Terry Dugas sat alone in his Lincoln living room last Friday and stared, bewildered, at his own personal March Madness.
He was there when they carved the new public university out of Florida scrubland. He was there when people forgot the university's name, confused it for a community college and laughed at this tiny school where the alligators sometimes sauntered through campus.
And now he was watching Florida Gulf Coast University — his Florida Gulf Coast University — topple mighty Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
A question was ringing in his ears: Is this really happening?
Yes, it is. Yes, it did.
“Seismic,” says Dugas, one of Florida Gulf Coast's first employees, when asked to characterize the school's shocking run into the Sweet 16. “You cannot put a dollar value on this. It's just ... amazing.”
Dugas, now a manager at NET Television who still teaches a long-distance class for Florida Gulf Coast every semester, believes he's one of maybe two or three Nebraskans with any sort of tie to the university. And his connection gives him special insight into just how Cinderella this Cinderella story actually is.
He arrived at the campus in 1995, when there was no basketball team. Basketball team? There were no buildings.
He helped launch the public broadcasting TV station that was affiliated with the new college. He watched as they built roads and dorms and a student center.
He was there on the first day of classes on Aug. 25, 1997. He taught media classes when there were only 1,000 students on a campus built for many more. He worked on a campus with a man-made lake and a gorgeous beach right next to the dorms.
Sometimes, things like this happened:
“We were working in the TV station, which doubles as a classroom, and we got a call from our receptionist. She said, 'Terry, there's an alligator lying by the front door.'”
Terry peeked outside. There was, in fact, an 8-foot alligator sunning itself on the station's front stoop.
“Luckily we have a back door,” he says.
Dugas took the job at NET, moved to Lincoln and grew used to what happened when he told people he still taught at Florida Gulf Coast University.
It's in southwest Florida.
Kind of near Tampa.
“Everyone seems to have a vague idea of where Tampa is,” he says.
Dugas, like most students and faculty members at Florida Gulf Coast, had only the vaguest idea that the university had a basketball team until, oh, a week ago.
On Jan. 17, for example, the Eagles drew a whopping 1,900 fans to its home game against Lipscomb.
And why would there be any reason to get excited? Florida Gulf Coast just joined NCAA Division I in 2007. Until this season, it never had a winning record as a D-I team.
And even this year, the Eagles struggled through a part of the Atlantic Sun conference season — in that Jan. 17 game, they lost by nine to lowly Lipscomb.
So here's one way to get the alums — all 13,473 of them — and the entire country excited.
Sneak into the NCAA tournament. Thump Georgetown. Thump San Diego State. Do it with so much speed and power that sportswriters nickname your team “Dunk City.”
And then, when you make the Sweet 16, go back to the locker room and hold an impromptu, nationally televised dance session with Coach Andy Enfield, a dance doubling as a gentle reminder that college sports are, in fact, supposed to be fun.
Dugas knew that something important had changed when he called an acquaintance this week and happened to mention he's an adjunct professor at Florida Gulf Coast. For the first time since moving to Nebraska, he did not have to explain what that was.
He knew that something important had changed when he had to postpone an assignment in his “Influence of Media on Culture” distance-learning class. The assignment was due today. Except that's when Florida Gulf Coast plays in a NCAA tournament game that could double as the climactic scene in any schmaltzy sports movie.
Its opponent: the University of Florida.
That would be the same University of Florida that is 107 years old and boasts 367,000 alumni. The same University of Florida that hauled in $644 million in research grants last year. Florida Gulf Coast has received $150 million in federal grants in its entire 16-year history.
That would be the same University of Florida that is the 500-pound Goliath in the state's higher education scene. Until last week, Florida Gulf Coast wasn't even really David. It was more like a speck of dust on David's sling.
Tonight, Dugas plans to settle in on his couch, by himself, and hope again for the impossible.
“It's not like I can go to a sports bar with a bunch of other FGCU fans,” he says.
You'd be surprised, Terry. Tonight, sports bars across Lincoln and Omaha and the country will be packed with brand-new Florida Gulf Coast University fans. Just don't ask them exactly where the school is.
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