At 2:35 pm this afternoon the St. Bonaventure University Bonnies begin their 2012 post-season NCAA Tournament play. It begins with the Men facing off with Florida State University and will continue with the Bonnie Women playing Florida Gulf Coast University on Sunday. The Men are expected to lose, at least that’s what a lot of sports pundits and bracketologists are predicting, while the Women — who ended regular season play ranked #16 in the nation — are slated to win. But this season has been full of surprises. I’m not banking on the Men beating the ACC Tournament Champions, FSU, but anything is really possible in the Big Dance. What I am banking on is the spirit of camaraderie and enthusiasm that is shared throughout the United States today as alums, students and fans of the small Franciscan University in “upstate” New York garners the attention of a population that last heard about my alma mater and its basketball legacy in terms of a devastating recruiting scandal that cost the president, coaches, athletic director and others their jobs and contributed in part to the loss of one man’s life. My how nine years can really change a program!
That it has taken less than ten years for SBU to arise from the ashes of its arguably lowest point in its 150-plus years of history is itself, as Sr. Margaret Carney, President of SBU said in a recent interview, a miracle. The miracle has been attributed in no small part to the school’s star player Andrew Nicholson, but it extends beyond #44 to the Coach, Mark Schmidt, and the entire basketball team. It also extends to the SBU family of alums and fans who, despite painful years of NCAA play that resulted from severe sanctions and the decimation of the team in the mid-2000s, stood by their beloved Bonnies through it all. Among the MANY positive and enthusiastic articles and reports about the NCAA season and the Bonnies are found pieces this morning in The New York Times and USA Today.
A lot has been said about how proud everyone is to be a Bonnie and the truth is that I’ve always been proud to be an alum of St. Bonaventure University. Not just because of the basketball program and its gloried history (and hopefully legendary future), but for what the school represents, the education I received there, the character formation and values instilled, the spirit of community, and the joy of being a part of something so much larger than one’s self.
I’m not going to watch the game this afternoon with a group of alums in Washington, DC, anticipating any major sweep of FSU. If that happens, that would be awesome. I’m there to enjoy the game and spirit of my alma mater. As Coach Schmidt has said in recent interviews, the Bonnies in the Tourney are “playing with house money” at this point, with nothing to lose. They are the underdogs and to be a part of the dance is the reward in itself.
As one blogger recently captured so well as he recalled his experience watching the 2000 NCAA tourney, SBU’s last entrance to the Big Dance, I am not obsessed so much with the winning or losing of the school (although a W would be great!), I’m obsessed with the overflowing pride shared by the community of SBU around the globe this last week. He wrote, of the 2000 experience watching the game in Cleveland with a bar of alums and fans:
If you walked up Prospect Avenue that Thursday morning, guided through the city’s quiet hum by a distant, thumping tavern chant of, “Let’s go, Bonas,” you’ll never forget it. You’ll always remember the pregame bar scene, complete with Bob Lanier-era grads hoisting breakfast pints with robed Franciscans and graduating seniors; the overwhelmed Flannery’s bar staff, who were not prepared for over 150 patrons at 11 a.m.; the laughing conversations between strangers in brown, yellow and white. And, whether you watched the game on the edge of an arena seat or on the edge of a barstool, you’ll never forget the unfortunate ending.But the game itself didn’t instill the meaning of Bonas; the two halves and two overtimes didn’t define the St. Bonaventure experience. It was what happened at Flannery’s after the game that’s always stayed with me. Slowly but surely, students and alums found their way back to the bar not to complain, but to celebrate how little St. Bonaventure University nearly shocked the Kentucky Wildcats on national television. We charged rounds of pre-St. Patrick’s Day Guinness and started up the Bona clap-chants. Those at the game relayed stories of how the Gund Arena crowd–regardless of their collegiate affiliation–joined in the rising Rudy-like chants for the overlooked Bonnies as the game stayed tight. Before we finally embarked on the drive back to Olean, we stood amid a sense of unexplainable communion that most SBU alumni associate with their time as college students.And this is the essence of the Bonaventure connection. This is the embrace of the underdog, the intrinsic bond that breeds such overt loyalty from the school’s graduates. It was evident through my four undergraduate years, and it’s been fact through the 12 years after. That’s what Bonas means to me.
On the other side of the country, the school’s most famous living alumnus heard this and it warmed his heart. Last Sunday, he had gone to his golf club in Scottsdale, Ariz., to hit balls and burn off nervous energy. He had sat in the men’s grille as he watched the Bonnies play Xavier for the A-10’s automatic berth, and he was afraid he was going to be asked to leave, he was so animated.
“Instead,” Bob Lanier said, “suddenly everyone else is joining in, saying ‘Let’s go, Bonnies!’ and ‘Bring ’em home, Bonnies!’ And then, wouldn’t you know it, they did. They did! The Bonnies won, and we’re going to the NCAA, and you just don’t know what that does to my heart.”