From the eighth-floor lobby of Manhattan’s New York Marriott Marquis hotel, Florida Atlantic athletic director Brian White couldn’t find the exact words to describe what being in the Sweet 16 meant to the Owls’ program and community as a whole. And that was nearly six hours before tipoff of FAU’s win over Tennessee. I told White after our hotel-lobby interview that it’d be great to see him at Madison Square Garden at some point that night or in the future. It’s a customary thing to say before parting ways with a subject, but something in White’s response of “You bet!” made me believe it would somehow happen.
The next time I was in his presence was on The Garden’s hardwood with red and blue confetti flying everywhere. Exactly 85 minutes of basketball had transpired in between meetings and the pool of possible national champions decreased by 400 percent for the second straight weekend. Florida Atlantic made the cut again and became the first Conference USA team to make the Final Four since a Derrick Rose-led Memphis squad was a national runner-up in 2008. White granted Deadspin an interview, albeit one question, before he was whisked away to be the final Owl to cut down the nets, which White gladly waved around his head several times before passing it on to one of Florida Atlantic’s players.
“No, I’m less likely to find the words now,” White told Deadspin from half-court, trying to process the enormity of going from zero program NCAA Tournament wins to a Final Four in the span of nine days. “I’m just so excited for this team, the student-athletes, the coaches. Beyond excited for the moment, the university. Obviously, we talked about the exposure and different things this run has caused. Going to the Final Four is about as special as any event there is in sports. I’m just so thrilled for these guys.”
While White was verklempt when talking about the overall impact from college basketball’s no man’s land to the Final Four after defeating Kansas State, the man he hired five years ago Wednesday to be the Owls’ head coach, Dusty May, wasn’t as careful with his words.
“Florida Atlantic is a new university. It’s been booming before I got here,” May said to close his Saturday evening press conference. “One of the reasons I took [this job] was because it was the right place at the right time, and it’s growing exponentially. So we’ve talked about it; we’ve just never had that moment as a university. I still remember being a child watching the ‘87 Hoosiers and because of that, I became a fan forever. So we’ve never had our moment, and when we made the tournament this year and we won a very tough league, if you look around and really study our league, a tough league, we felt like this could be our moment to really captivate an area, a fan base, a student body. And I think we’ve exceeded that moment, but there’s no reason why we wouldn’t just continue to ride this wave.”
May said in his press conference that his roster is getting recruited to leave the school now and has been throughout the NCAA Tournament. May didn’t think anything was wrong with it because of how many outside parties there are. And truth be told, there’s no doubt transfer-portal shopping is on May’s offseason to-do list. Yet, the core of this Florida Atlantic team stuck together and May is confident that’ll be the case moving forward.
”Our job as coaches is to do the best job we can every single minute of every single day to provide the environment that they think is the best thing for them long-term,” May said. “Not today, not in a week, not in a month, but long-term. And the missing piece that is very understated is these guys truly love each other, and when you love your teammates, it’s hard to go jump into deep waters that you don’t know what’s out there.”
Retaining May will be tough. And why wouldn’t he want to bring his coaching staff and roster to a bigger school where winning a conference tournament isn’t necessary to participate in The Big Dance? As nice as Boca Raton might be, that’s a concern beyond next weekend. Yet, when college basketball junkies always remember the longshots to make the Final Four, George Mason, VCU, and Loyola Chicago will now permanently have Florida Atlantic as a contemporary.