Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 3/25/13
Dave Balza would like to dispel two statements. Both are correct in terms of the letter of the law. But both are still a bit off, both taken a smidge out of context. You'll have heard the first if you've watched even a few minutes of March Madness this year, especially if those minutes have been of the frenetic, underdog, blue and green variety. In fact, if you've heard anything at all about Florida Gulf Coast University this March, you've probably heard the myth. You've heard how this, the first 15-seed to advance to the Sweet 16, is led by a former walk-on. An underdog among underdogs -- that's how they're painting Sherwood Brown, he of the dreadlocked victory celebrations and two career tournament wins, now. But Dave Balza wants to correct that categorization. Balza was there, after all, when Brown was being recruited. In fact, he was FGCU's head coach, the man who built the program from scratch and was fired at the end of the 2010-11 season. And as much as being touted as the former walk-on might mythologize Brown, according to Balza, it underplays how much the school wanted him. It ignores the fact that FGCU would have loved to have given him a scholarship and that it took the work of a group of wildly persuasive assistant coaches to get the talented guard to Fort Myers. You see, when Brown was choosing which school to attend for his freshman season in 2009, FGCU was in the process of transitioning from Division II to Division I, and while Division I programs have 13 scholarships to give, due to a strapped budget and the nascent change, Balza's team had only 10. And they were already taken. Somehow, though, the coaches managed to get Brown on board, despite the fact that he'd have to pay his way for a year, that his team wouldn't be eligible for postseason play until his junior season. But convince him they did, with that beautiful beachfront campus and an athletic department that for some unknown reason believed it could do great things despite its players being older than its school. Balza, who is now the head coach at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minn., was relieved of his duties in 2011, because "I guess when you win 23 games at a D-II level," he says, trailing off. (Balza's team went 10-20 in his final season). Even so, the coach says he couldn't be happier for where the players he recruited and the program he built have ended up, with a chance to beat Florida next weekend and head to the Elite Eight. What's most striking about FGCU is less its seeding than its history. The basketball program wasn't born until 2001, when Balza was hired, and the school held its first classes just four years before, in 1997. In fact, the initial plan for the university was for it to be a sort of new-age educational program in which students took classes online without much of an actual campus, and that just 10 years after classes began it boasted a Division I basketball program is almost preposterous. "I don't know that anyone envisioned it being quite this quick or quite this impressive, being a no. 15 seed making the Sweet 16," Balza said, laughing. Credit Balza for building the basketball program from the ground up, but if you ask the coach today, he'll tell you it was easier to establish the team than it was to transition from Division II to Division I beginning in 2007. The Eagles were a powerhouse in Division II, though, and so when Division I came calling, they couldn't say no. Balza compares the phenomenon to having a perfectly adequate date to prom and then having the homecoming queen invite you. You've got to ditch that first date. "It was amazing to me how quickly we went to Division I, because that wasn't really part of the original plan when I took the job," Balza said. "It kind of happened out of necessity, because we had a ton of success in Division II." "It hadn't really been planned. It was kind of a quick jump, so we were still really on a shoestring budget, D-II budget." For several years during the transition, the logistics were tricky. There were situations like Brown's, with not enough money leaving open a chance for a coveted player to bolt. There was also the obstacle of luring players to campus when they knew they'd have a four-year ban from the postseason during the transition. When before all Balza had to do was bring a kid to campus for him to be sold, now there was real wheeling and dealing necessary to attract the kind of talent the Eagles wanted and needed. But slowly, things got easier. With one year of the postseason ban down, the coach could promise players a chance at a tournament berth their senior year. Two years down, and there were guys like Brown, with a real option of making the dance in their junior and senior seasons. Things were getting back to normal, and when Balza and other coaches brought players to campus and drove them around in golf carts to take in the resort-like setting, it was almost easy again. One recruit, Swiss guard Christophe Varidel, turned to the coaches on his trip and told them immediately that this was where he wanted to live. Recruiting isn't too tough of a job on the beach, after all. The team that will take the court against Florida on Friday night is the product of new coach Andy Enfield's energetic, above-the-rim style of play. That's how it's beaten first second-seeded Georgetown and then seventh-seeded San Diego State, and these miniature Harlem Globetrotters have become the darlings of college basketball. Still, though, Balza left his mark. His system involved a similar athletic, high-energy style of play to Enfield's, he says, making the transition to a new coach almost seamless. He provided the men, and now Enfield has made it work in a big way. Numbers and logic said they shouldn't still be playing, this ragtag team of names few had ever heard before last Friday. But suddenly Eddie Murray, Brett Comer, Chase Fieler and Sherwood Brown are becoming household names. Suddenly they're the best story in college basketball. Which brings us to that second misrepresentation with which Balza would like to contend, that Florida Gulf Coast does not belong. Sure, one look at the four teams playing in Texas this weekend, and it's a rudimentary case of "one of these does not belong." The one is FGCU. The others are Florida, Michigan and Kansas, all traditional D-I powerhouses. At least, that's what you see. Balza, however, sees three teams FGCU played in nonconference games during its transitional period. He sees three losses, sure, but also three tapes to watch, three highlight films, three nights that somehow contributed to how his guys got to where they are today. So yes, they belong, even if it's in the most abstract of senses. Even if it's just to bust some brackets. Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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