May Madness: This March, FAU coach has Owls on cusp of title
Dusty May's March Madness run with FAU likely was one few saw coming.
May had, to be fair, not much better than minimal name recognition when he took the Florida Atlantic job five years ago. That wasn’t the case with almost all the other FAU coaches over the years, names like Mike Jarvis and Matt Doherty and Michael Curry and Sidney Green and Rex Walters.
Curry had been an NBA coach and played for years in the league. Green was an NBA lottery pick. Doherty coached at North Carolina, his alma mater, and Notre Dame. Jarvis had been at three other schools and coached a high schooler named Patrick Ewing. Walters was a Big 8 star at Kansas and played in the NBA.
And their FAU resumes don’t compare — some don’t come even close — to what May has done.
A school that used to be known for coaches looking to rebound now has a team headed to the Final Four, led by a coach whose claim to fame when he entered coaching was that he was a student manager for Bob Knight at Indiana.
“I think Coach May obviously has done an incredible job building this program from humble beginnings,” FAU athletic director Brian White said. “I think it is a great sign for the whole university and the athletic department that FAU is a place where you can come and build something special.”
The Final Four — FAU (35-3) plays San Diego State (31-6) on Saturday in Houston, before Miami (29-7) plays UConn (29-8) in the other national semifinal — is rarefied air for the Owls. Truly. Before this year, the last time the Owls were in the final four of any postseason tournament was 2002, and that was the ASun Conference Tournament.
Think about that. Go two decades without so much as a trip to a conference final four, and end up this year in the Final Four. It's a crazy ride orchestrated by the only coach to win 100 games at FAU, someone who hadn't played in the NBA or been a head coach anywhere else, big-time or even small-time.
“Florida Atlantic is a new university,” May said. “It’s been booming before I got here. One of the reasons I took it 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.”
There’s no Division I men’s basketball team in the country that has a better record this season than FAU. No team with more wins. No team with a longer winning streak. No team with a better home record, either.
All that would have been hard to envision five years ago. Or five months ago, for that matter.
The excitement on FAU’s campus was felt most at the campus bookstore Tuesday. The Owls’ Final Four apparel arrived late that morning, and students, alumni and fans walked around the store looking for their March Madness gear.
Some students stood on FaceTime with their parents, asking what size t-shirts to bring home to them.
“Gotta spend some money here and support,” Chas Kaplan said as he checked out with a couple red and grey shirts.
And he's not even a student. Kaplan’s aunt works at the university, and he traveled from Columbus, Ohio, to FAU to tour of the school’s athletic department and support the Owls’ tournament run.
FAU has tended to be a school where coaches go with hopes of winning, yes, but also reviving their own careers. It worked out for all sides during Lane Kiffin’s three years as football coach at the school; the Owls won two Conference USA championships and Kiffin landed the Ole Miss job. He’s been the exception to the rule; FAU wasn’t exactly a springboard back to the biggest levels of big-time for other coaches who made their way to Boca Raton.
It didn’t work for Willie Taggart, who was fired at Florida State and then got fired last fall by FAU after being unable to come close to matching Kiffin’s success. The jury is out on Tom Herman, the former Houston football coach who’ll coach his first game for the Owls this fall. Kiffin arrived with the burden of expectation and delivered. Taggart didn't. Time will tell on Herman.
“At Florida Atlantic, we will see great things happen,” Kiffin said on the day he got hired at FAU. “For us to do the impossible, we have to see the invisible.”
May saw the invisible. He has done the improbable. He's two wins away from the impossible.
He arrived at FAU five years ago for his first chance at being a head coach and inherited — to be polite — less-than-stellar facilities and a program with almost no basketball history to speak of.
The facilities are better now, with more upgrades on the way in the coming months. The Owls' home arena, which can hold about 3,000 fans if the fire marshal isn't looking, might sell out next season. And some people might not know how to pronounce Boca Raton — it’s Ra-tone, by the way — but certainly more people in the basketball world now know what’s capable at FAU.
“The brand enhancement is just phenomenal and that’s the reason we have Division I athletics, to be the front porch for the university,” White said. “Then exposure that we’ve gotten during this run for the whole university, you just can’t buy that.”