Cinderella comes to Boca

Forget everything you know about big time college basketball. Forget about the Cameron Crazies, Rock Chalk Jayhawk, the Dean Dome, the Gator Chomp and the pride of Lexington.

Instead, think high school, and picture the gym. See the empty rows of bleachers, hear the deafening echo of cheerleaders without fans, and watch a team that can't do anything right. Picture players who don't care, coaches who don't win and a basketball program that seemingly matters to no one.

Welcome to Florida Atlantic University.

At the commuter school located just off I-95 in Boca Raton, Fla., basketball always has been a disaster. After four years in Division II, the Owls moved to Division I in 1992. They have gone 79-201 since. The past three seasons, FAU averaged five wins and 24 losses. Nobody went to the games. Basketball players strolled to class with as much anonymity as a random biology major.

"It was pretty pathetic," said head coach Sidney Green, the former UNLV All-American and 10-year NBA veteran. "We were a complete laughingstock."

But this year, the Bad News Bears of college basketball have found a glass slipper that fits all too well. The Owls (19-11) capped a 16-11 regular season, the best in school history, with a three-game sweep through the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament to earn the school's first trip to the Big Dance.

And say what you will about their 14 years of misery, Sunday night -- just like the Dukes, Marylands and Kentuckys of the world -- the Owls found themselves in front of the television, united as a team, waiting to see where their NCAA Tournament odyssey would take them.

About 200 fans, almost twice the size of some FAU crowds of the past, packed into Wackadoo's restaurant in the University Center and waited to see the words Florida Atlantic University on the big-screen TV. That moment would affirm the turnaround and tell the whole country that the Owls were one of 65 teams with a shot at the national championship.

After nearly 25 minutes, the words finally appeared, and the restaurant erupted. Players in the front row, wearing NCAA Tournament t-shirts and holding video cameras, leaped out of their chairs in excitement. Parents, fans and boosters in the back waved pompoms and screamed in jubilation. Now this was college basketball. This was what it's all about.

"It was an emotional night," said athletics director Tom Cargill, who helped start the basketball program. "To see some of the people who were here 15 years ago and paid their dues, it was more than gratifying."

Fifteenth-seeded Florida Atlantic will make its NCAA Tournament debut against No. 2 seed Alabama in Greenville, S.C., on Thursday. A daunting task? Yes. Impossible? No. Though the Owls surely will be given little -- if any -- chance to win, they don't care. That's what being a Cinderella is all about.

"The day I took this job, everybody told me I was crazy," said Green, who came to FAU from North Florida in 1999. "In November, when I told people I had a feeling this was our year, they told me I was crazy again. So I can guess what they're going to say when I tell them we don't just plan on showing up."

The Owls story is one of resilience, determination and of ignoring doubters. It is part Hoosiers, part After School Special. It starts so low, ends so high and has so many warm fuzzies in between, it's enough to make Mister Rogers gag.

But it's true.

Rock bottom

When the program jumped to Division I, Cargill envisioned raucous crowds, NCAA Tournament bids and national notoriety. But it would take time. An eight-year waiting period before the Owls would be eligible for the postseason complicated recruiting. Imagine telling a player that if he came to your school, he'd never see March Madness. It wasn't easy. The school's first D-I coach, Ted Loomis, went 15-67 in three years and then left.

Green, who ended his NBA career with the Orlando Magic and had an itch to coach in the state of Florida, wanted the FAU job after Loomis, but even a long list of referrals from the likes of Jerry Tarkanian and Rick Pitino wasn't enough to overcome a complete lack of experience. Cargill told him to get some.

"And not many guys would have done this, but he dragged himself off to (Long Island University) Southampton to get experience and basically say, 'I'll show you guys,' " Cargill said.

In the meantime, Kevin Billerman, a Duke assistant, faced the same problems Loomis did at FAU. He went 36-71 in four seasons and was fired shortly after reportedly referring to Cargill as a "habitual liar" in a letter.

The team had been in Division I for seven years and had won barely 50 games. Attendance was brutal, compounded by the fact that Florida Atlantic is a commuter school, in which most students head home after class rather than stay for a hoops game. Then it was announced that FAU was starting a football program, which would be coached by Howard Schnellenberger and would join Division I-A in three to five years. Even less attention was paid to the basketball team.

How bad was fan support? When attendance was listed at 200 to 300 people, often the true count was closer to 100. If that.

