How college football-mad South Florida has become the current mecca of college basketball
FORT LAUDERDALE — There is 1 grand sport and 1 incredible man who ties the University of Miami and Florida Atlantic University together forever.
It’s football, South Florida’s eternal passion.
And it’s Howard Schnellenberger, the late South Florida football coaching legend.
These are the history lessons young athletes from West Palm Beach to Key West are brought up on, from Pop Warner to preps. It’s always been nearly all about the pigskin down here, and the other sports are left to fend for themselves when it comes to the spotlight, a sort of rotating — and, naturally, fleeting — center of attention depending on the sport, depending on the school and depending on the year.
That’s precisely what makes this year so off-the-charts crazy in the land of art deco and swaying palm trees.
Because in March of 2023, everything that bonds Miami and FAU together, 2 schools separated by only an hour who often operate on different planets, has absolutely zero to do with football and even less to do with the iconic, mustachioed football savant with the deep drawl who coached both the Hurricanes and Owls to great success.
That eternal passion is on the shelf, to be picked up again and dissected during normal days and nights.
Because during these stunningly abnormal days, during this insanely pulsating few weeks, the NCAA Tournament of all unlikely sporting traditions has given South Florida a giant hug and South Florida has hugged and kissed it back, a few times over in fact.
Spring football has most definitely been put on hold, at least in most people’s consciousness, in arguably the most fertile football area of this football-mad country.
Right now, madness rules.
The madness South Florida experiences every year, just like everyone else around this nation, but never really warms up to.
Until these 2 sun-drenched schools, which Schnellenberger took over and lifted to new heights in football a few decades apart, decided that they were going to make some Final Four history — together and, yes, now forever. UM, the traditional football powerhouse of Miami-Dade County, or at least once Schnellenberger arrived there in 1979, and FAU, whose new-age football program in Palm Beach County was birthed by Schnellenberger in 2001, have at least temporarily turned this pigskin paradise into a hoops heaven that’s all heart.
Because of the determined Canes and Owls’ refusal to go home when their seeding said they should, Florida has become just the 3rd state in the past 3 decades to have multiple programs at the same Final Four. The basketball bastion that is North Carolina, 1 of the very 1st states you would pick for this honor, did the trick just last year, when blueblood rivals Duke and North Carolina went to the Final Four and played each other in the semifinals. And the Bluegrass basketball-crazy state of Kentucky did it in 2012, when another pair of blueblood rivals, Kentucky and Louisville, both went.
North Carolina and Kentucky? Well … no kidding.
Florida? Well … are you kidding?
On Saturday night in Houston, in a city that prides itself on its deep connections to the space industry, something will happen that is truly out of this world. First, at about 6:09 p.m. ET, Florida Atlantic, a public research university located in Boca Raton, a city best known for being a beautiful haven for retirees from anywhere and everywhere else, will tip it off with San Diego State for the right to play for the national championship.
The national championship.
If that’s mind-boggling for passionate and knowledgeable college basketball fans around the country, imagine how this unparalleled craziness all sounds for someone like yours truly, who more or less grew up in South Florida after moving down here from the Philadelphia area at age 8.
For someone who knows the traditional landscape of college basketball and also knows that before, like, 2 weeks ago, Florida Atlantic University had absolutely zero college basketball tradition, the reality of the Owls being in the Final Four is beyond stunning and beyond comprehension. So, yeah, FAU had no college basketball tradition about 5 minutes ago, as in exactly 0 NCAA Tournament victories in program history before it took the floor exactly 2 weeks ago against Memphis as an unassuming 9 seed.
Now FAU has 4 all-time NCAA Tournament wins. Four. Four … as in Final Four.
Talk about beginner’s luck.
This is a mid-major program from Conference USA that didn’t play its 1st ever game until 1988 for God’s sake, when it was a self-starter Division 2 program coached by a noted program builder named Lonnie Williams, who bolted after going 9-19 in the Owls’ inaugural season.
This is a program that didn’t even move to Division 1 until the fall of 1993.
