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Cleveland State Was the Original Florida Gulf Coast Cinderella To The Sweet Sixteen Twenty-Seven Years Ago

“The nation falls in love with an underdog team, and a long time ago they fell in love with Cleveland State, and so I understand what is happening,” Kevin Mackey told me, as we discussed Florida Gulf Coast.

Florida Gulf Coast became an instantaneous hit over a weekend of action, going from a team few people had seen to garnering the nickname Dunk City and becoming internet dancing sensations. Few people know what coach Andy Enfield is going through as he prepares for an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, as the first 15 seed to advance that far. One person that does, though, is Kevin Mackey.

Twenty-seven years ago, he was Andy Enfield, the hot shot coach of a Cinderella team. In 1986, Cleveland State stunned the nation when they toppled the Indiana Hoosiers, Bobby Knight, and Steve Alford. Indiana had won two national championships in the past decade (and would win another one the following year). Cleveland State was the outsider, making their first appearance in the tournament as a 14 seed. The NCAA Tournament had just expanded to 64 teams a year earlier, and it was the Vikings who ushered in the March Madness of David over Goliath. They (along with Arkansas-Little Rock over Digger Phelp’s Notre Dame) were the first 14 seed to win a game in the tournament. Two days later, they became the first to advance to the Sweet Sixteen when they also beat St. Joseph’s.

I asked Coach Mackey about his experience in that run, and any perspective he might have for what Florida Gulf Coast is going through now. That tournament run was Cleveland State’s One Shining Moment, as they never got back to the NCAA Tournament until 2009. Four years later, Kevin Mackey had his road to Damascus moment on what he at the time called his “descent into Hell”. He was arrested for drunk driving, and admitted to drug and alcohol abuse, before being fired by Cleveland State at the age of 43.

He has been sober for more than twenty years now, and he still gets to keep a close eye on the NCAA Tournament that brought him temporary fame. Today, he is a college scout with the Indiana Pacers, hired by Larry Bird a decade ago. He scouts the Big East, Atlantic 10, and ACC, and was at the Auburn Hills site last week. “Georgetown, I’ve covered Georgetown, I’ve seen Georgetown for a number of years, I’m very familiar with the program, and our starting center, Roy Hibbert, came out of Georgetown. If you beat Georgetown, you’re pretty good.”

We talked about the similarities between Florida Gulf Coast and Cleveland State, and the mentality necessary. “I really feel that is the key, it is always better to be the attacker than the attackee in sports, when you are coming after someone,” Mackey said. We saw Florida Gulf Coast really take it to Georgetown last Friday, emerging as Dunk City. In 1986, Cleveland State played what Mackey termed “run-n-stun”, playing an aggressive full court style that went at the bigger programs. “Back in 1986, my guys were the same way, a bunch of off Broadway guys, we were playing the big name teams, and our guys resented the fact that we weren’t on TV all the time, like the big schools.”

Coach Mackey knows the challenges facing Andy Enfield this week, as the publicity has skyrocketed.

“You’ll have family reaching out to you, all kinds of friends, everyone who knew you or thought they knew you, relatives. Everyone wants tickets, everyone wants to interview you, everyone wants a piece of you, everyone wants you to go to their party. You just can’t do it.”

When discussing what he would do differently, Coach Mackey says that he would have gotten his players out of Cleveland sooner and traveled onto the regional site (The Meadowlands in 1986 for the East Regional), or not gone back at all after the first two wins.

That rebound has been tough for unknown teams exposed to the limelight. None of the teams that have reached that far as a 13 seed or lower have advanced. No Sweet Sixteen Cinderella team since Cleveland State has come as close either. The other six teams that have tried as 13 seeds or lower have lost by an average of 11 points in the Sweet Sixteen.

“I watch the Indiana game, I watch the St. Joe’s game,” Mackey explained, “I’m still not strong enough to watch the Navy game. There’s never been any coach, any player–when you have a one point loss, there is always 5,000 ways you could have won that game.”

Cleveland State lost to Navy on a shot by David Robinson from the paint off an inbounds with five seconds remaining, 71-70. Just prior to that play, Cleveland State had successfully deflected an entry pass intended for David Robinson, and forced a jump ball, but the possession arrow was not in their favor.

According to Mackey, Tommy Amaker (the current head coach at Harvard, who coincidentally beat New Mexico as a 14 seed this year) told him, “hey, we were worried, we didn’t want to get you with that style of play.” Duke went on to beat Navy to reach their first Final Four with Coach Mike Krzyzewski that season.

The memories of that ’86 run live on, though. “It never ceases to amaze me,” says Mackey, “I’m in a gym every night, and there will always be someone that will come up to me, and say ‘I remember your team, I remember how you played, I remember Mouse McFadden and Clinton Ransey.'”

Years from now, people will remember Florida Gulf Coast in a similar manner, and they are going out there for all the small schools that could never quite get over the hump, including Mackey’s Cleveland State squad. “It’s Florida Gulf Coast’s time now, it’s there time. Those kids, the coach, I’m rooting for them, I hope they win.”

Previously: Florida Gulf Coast Equipment Manager Dancing on Sportscenter Proves FGCU Still Has Swag
Previously: Dunk City: Florida Gulf Coast’s Eric McKnight Threw Down an Alley-Oop
Previously: Courtney Jolly, a Former Monster Truck Driver & Beauty Queen, is Probably Florida Gulf Coast University’s Most Famous Alumna
Previously: Charles Barkley to Andy Enfield: “Where the hell is Florida Gulf Coast at?”
Previously: Sherwood Brown Celebrated With Adoring FGCU Cheerleaders After Upsetting Georgetown
Previously: Eddie Murray of Florida Gulf Coast Had a Sick Putback Dunk on Georgetown [Video]
Previously: Amanda Marcum Cheering on Florida Gulf Coast Against Georgetown

 

 

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