DAYTON, Ohio — Fifteen years ago this month, St. Bonaventure University, and its beloved basketball program, was at a crossroads.
Scandal had engulfed the program after it became known that a junior college transfer, who should have been ruled ineligible because he had a welding certificate and not enough credits to play for a Division I team, had been approved by the university’s president nonetheless.
The coach would eventually be fired, and the athletic director and school president would resign. The team was barred from postseason play, and the players chose to boycott the final two games of the regular season, leaving the program’s future in doubt.
Later that summer, the chairman of the school’s board of trustees would commit suicide.
As the news unfolded, I was a high school senior 40 miles west in the southwestern corner of New York state, wondering what it would be like when I went to college that fall. I grew up a basketball-obsessed farm kid who dreamed of becoming a sportswriter. Going to St. Bonaventure and being a part of its renowned journalism program — and maybe covering a basketball program that had made the NCAA tournament once and the NIT four times in the previous five years — was such an obvious choice that I never even visited another school.
But the school, and the program, I had envisioned was a different one by the time I arrived on campus. It was an idyllic little place that was still, understandably, trying to sort through what had happened. It would take years — far more than my four — for that process to play out.
In no place was that more clear than on the basketball court inside the Reilly Center. What had long been the source of the little school’s pride — both for the 2,000 or so students on campus and the thousands of alumni who had moved on from it — instead was a constant reminder of the shame that had befallen it.
During my four years at St. Bonaventure — the first four after that scandal — the men’s basketball team was a combined 24-89. Another coach was fired, and there was at least a faction of the school’s community that wondered whether the program would ever be competitive again or whether dropping to a lower-level conference in Division I — or dropping out of it altogether — should be considered.
Which makes Tuesday night’s “First Four” game, one of two to open this year’s NCAA tournament, between St. Bonaventure and UCLA so special.
When Mark Schmidt was hired as the team’s coach in 2007, the hope was simply for St. Bonaventure to cease being a punchline. The initial embarrassment of the scandal had been replaced by the continuing embarrassment of the way the basketball program was playing on the court.
At times, it seemed like a hopeless endeavor.
But Schmidt methodically rebuilt the program. He brought in a game-changing recruit, and future NBA first-round pick, in Andrew Nicholson, and the player-coach duo together achieved the seemingly unthinkable: bringing St. Bonaventure an Atlantic 10 tournament title in 2012 and with it automatic bid to that year’s tournament.
For those of us who had suffered through the indignities of the previous nine years, it was a remarkable occasion — one that would’ve only been made better had Bonaventure managed to complete an upset of Florida State in the first round that fell just short. The journey back from college basketball’s graveyard was complete.
The thing about winning your conference’s tournament, though, is that the NCAA has to give you a spot in its field of 68. For as good as that 2012 team was, and for as much as it accomplished, it wouldn’t have made the NCAA tournament that season had it not automatically qualified.
So the doubts remained. Perhaps the berth was a one-time thing, a fluke that saw a future NBA power forward fall out of the sky, land on campus and put a team, and a school, on his back. Perhaps it couldn’t be repeated. Perhaps we would never be able to make it to college basketball’s “Big Dance” without first securing an automatic ticket again.
Fast forward to 2016, when it seemed like all of those doubts would be officially placed in the past. Bonaventure went 22-9 and won a share of its first A-10 regular season title. But after losing to Davidson in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, Bonaventure was among the last teams excluded from that year’s field and critics of the selection committee’s decisions pointed first to Bonaventure’s omission in the days afterward.
That wasn’t much solace to anyone associated with the school, though. For schools that regularly find themselves playing in March, that’s hard enough to take. But for Bonaventure fans? It was a bitter pill to swallow. Teams that good at schools our size don’t come along every day — and everyone knew it.
But like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, that didn’t stop everyone from thinking this year — finally — would be different. Bonaventure was expected to be one of the top teams in its league again, led by a pair of terrific senior guards in Jaylen Adams — another future NBA talent — and Matt Mobley, and the Bonnies still had Schmidt on the sidelines.
Then Adams suffered a badly sprained ankle in the team’s exhibition game. Then the team lost its home opener against lowly Niagara, and its second game, against the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, was postponed because the Reilly Center lost power.
But the team responded with a brilliant finish to its non-conference schedule, winning 10 of its final 11 games — including victories over Maryland and Syracuse. And after stumbling to a 2-4 record to begin conference play, Bonaventure won its final 12 regular season games (a streak that would grow by one game with a tournament quarterfinal victory over Richmond) before eventually losing to Davidson in the semifinals at Capital One Arena on Saturday.
Given how things played out two years ago, the fan base was understandably nervous Sunday night. That was only exacerbated by the changes to this year’s selection show, which saw TBS go through all 68 teams in alphabetical order — and then list Seton Hall before listing St. Bonaventure, leaving everyone to wonder for a brief moment if Bonaventure had been snubbed again.
It wasn’t. And when the school’s logo popped up on the screen, it was the official end to a painful chapter in the program’s history.
Those of us who were lucky enough to go to St. Bonaventure are tightly knit and fiercely loyal. These last 15 years haven’t been easy for the university on a series of fronts; like many small Catholic schools, the economics of higher education have led to spiraling costs and dwindling enrollment. The fact it is located in a region of the country where there is a receding economy and a declining population hasn’t helped either.
But don’t tell that to anyone who went there (just ask anyone who knows me). A healthy blend of beer and basketball helps everyone who goes endure the endless string of cold, snowy winter nights while in school, and then binds those friendships together long after those students have graduated and gone on to bigger — but never better — things.
And make no mistake: In bars and living rooms across the country — and, of course, here in Dayton — there will be plenty of beers to be had as the Bonaventure faithful gather to watch their beloved Bonnies play the Bruins on Tuesday night.
There will probably be more than a few tears, too. But, unlike in past years, they won’t be shed in anger or in sorrow.
Read more NCAA tournament coverage: