It seems as if everyone in this "Queen City of the South" (as the Chamber of Commerce likes to call it) wants to jump on the University of North Carolina Charlotte basketball bandwagon.
Athletic officials are being swamped by requests for final-four tickets. Players could be granting interviews every hour if they desired. Fans are calling in, volunteering to contribute money to the athletic scholarship foundation.
"The phone hasn't stopped ringing all week," said UNCC's sports publicist, David Taylor, "but no one is complaining. We say, 'Here is the bandwagon, jump right on.'"
In the school's 12-year history, there has never been a week quite like this one. After struggling for so long in the shadow of its better-know sister schools within the University of North Carolina system, UNCC is staging a coming-out party. And all of Charlotte is invited.
Yet there is a touch of irony involved in the proceedings. The 8,000-strong student body, which has been waiting so long for this moment, isn't around to mount one final massive celebration. It's spring break and everyone has gone home.
"If the students were here, it would be hard to exist," said forward Kevin King. "It's bad enough now, with everyone wanting your autograph when you go into restaurants.
The exploits of the UNCC basketball team has the entire area feverish. Residents have been hungry for a winner since pro hockey, football nad baseball franchises all failed in recent years. Even Davidson College, once an NCAA power under the guidance of Lefty Driesell, has fallen on hard times. UNCC arrived just in time to fill the sports void.
In the process, the city and its state college have discovered each other. Citizens who have never visited the school (located eight miles north of Charlotte) have dropped by this week, just to see what kind of institution produced such a fine basketball team.
"There is no question that we've had an identity crisis, even within our state," said Douglas Orr, vice chancellor for student affairs. "Even though we've been around for a while, it's taken people time to discover us. It takes time to develop ties and I have to think basketball has helped us get started in this direction."
When UNCC made it to the final of the NIT last year, the local citienry started to take note, but the school was like a ground hog: it made an appearance for a few moments, then returned to its lair where it was soon forgotten.
This time, the 49ers want to make sure they prove they aren't a fluke.
"I know we've made an impact this time," said Taylor. "I don't have to tell people our whole life history any more. They'll settle for the economy version, but at times, I still feel like the Shell answer man."
This is the University of North Carolina Charlotte:
The campus covers 1,000 acres and currently has 20 major buildings. new buildings are being added at about one a year.
It costs in-state, commuter students $231 in tuition and fees per semester to attend full-time.
Its nickname, the 49ers, did not come about because it is located on state highway 49. Students decided in a referendum that they wanted to be called the "49ers" after those California gold miners of 1849 who were so spirited. The students considered themselves equally as spirited since they successfully fought back attempt in the early 1960s to close what was then Charlotte Community College.
The basketball team played its first game in 1965, against erry College, and lost, 74-71. It became a major-college-level school five years ago. Green is the school color and the players like to be called, "The Mean Green."
School officials are especially proud of their nursing college, and geography and architectual programs. The school is one of the few universities hiring new faculty every year; each opening brings hundreds of applications. About 2,000 students live on campus; the other 6,000 commute, normally driving no more than 45 minutes from their homes. Massive parking lots and pretty pine trees dominate the campus, which is both beautiful and functional Eventually, about 20,000 students, living in what will be called "University City," will make this the largest of the 16 North Carolina state schools.
Head coach Lee Rose literally is feverish. He has been in and out of bed all week, trying to fight off a case of the flu. When he is in the office, he is usually interrupted by irritated phone caller, demanding tickets.
Like the other three NCAA finalists, UNCC is allotted 1,000 tickets. About 400 wound up in students began lining up in front of the gym Sunday afternoon; tickets were handed out Tuesday morning.
Boosters received the majority of the remaining tickets. There are about 700 embers of the athletic foundation who contributed $49,000 last year. Already, $20,000 in additional pledges have been received this wtek alone.
Participation in that playoffs will be lucrative in another way: tournament income. Charlotte expects to receive about $180,000 from the NCAA. Its basketball budget this year is $180,305.
In keeping with their miner motif, school officials joke they finally have struck it rich. "People think we are called 49ers because we are situated on top of a gold mine," said Taylor. "That hasn't been true, until now."
The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill is located about two hours from UNCC. North Carolina State in Raleigh is three hours away. Wake Forest in Winston-Salem and Duke in Durham are about 90 minutes drive each.
Only Wake Forest of this so-called Big Four now will schedule UNCC during the regular season. The Deacons beat UNCC by two points before a sellout crowd of 15,500 this year in Greensboro. State had won four regular-season meetings before losing to UNCC in the NIT semifinals last year.
"We want them to play us, all of them," said Roy Parker, a UNCC alumnus who now heads the athletic foundation. "But they are all afraid of getting beat. They say, 'What do we have to gain by it?"
But the one school everyone at UNCC really wants is North Carolina Chapel Hill. "They are the kingpins," said Parker. "Every alumnus wants a shot at them.
"It used to be we didn't brag about attending UNCC. We'd say, 'Oh, I'm going to UNCC for two years and then transfer to Chapel Hill.'
"I even know grads of UNCC that have got class rings with blue stones, to make it seem like it was a Chapel Hill ring. But no more; we brag about going to UNCC now."
The players, an unemotional, methodical bunch, sense the pulse of their fans. And they are hoping that if they can beat Marquette Saturday, North Carolina also will win, setting up the long-anticipated confrontation.
"That entire school, they think they are better than anyone else," said King. "They call themselves 'the' University of North Carolina, like we don't exist. I think coach Dean Smith is scared to play us, because he knows we can beat them.
"I'm sure their players would like to play us every year. But it's the administrators who are calling the shots. But this is one time they won't be able to interfere."