"This," said Firebird coach Wil Jones, cradling the NCAA Division II basketball championship plaque in his left arm, "finally puts us on the map."
Jones, who coached the University of the District of Columbia team to victory in its first post-season tournament, could barely be heard over the shouts of "UDC! UDC!" from more than 100 diehard UDC fans who turned out yesterday afternoon at National Airport to welcome home the champion Firebirds.
"I think this gets us national credit, and inner-city credit, too," said Jones, who predicted that UDC's Saturday night victory over defending champion Florida Southern would help improve the six-year-old school's image and would greatly aid the college's local and regional basketball recruiting efforts.
"When kids say, 'Why are you going to UDC?' now our kids will say, 'I go to UDC 'cause it's a winner,' " Jones said.
That view was shared by many of the students, faculty, alumni and school officials who welcomed the team home and who said the victory meant more than just a basketball trophy.
"I am so elated," said freshman Mark Calloway. "I am overwhelmed, and I think we are finally going to get the recognition we need."
"That's right," said Pete Ross, 34, who graduated in 1974 before the merger of three colleges that created UDC in 1976. "It's about time we get some positive recognition."
Terry Thomas, the assistant director of a Southeast Washington health clinic and a UDC trustee, said the NCAA championship is "an indication that we are growing athletically and academically" because the school is able to attract and keep top athletes.
"Some of the best kids are looking at UDC now," he said.
As the cameras rolled and the floodlights glared, Firebird stars were interviewed about how they overcame the defending champs from Florida. But the jubilant crowd all but drowned out the interviews.
About 500 more supporters, smitten with what UDC fans call "Firebird Fever," were en route back to Washington by bus and car yesterday following the big win in Springfield, Mass. After a memorable all-night celebration on the 12th floor of a Springfield hotel, many fans got a late start back.
A larger celebration honoring the UDC team was expected to be held this week, according to university officials.
Meanwhile, at Dulles International, the Georgetown University Hoyas, fresh from a victory over Oregon State that won them the Western Regional title in the NCAA Division I, were welcomed yesterday by a spirited crowd of about 100.
Georgetown faces Louisville next week, and, if it wins, has a shot at the national championship March 29.