My friend Dan Steinberg, who has done a remarkable job the past few years making his “DC Sports Bog,” a must read for a lot of us, has been doing (like so many others) various “End of the Decade,” rankings this week.
This morning’s list was the top ten events in DC sports. He ranked Maryland’s 2002 national championship No. 1 and George Mason’s run to the Final Four in 2006 second.
With all due respect to Maryland and to Dan—wrong.
The rebuilding job Gary Williams did at Maryland was remarkable. I’ve said that and written that dozens of times, especially when the sharks—led by his athletic director—start to circle every time the Terrapins slide at all. I often re-tell the story about the Maryland alum who came up to me at a game midway through the 2001 season and said, ‘the time has come for Gary to go. The Sweet Sixteen is as far as he can take us. We need to get Mike Brey in here and start over.’
I kid that guy often about what happened next. Brey, by the way, who has done an excellent job at Notre Dame, still hasn’t been past the Sweet Sixteen.
Maryland’s national championship was a wonderful story of redemption, a program rebuilt in the aftermath of Len Bias’s death and the probation brought about by Chancellor John Slaughter’s idiotic decision to hire Bob Wade as the basketball coach. But in the end it was the kind of thing that happens in athletics all the time: a fallen program brings in the right coach, the coach catches a break or two in recruiting—Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter both being largely overlooked—and it all falls into place.
Dean Smith took over a program that was on probation at North Carolina in 1962. Mike Krzyzewski was 38-47 his first three years at Duke. Georgetown’s President asked John Thompson to “try and make the NIT every few years,” when he hired him in 1972. Most Connecticut fans thought U-Conn needed to get out of The Big East when Jim Calhoun arrived in 1985.
Great coaches build and rebuild. All those coaches are in the Hall of Fame because they rebuilt fallen programs and won a national title. Only North Carolina from that group had previously won a national championship. Someday, Gary should join that group in the Hall of Fame. Maryland cutting down the nets in Atlanta was a memorable story, one that I personally savor. I still remember the first thing Gary said to me on the court that night: “Fort Myer. You’re one of the guys who remembers Fort Myer. I’m glad you were here to see this.”
Gary had started his head coaching career at American University in 1978 and his team played home games at Fort Myer, an Army base in Arlington, Virginia. The gym was cold and drafty every night and the locker rooms were actually weight rooms. My favorite memory from, “The Fort,” as everyone called it, was Gary having to talk the MPs out of arresting an opposing coach after he had kicked a wall walking into the locker room at the end of an overtime win for AU. Part of the wall fell in and the MPs showed up in the locker room wanting to arrest him for damaging government property.
I covered AU a lot back then: I was the kid reporter on The Post staff and it was apparent to me that Gary was a comer in the coaching business. Plus, I liked him and I liked his team---which won 24 games his third season and came within a missed jump shot of making the NCAA Tournament.
So, Maryland’s national championship was a thrill for me. I knew how low Gary had been in his early days at his alma mater.
Having said all that, George Mason’s story was the best in college basketball since Texas Western in 1966. The school didn’t even play Division 1 basketball until the late 1970s. It didn’t even have a FIGHT song until 1987. Seriously. I was there the night they unveiled it. Jim Larranaga had built a solid program after coming in from Bowling Green but that’s what Mason was: a solid CAA program, a contender in a league that hadn’t received a second bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1986. The closest any CAA team had come to a Final Four had been David Robinson’s run with Navy in that 1986 season. The Midshipmen made it to the elite eight before being crushed by Duke. THAT was a once in a lifetime experience since Robinson had come to Navy as a 6-7 kid recruited more for his potential as an engineer than as a basketball player.
He didn’t even start his freshman year, then grew six inches that summer and turned into, well, David Robinson.
Remember that a lot of people—led by Jim Nantz and Billy Packer—didn’t think Mason even deserved a bid. The Patriots had lost in the CAA semifinals to Hofstra, a game in which point guard Tony Skinn sucker-punched a Hofstra player in the worst possible place, causing Larranaga to announce he would be suspended for Mason’s next game, whether it was in the NCAA’s or the NIT.
A lot of people thought that Skinn’s suspension would be the difference between Mason getting in or not getting in. When the Patriots went up on the board that Sunday night, Nantz and Packer spent considerable time grilling basketball committee chairman Craig Littlepage on what they had done to deserve a bid. Nantz read through their schedule and asked, “what is in here that we’re not seeing that caused you to give them a bid?”
We all know what happened next: the Patriots stunned Michigan State (without Skinn); shocked North Carolina; beat Wichita State and then, in one of the most dramatic upsets in tournament history, beat Connecticut in overtime to make The Final Four. To be honest, I thought they’d blown it when U-Conn tied the game at the buzzer in regulation. To be even more honest, I couldn’t believe the game was close.
I still remember the first thing Larranaga said to me when I shook hands with him on the court: “I can’t wait to get to Indy to see Nantz and Packer.”
He got his chance early. On Wednesday night, Mason was having dinner in “St. Elmo’s,” the great steakhouse in downtown Indy when Nantz and Packer walked in. I happened to be in there with some friends and when they stopped to say hello I couldn’t resist saying, “Hey, George Mason’s in the back, I’m sure you guys want to go and say hello.”
To his credit, Nantz made a beeline for the back room. Larranaga told me later he congratulated everyone and said he and Packer had been wrong and they had been proven wrong. Packer lingered at our table, talking.
“Well,” I said finally, “Aren’t you going to go in there and apologize?”
“I don’t have anything to apologize for,” Packer said. “I still think what I said was right when I said it.”
That was one thing I loved about Billy: he always stuck to his guns even when the whole world was saying he was wrong.
Mason’s run inspired a lot of people who had never heard of the school prior to March of 2006. Even Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun shook his head in the aftermath of what had to be one of the most disappointing losses of his career and said, “this is why basketball’s a beautiful game.”
As it happens I have a fair number of George Mason T-shirts. They’re actually swimming shirts because I’ve worked out through the years at Mason since the swim coach there, Peter Ward, is a friend of mine. A couple of months after the ’06 Final Four, I was in Coral Springs, Florida for the Masters short course national championships. I was wearing a Mason swimming T-shirt one morning when I walked across the pool deck to jump into the warm-up pool.
As I was walking, I became aware of the fact that people were applauding and apparently the applause was directed at me. Maybe they really liked my new book on Q-school? No, not this crowd. Finally I heard a few of their voices: “George Mason, way to go, great job!” They were applauding for my shirt.
I’ve worn a lot of shirts from a lot of different places through the years. Occasionally I’ll get a pat on the back from ONE person someplace if I’m wearing Navy gear. But that’s about it.
Maryland fans were thrilled by Maryland’s national title. The entire country was thrilled and inspired by George Mason.
Since the question has been raised, let’s broaden it a little: Last ten years, what’s the most thrilling moment you remember in sports? I can honestly say Mason is probably number one for me with Jason Lezak’s anchor swim in the 4x100 freestyle relay in Beijing a strong number two and Paul Goydos’s win in Hawaii three years ago (yes, that one is personal) after all he’d been through in his personal life, probably number three. If Tom Watson had parred the 18th at Turnberry this past July it would have blown everything else away and been number two on my all-time list behind the U.S. hockey team at Lake Placid.