This is a program that had been to 1 NCAA Tournament prior to this astonishing run, in 2002, when it was part of the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Owls captured the ASUN Tournament that year, were a 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament and fought hard before falling to 2 seed Alabama, which is the ultimate irony since the Crimson Tide were the overall No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament and were a million times more likely than FAU to get to Houston when the tourney began a few short weeks ago.
But here we are, and here the Owls are, heading to the — gasp — Final Four while the supposed behemoths of 2022-23 such as Kansas, Houston, Purdue and, yes, Alabama, stew from afar over what could’ve been.
Heck, let’s be perfectly honest here: FAU needed a mini miracle in its 1st-round slugfest against 8th-seeded Memphis, which wasn’t granted a timeout in the closing seconds when it was trying to protect a 1-point lead and then got burned on Nick Boyd’s mad dash to the basket that resulted in the game-winning layup. At last, the Owls had their 1st ever NCAA Tournament victory, a campus and county with about as much basketball roots as a newly planted tree celebrated wildly and South Florida’s wondrous 2023 NCAA Tournament takeover had begun.
It wasn’t just FAU’s 1st ever win in the Big Dance. It was the program’s 1st in any postseason tournament other than, of course, the various conference tournaments that the Owls have played in during their still-very-short stay in the college basketball universe.
That same St. Patrick’s Day night, while FAU was sneaking its way into the 2nd round, Miami was pulling the same furious escape act against 12th-seeded Drake, turning a 55-47 deficit with 5:38 left in the game into a 63-56 victory. With that, a smallish but very passionate fan base in Coral Gables, Florida, just a short cab ride from iconic South Beach, had life.
And a region renowned around the country — around the world, really — for its late-night hours and general partygoing mentality crashed in the wee hours after a Friday St. Patrick’s night blitz, with most of them not even knowing that the seeds had been planted for a college basketball bonanza that would stretch March Madness into the 1st night of April.
That’s where South Florida is now, with its normal high-intensity attention on Hurricanes spring football, the Heat’s stretch drive toward the NBA playoffs, the Dolphins’ seemingly endless offseason roster re-tooling and even the annual Miami Open tennis tournament at Hard Rock Stadium being diverted by something altogether different and historical.
Because, like “little brother” FAU up the road in Boca, UM has never been to a Final Four either, although the Canes did make their 1st trip to the Elite Eight just last season, so their run to Houston with well-established coach Jim Larranaga has been unlikely but a ton less jaw-dropping than the Owls’ journey under former Florida assistant Dusty May. Larranaga has no doubt already sealed his entrance into the hierarchy of all-time elite UM head coaches, a fraternity naturally dominated by football coaches, and he actually has been to a Final Four.
Remember that Cinderella George Mason team in 2006 that crashed the Final Four? Yep, it was Larranaga who engineered that run.
And 5 years later, Larranaga, whose grandfather was born in Cuba, a place with bloodlines that run deep in South Florida and particularly in Miami, was the head coach at UM. You could argue it was destiny, with the Cuban connection and all. Then there’s this juicy nugget for South Floridians suddenly swept up in Final Four fever to chew on — that George Mason team in ’06 knocked off top-seeded Connecticut to punch its most unlikely ticket to the Final Four.
The same tradition-rich program with the 4 national championships that’ll be waiting for Larranaga and the Canes in Saturday’s nightcap, which will begin somewhere around 9 p.m. ET.
The preceding paragraph makes Saturday night’s absurd reality complete: Miami, a school that dominated the 1980s and early 90s in football, during some glorious days when the ACC was merely a gleam in the Hurricane athletic program’s eyes, will be strutting onto the court inside a cavernous dome in Houston to play in its 1st Final Four.
And, together with UConn, it will be the headliner attraction no less, after none other than FAU has already played San Diego State in its 1st Final Four. For Hurricanes faithful, of which I am not one but which I do have in my own family and everywhere I turn in my personal life, the sheer magnitude of what will take place on Saturday (and maybe Monday night) likely won’t sink in until sometime later this spring or maybe even the summer, when it’s almost time for football season again.
