HOUSTON — In May of 2008, Craig Angelos was looking for something that would give Florida Atlantic basketball a spark. So he drove two miles from campus and went to church.
The purpose of the trip wasn’t prayer, even though the program could have used some. Angelos, then FAU’s athletics director, had gone to meet with Mike Jarvis, the former George Washington and St. John’s coach who had moved to Boca Raton and become an influential member at Spanish River Church. They did the interview right there in the pastor’s office.
“He was a great coach, but I also thought, he’s part of this 6,000-member church right by FAU,” said Angelos, now a senior deputy athletics director at Long Island University. “So if we have any of his friends come to games, maybe 100 or 200 or even 1,000 because they want to support their fellow church member, that’s a huge plus. In Boca, you need a guy who can do more than just coach.”
Jarvis generated some initial buzz and even made an NIT before the school’s leadership changed and his tenure fizzled out after six seasons. But at FAU, it’s not like that was much different than the coaches who came before him. With a tiny budget, sub-standard facilities and no tradition to build around, basketball was basically an afterthought.
For FAU, a young university trying to gain some national name recognition, nearly all of the focus was on building up the football program that legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger had started from scratch. The institutional perspective on basketball was not nearly as ambitious.
“It was like, hey, let’s just do the best we can,” Angelos said.
On Saturday evening, FAU will play a basketball game against San Diego State in front of 70,000 people at NRG Stadium, an opportunity the Owls earned after beating Memphis, Fairleigh Dickinson, Tennessee and Kansas State in the program’s second-ever NCAA men’s tournament appearance.
Though Florida Atlantic was not on the national radar before March Madness began, this isn’t your typical Cinderella run. The Owls are 35-3. For most of the season, the analytics suggested they were a legitimate Top 25 team, even if playing in Conference USA made it difficult for most to see. From a pure basketball standpoint, they are not among the most surprising teams to make it this far.
But because the basketball team is so outstanding and so clearly belongs in a Final Four, it hasn’t quite registered what a massive upset it is that Florida Atlantic has this kind of team in the first place.
‘What did we get ourselves into?’
Founded in 1988 and owner of far more losing seasons than winning ones as it constantly changed coaches and conferences without a lot of investment along the way, Florida Atlantic is easily the most unlikely program ever to reach a Final Four.
“Who’s even a close second?” said Pat Chun, who left FAU in 2018 to become athletics director at Washington State.
College basketball has a certain tier of mid-major programs that, either through history or geography or sheer institutional ambition, could conceivably reach a Final Four if all the stars align.
FAU’s opponent, San Diego State, is one of those places. The Aztecs’ trip to Houston is essentially a lifetime achievement award after nearly 20 years of investing in basketball and having several teams that were good enough to get here before this one broke through.
The Owls had none of those things. They hadn’t been knocking on the door. They didn’t suddenly get a huge pile of booster cash to go recruit players with name, image and likeness deals. One longtime administrator in Conference USA ranked FAU as the second- or third-worst basketball job in the league, ahead of only UT-San Antonio and perhaps Florida International.
“Nothing has really changed other than they have the best coach in the league,” Chun said. “It’s just one of those things. It’s a young institution that is trying to figure it out as it goes, and lo and behold Brian White made an extraordinary hire and they’ve made history.”
White is the athletics director who followed Chun and immediately identified Dusty May, who had been an assistant coach at Florida under White’s older brother, Mike White. May told CBS Sports earlier this week that he almost backed out of the job when he saw the condition of the facilities and realized just how difficult it would be to win there.
He certainly wasn’t the first Florida Atlantic coach to have those feelings.
“Our locker room was split and half of it was intramural lockers, like maybe 40 steel lockers you’d see in a high school, so we only had half the locker room,” said Charlotte Hornets assistant coach Rex Walters, who arrived at FAU in 2015 with Matt Doherty and was elevated to head coach the next year when Doherty bolted to SMU. “There were carpet stains everywhere. You’re looking at yourself and wondering, ‘What did we get ourselves into?’ The best thing that happened to that gym was the hurricane.”
Indeed, when Hurricane Wilma blew through campus in 2005, it tore the roof off FAU’s 3,000-seat arena. A combination of FEMA assistance and insurance money allowed the school to dress it up a little and install a few suites. But still, there are nearby high schools that have nicer gyms.