"I remember one of the first games I ever went to," Schnellenberger said, "I guess if you would have counted coaches' wives and players' parents, there may have been 50 people in the gym. You had to hush-hush all your conversations in the stands if you didn't want to be overheard on the other side of the gym."

A change in attitude

FAU needed another change, and this time, Green got his chance. While Billerman was struggling in Boca Raton, Green had been rebuilding programs at Southampton and North Florida. In their eighth year of Division I, the Owls were now NCAA Tournament eligible, but they were a long way from the Big Dance. They had little talent and less morale. They had won just 11 games the previous two seasons. The team GPA was a paltry 1.9. Nobody seemed to care, on or off the court, about success.

"It was a monumental challenge, but I wanted the opportunity to be a head coach at a D-I school," Green said. "We were 322 in the RPI ratings. We were the biggest laughingstock in America. But I believed that if kids accepted our coaching and discipline structure, we could build this program. I had a plan."

Green demanded that players attend class, go to study hall, work hard, learn discipline. And in Hoosiers-like fashion, he essentially told anybody who didn't like his hard-nosed ways that they were free to go.

Within a week, half the team asked to transfer.

"It was brutal. Absolutely brutal," Green said. "I just tried to keep my faith. My staff believed in what we were doing. The players that had stayed believed in what we were doing. So we just tried to stick it out."

That season, Green coached seven players, only one of whom was a holdover from the year before. FAU went 2-28, with one of its wins against NAIA Nova Southeastern. There were more embarrassments, including nine straight losses by 20 points or more.

But Green didn't abandon his plan, instead hitting the recruiting trail and selling the dream of putting Florida Atlantic on the map. He did it not to junior college players, in search of a quick patch job, but to freshman, hoping to build a strong foundation.

Jeff Cowans, a 6-foot-2 guard from Orlando, was one who bought the pitch.

"Coach Green promised me, in my living room, that he was going to turn this program around, and that I had a chance to be a part of it," Cowans said. "It was tempting. If I would have gone to a bigger school, I wouldn't have made as much of an impact. And I wanted to be a part of something."

Two years ago, with four freshman and a mixed bag of others, the team went 7-24. Attitudes improved, practices were more spirited and games were more competitive. This season, Green sprinkled four juco players in with his first four recruits, now sophomores. The juco guys taught the younger kids how to win. The younger kids showed the juco guys how to work. They blended perfectly.

"They greeted us with open arms," said forward Andre Garner, who transferred from Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, Calif. "From the first day, it was like we were meant to come here. Like we were meant to grow together and take this school to the next level."

Said Cowans: "We were eager to get somebody, anybody in here who could help us win basketball games. And that's what these guys did."

Relying on a stingy defense, a selfless, up-tempo offense and the leadership of senior Raheim Brown, FAU -- picked to finish ninth out of 11 teams in the conference -- finished third in the Atlantic Sun, then won the conference tournament.

And like any good fairy-tale, it had a dramatic, happy ending. Sophomore Robert Williams, a 49-percent free-throw shooter, went to the line with 6.1 second left and the title game with Georgia State tied 75-75. He missed the first, then made the second.

And with that one shot, life has changed. Just last week, a clerk behind the counter in a Boca Raton convenience store congratulated Garner on his team's success.

"That would never have happened before. I didn't even know the guy," Garner said. "But as coach likes to say, we're becoming the BMOCs," Garner said. "The big men on campus."

The Final Chapter

Where the Owls will go from here is anyone's guess. Will they be like the Winthrops and Sienas of the past, tiny schools that merely served as the appetizer for championship-driven opponents? Or will they be like Hampton, a 15-seed last year that shocked No. 2-seed Iowa State?

Ask Green and he refers to someone from his past. Not Tarkanian, Pitino or Daly, but Gil Reynolds, a father-figure type who helped Green during his youth in Brooklyn. Reynolds taught lessons on life and basketball to Green, Bernard King, World B. Free and others.

In February, he died unexpectedly from pneumonia.

Green has since dedicated his success to Reynolds. And one of the old man's sayings can't stop resonating through his head this week.

If it is to be, it's up to me.

"In other words, it's you that's going to have to make a difference," Green said. "Nobody else. And with all we've accomplished already, there's no reason we can't do more. And I remind our players of that every day. No matter what anybody else says, we believe. We always have."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.