This is just about when Hurricanes fans, the ones I know and the strangers who bleed orange and green all around my orbit, will start growling again about Mario Cristobal, wondering if he is indeed the guy to lead Canes football back toward the same glory days that Larranaga and the basketball program are — astonishingly — enjoying now.
This is the sweet spot for Miami fans. This is what they’ve always known. Not the exhilarating but confusing reality they are enjoying now.
Just imagine being Cristobal, a proud ex-Hurricane football player himself who was part of those glory years, who won national titles as an offensive tackle on the 1989 and ’91 teams. Imagine going 5-7 in your 1st season as head coach at your alma mater, then seeing the basketball program follow a trip to the Elite Eight that preceded your 1st year with a trip to the Final Four.
Talk about a hard act to follow. Wow. Cristobal, a 2nd-generation Cuban-American with the same bloodlines to Cuba that his Canes colleague Larranaga has, will undoubtedly be watching what happens this weekend in Houston while he deals with the grind of spring football practice back here.
He has a snarling, angry, unsatisfied fan base that adores what the basketball team is doing right now but, in the long run, breathes football. That’s the irony of the present-day basketball frenzy in South Florida. Because for the longest time, since Schnellenberger led the Canes to that dramatic 1st national championship in 1983, a year after my family moved down here from the Northeast like so many other South Florida transplants, it’s been all about football.
Heck, when the Canes of Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson were ascending to the top of the college football landscape, Miami basketball didn’t even exist. The program that was formed in 1926, that boasted Rick Barry but little else, was dropped by the university in 1971 and was on hiatus for 14 years until it was revived in 1985 as an independent program when I was starting middle school. Trust me, none of my friends or family or anyone I came into contact with at the time down here were doing cartwheels over Canes basketball being back, under the leadership of Bill Foster.
There was the high-flying, Don Shula-Dan Marino Dolphins and the swaggering Hurricanes football program, and Miami Heat basketball would become a novelty that decade too. That was quite enough to scream about for South Florida’s sports fans. While Dolphins and Canes football ruled everything down here, going to Super Bowls and winning national championships, the reborn Hurricanes basketball program was playing its home games at a bandbox near campus called the James L. Knight Center.
Then, gradually, everything about UM basketball became bigger. The Canes moved to the Miami Arena in 1988 at the same time as the NBA expansion Heat started playing there, and they joined the Big East Conference in ’91. In 2003, just before bolting from the Big East to join the ACC, Hurricanes basketball finally got its prize — a shiny, on-campus arena that told South Florida (and its opponents) that it was time to take it seriously.
Two decades later, now look at these Canes.
After Sweet 16 appearances under Larranaga in 2013 and 2016 — and even 1 under the ageless Leonard Hamilton in 2000 before they got their own arena — that served as mere appetizers to what this program could achieve for a region distracted by so many other things, the main course has arrived, and South Florida has no choice but to embrace it.
It has. Wholeheartedly. Finally.
And, incredibly, it has 2 college basketball teams to celebrate as the calendar gets ready to flip to April.
This cool, new reality hit me full-force on Wednesday afternoon, during the noon news on 1 of the local TV stations, when I sat with my mother and watched Miami and FAU board their team buses, each amid on-campus revelry, bound for the airport for flights to the Final Four. Underneath the Hurricanes and Owls logos, the TV station’s headline for the dueling sendoffs said what every viewer had to be thinking: “Dream season.”
Because this has to be a dream, right? This can’t be real, can it?
And not 1 but 2 teams heading there?
It was almost 3 decades ago now, in the spring of 1994, that I sat and watched my sister graduate from FAU. It was a wonderful occasion that had nothing to do with sports, yet my sports fanatic mind was and is always at work.
FAU football didn’t even exist then.
And FAU basketball barely existed.
Almost 30 years later, now look at these Owls.
My sister’s alma mater, a great school never really known for anything huge athletically, is 2 victories from a national championship in men’s college basketball.
It is in Houston, the current center of the college basketball universe. The University of Miami is there with them.
And on Saturday night, South Florida, the current mecca of the college basketball universe, will be watching both of them play for a chance to play each other on Monday night for the national title.
This is reality.
This is the maddest form of March Madness imaginable.
Right now, this is South Florida’s passion.