“When you look at what FAU has compared to most programs, it’s still in the dark ages,” said Jarvis, who ended up posting one winning season out of six before May replaced him. “It was a struggle and we knew it was going to be. We made it to the NIT once and it was a big deal. Now, being in the Final Four? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Kicked out for career fairs
People who have worked at FAU love the place. Nice campus, good quality of life, minutes from the beach. But basketball-wise, it was just a tough sell.
“Half the time, we might get kicked out of the gym for career fairs and different things, so we’d go practice in the rec center,” said Mike Jarvis II, who coached under his father and is now an administrator at Fairfield University.
But the biggest problem, as the younger Jarvis saw it, was that FAU didn’t really have any fans. Boca in the winter is filled with snowbirds and retirees who don’t have much connection with the school. At one point, the Jarvises tried to juice attendance by scheduling teams like Hofstra and Manhattan because they figured it might draw more interest from the locals.
“People in Boca had never heard of half the schools we were playing in the Sun Belt,” Jarvis II said. “What Dusty May has done is incredible. Hopefully they build a statue.”
The irony, of course, is that FAU’s big institutional bet on sports was never supposed to be about basketball. Though its baseball and softball teams had been historically successful, the vision for growing into a national brand was supposed to happen on the football field, where Schnellenberger helped raise $70 million to build a stadium.
That huge investment, though, came at the expense of other infrastructure, and the school was way behind in terms of weight room, academic center and other amenities that are now commonplace at FBS programs.
Over time, FAU has tried to catch up. But basketball simply hasn’t been a priority.
“It’s not like the situation got so much better for Dusty,” said Walters, who got out after two seasons and took the San Francisco job. “He just coached his tail off.”
Wanting to be a football school
From an institutional standpoint, football hasn’t necessarily been a bad bet. The lure of its location in talent-rich Florida has helped FAU land established coaches like Lane Kiffin and Willie Taggart, who were looking for career rebounds. It has also allowed FAU to move up the realignment ladder from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference next season.
But realistically, there’s a ceiling on how good a football team anyone can build at FAU without a power conference affiliation. When Charlie Partridge was the head football coach from 2014-16, his contract didn’t include terms for a national championship bonus because it wouldn’t even be something to contemplate.
In basketball, it has really just taken one coach and a handful of players to show that special things can happen anywhere.
“They want to be a football school so bad,” said Mike Burdman, an FAU alum and former university employee who participated in and helped organize student spirit groups. “Building a football stadium and having three good years with Lane Kiffin. That was kind of what we were known for. Right now is the closest FAU has ever been to a national championship in anything, and it’ll be like that until they move up to a power conference 50 years from now.”
All of that raises the question of sustainability.
Will coach, players return?
If FAU makes the title game and faces UConn, the Huskies will have an assistant coach in Kimani Young ($650,000) who makes more money than May ($544,975). In fiscal year 2022, FAU reported spending $65,893 on men’s basketball recruiting, which is less than half of San Diego State’s budget ($135,203).
It’s unclear what opportunities might be available for May given that the coaching carousel has slowed significantly, but he will certainly be in demand and in position to push FAU for significant investments into the program infrastructure. Will the school be willing to make them, or will it simply view this moment as a one-off and fall back into trying to run a program on the cheap?
“For any athletic director, you want to win in every sport,” Chun said. “But there’s only so many resources at a Group of Five institution. It’s inexplicable that he’s been able to identify, recruit and develop this into a Final Four team with the most minimal of resources.”
One test of that may come not just with suitors for May but for the Owls’ key players, who will all have eligibility to return next season. Because of this run, they are now marketable commodities in the name, image and likeness world. And in the ruthless era of the transfer portal, they will almost certainly have other schools connected to deep-pocketed booster collectives coming after them.
Suddenly, FAU is going to be playing with the big boys. Given its history, is the school’s administration as ready for that as the team has been?
“The hardest thing for them now is how they’re going to keep guys with NIL,” Jarvis II said. “But on the other hand, Florida Atlantic becomes more of a destination now for transfers. It’s a great school. It’s in one of the best areas to live in, and there’s nothing wrong with waking up every day to 85 degrees and sunny. I really hope it turns into something special.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken