly under-recruited, but ended up winning the Adi Dassler award as the nation's top senior. He scored more goals than anyone in college soccer that year.

But even more compelling than the athletic accomplishments and national success was the way that Davidson's community responded to those giddy times.

"Because of the nature of soccer and basketball and the prevalence of the internet, you see that this Sweet 16 trip gets a whole lot more national play than we got," Spear said. "But because we were playing the Final Four in Davidson, I actually think that the local hysteria was pretty comparable."

In a 2002 article by Davidson alum Michael Kruse, he claimed that the Davidson soccer team was "doing it all, it seemed, on a different campus, at a different college, in a different town. The students had cause to celebrate each other, for the tournament run was, if nothing else, tangible, watchable, cheerable proof that little Davidson could make it big."

Sound familiar?

It didn't take soccer alum Preston Davis nearly as long as myself to figure out this angle, as he already has a post up over on Charlotte Magazine about those incredible weeks of soccer euphoria.

But while these two events will certainly give Davidson folks a set of memories through which they will always connect, the question remains as to how long-lasting the impact will be. Davidson soccer has not returned to the Final Four since 1992. Will Davidson basketball be able to replicate this incredible run in the coming years? Will people still remember where the school is come April or May?

"I promise you that there will be ripple effects in ways that you can and can't see for a long time to come," Spear said. "I definitely believe this will help all of our athletic programs, not just men's basketball."

So many things have already been revolutionized around this school. Davidson gear is being sold in area sporting goods stores. Athletic department staff have been able to provide savvy media facilitation and have used the close proximity of Charlotte, NC to market the program. And we have all seen the actions of the trustees in going out on financial limbs for their students whether it is for basketball or financial aid.

I see one of the biggest lasting effects of this weekend on Davidson's own Bob McKillop.

"More so than at any point in my life, I am at peace right now," McKillop said in Thursday's NCAA news conference, trying to fight back tears. McKillop has spent so many years knocking on the doors of perfection and success. Now he is in the Sweet 16.

Not five minutes after that comment,'s Andy Katz came on to answer whether McKillop would remain the coach at Davidson.

"You heard him, didn't you?" Katz replied. "He is completely comfortable where he is right now. I think that a lot of smaller program coaches often get to a point where they have to make very hard decisions and do either the right or the wrong thing with their lives. We saw what Gregg Marshall did last year. I wonder if he doesn't wish he was still at Winthrop."

And so the Madness continues. Davidson keeps reaching higher and they keep proclaiming their mission ever louder. But as Kruse wrote back in 2002, "that [soccer] group doesn't so much remember the shots or the saves or the scores; what remains fresh is the feeling, the ringing in their ears, the slow and steady buzz that never, ever totally goes away."


Anonymous said...

Great blog. Any possibility you can work a Roman history reference into one of your posts?
Dr. J

Anonymous said...

Hey, Sweetie. I'm glad I stumbled on ya over here. I'm LOVIN' me some Davidson... see?

Good luck tomorrow!


Will Bryan said...

I will work on it tomorrow, Dr. J. I'm thinking something about the furious warriors from the west who refuse to die even when they are outmatched by the Roman legions.

Anonymous said...

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