Twenty-four hours before his unranked and unheralded St. Joseph's team was scheduled to play top-ranked De Paul, Jim Lynam joined Ray Meyer, Bobby Knight and Lefty Driesell at a press conference last Friday in Dayton, Ohio.
Lynam, 39, has a career coaching record of 157-l17 in 10 years. The other three have won 1,399 games among them and have 76 years of college coaching experience.
"I was awed just being there," Lynam said. "I was worried my players would feel the same way when they went on the court to play De Paul. That afternoon at practice I told them how I felt, how I had felt sitting on the podium next to Ray Meyer.
"I told them, though, that I had to look at myself in the mirror and say that I earned my place here, and I said that each of them had to do the same thing that night.
"They had to look at themselves and say, 'I am a good basketball player. It is not a fluke that I am here.' Because I knew if we played our game, we could win."
Lynam's players listened. They believed. And the following day, with their coach guiding their every move from the sidline, they stunned De Paul and the nation. John Smith's layup with three seconds left gave them a 49-48 victory over the Blue Demons.
As he stood on the court with pandemonium breaking loose all around him, Lynam couldn't help but think back seven days. "I was thinking about how thin the line is in this business," he said. "We were eight points down to American University with four minutes left in the ECC (East Coast Conference) championship game. We easily could have been in the NIT and they could have been where we were."
It is ironic that Lynam would think of American at the very moment when he reached the pinnacle of his coaching career. For five years, Lynam coached at American and, during his stint there, he earned a reputation among basketball people as one of the bright young minds in the game.
Three years ago, Lynam, who grew up in West Philadelphia, returned to St. Joseph's, the 2,200-student Jesuit school where he played point guard in 1961 on the first and last Hawk team to reach the final four St. Jospeh's had four straight losing seasons before Lynam took over. His first year, the record was 19-11, then 21-9. Both years the Hawks reached the Nit.
Then, last spring, Lynam began to raise eyebrows when he convinced two top Philadelphia players, 6-foot-10 Tony Costner and 6-5 Lonnie McFarlan, to come to St. Jospeh's, beating out several big-name schools.
A year ago point guard Jeff Clark, was 2 one-hundredths of a point short of the 2.0 average needed to be eligible to play basketball. He sat out the entire season. He also changed his major from business, where he had struggled with math, to Spanish. Clark made the dean's list.
Clark's return this year, coupled with the additon of Costner and McFarlan to a veteran team that included forwards Smith and Boo Williams and guard Bryan Warrick, made the Hawks a factor in the East all season.
Still, they finished second in the ECC regular season to American after losing to the Eagles in overtime, then had to pull a big comeback to win the tournament and earn the NCAA bid. In the first round against Creighton, St. Joe's had to come from six points back in the final five minutes to win. There was no reason to think the Hawks were going to threaten De Paul.
"Three times this year we were in situations where we were playing up and we really didn't respond well," Lynam said. "We were beaten badly at North Carolina and Maryland, but I think, now, those experiences helped us. We knew the kinds of things we had to do to beat a team with great talent."
The Hawks did everything they had to.They rattled the cocky Blue Demons by shutting off Mark Aguirre, by playing at their own slow pace and by keeping their poise at the end when De Paul was panicking.
When it was over, Aguirre stormed out of the building and hurled the ball across the parking lot. Lynam was beseiged by friends, by family, by media when it was over. He answered every question and later returned every phone call. He took his entire team and its entourage to a Chinese dinner (reservations for 37) and finally, after midnight, sat down in the quiet of the hotel bar to have a beer.
"I remember my first year as a head coach at Fairfield," he said, thinking back to 1968. "The second game I coached was at Fairleigh Dickinson. They were supposed to be nothing. We were supposed to win in a walk. We lost.
"Three nights later we went into the Palestra to play St. Joe's. They were supposed to kill us.We won a little bit like today. About this time of night, sitting in a bar like this one a friend of mine said, 'Jim, in four days you've experienced the absolute low and the absolute high of this business. Don't ever forget it.' I haven't.
Lynam arrived in Dayton aware that the Big Ten and the ACC were upset about not getting more bids. Friday, he defended conferences like the ECC, pointing out that the smaller schools added glamor to the tournament.
"It looks good now, but I never anticipated the result of our game," he said. "But I saw somewhere in the paper that we were rated 78th in the country by that computer the NCAA used."
Lynam didn't add, "Take that, computer." He didn't have to. He is bright enough to be aware of the thin line all coaches walk from glory one day to oblivion the next.
"I remember when we came out of the huddle for the last timeout, John Smith asked me what kind of defense I wanted if we scored to go ahead.
"I looked at the clock (12 seconds) and laughed. I told him just to get back. Then I said, 'We're all going to be on our knees playing defense if we go ahead.'"
Lynam wasn't on his knees when the end came, but he was back-pedaling toward center court. "I thought maybe Aguirre saw someone long, so I was backing up to try and spot the guy. But there was no one there. I saw the clock go to zero. Then everyone was flying at me."
Eight hours later, Teresa Boyle, wife of Jim Boyle, a St. Joe's assistant coach, stopped by a TV set to watch a replay of the finish. Moments later she returned to the table where the St. Joseph's crowd was sitting.
"Hey, you won't believe it," she said. "De Paul just got upset."
They all cheered. Jim Lynam smiled. He had proven that not all dreamers are crazy.