FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Even though March Madness is an abomination with squandered class time, sagging workplace productivity, grotesque distortion of academia and glaring hints of an unfocused, overindulged nation, it's so much fun.
Besides, it teaches.
For example, I never knew of any campus with a lake and a beach. I never knew of any campus with signs instructing that you should not feed the alligators because it erodes their fear of humans (whereupon presumably they start turning up annoyingly at fraternity parties). I never knew anybody had risen a robust university of almost 14,000 students up from the wilderness in merely 17 years.
I never knew anybody could.
Then again, until recent months, I never knew of a Florida Gulf Coast University, and once I did know, I figured it one of those older schools that just got renamed. My cranial GPS had it in the panhandle. "Florida Gulf Coast University is not a household name," basketball head coach Andy Enfield said. "Some people say it 'Florida Gulf Coast.' On the (CBS) screen it said 'Florida GC.' . . . When we first got here two years ago, (recruits) thought we were a junior college. We had to explain to them, 'No, we're a Division I university in the Atlantic Sun Conference.'"
Follow the NCAA tournament, know your country. Feel its enormity. How big could this FGCU be, this newbie tucked into southwest Florida? Well, for starters, it's 760 acres, 89 completed buildings, 18 fraternities and sororities, already. How many people possibly could show up to watch the tournament selection show? Well, for starters, they had parking-lot attendants, guiding cars. Whoa.
Inside Alico Arena, where a sign reads "Protect the Nest" for the home Eagles, noise consumed the place. Fans knew the selection intricacies so well that some oohed and ached with each early revelation of No. 14 and 15 seeds. The few thousand rose in a sustained standing ovation 13 minutes into the show, once "Florida GC" appeared as a No. 15 seed opposite No. 2 Georgetown.
"Philadelphia is a 17-hour drive," Enfield blared to the students just afterward. "You still want the bus?"
"We want Georgetown!" went the cry.
March Madness is a perversion, sure, but without it, you might run around asking, What on Earth is Florida Gulf Coast University? You'd never know it became Florida's 10th state university, or that it broke ground in November 1995, or that it opened in August 1997, or that its arena is age 11, or that its Division I NCAA membership is age 6, its tournament eligibility age 2.
You would never know it has its own vibrancy, like so many places you never ponder. "The student body is very energetic," said Sherwood Brown, senior guard from Orlando and Atlantic Sun player of the year. "The best thing about it is we all (players) live on campus," in a dorm with other students. "We see everyone. Other basketball teams might not have the chance to interact like at our school."
And: "It's never too cold out, here in Fort Myers. It's beautiful. We have a beach."
"It's very friendly," said Chase Fieler, a 6-foot-8 junior forward from West Virginia. "You look at the campus, it's almost like a resort. We have a beach on campus. It's very interconnected. Everyone knows each other." He touts the heated, Olympic-sized pool. "You get here, you almost can't leave it."
"It's very young and vibrant," Enfield said. "If you go around campus, buildings are new, and the scenery with the lake and a beach and palm trees is just beautiful. It just seems like when you walk on campus, students are in a good mood, smiles on their faces."
Now, thanks to this ludicrous concept of the NCAA tournament, they've had themselves a fresh crescendo and fresh ears taking in their name. The third-ever university president, Dr. Wilson Bradshaw, assured the audience that even Californians knew of FGCU on his recent trip there. Enfield said the Atlantic Sun title win over Mercer on March 9 had loosed "a week of celebration."
Brown went to his public speaking class, arrived a mite late and received a standing ovation from the 40-45 fellow students. "To tell you the truth, I was shocked," he said. Fieler went to his operations management class to find the professor had projected the news article about the bid on the big screen. Brown said students have started approaching him in the dining hall. Fieler said, "I'll go to eat out, and I won't be wearing any FGC stuff, and they recognize us."
It's barely more than hours since Enfield, 43, started his first head-coaching job on April 1, 2011. He arrived following lifelong basketball studies under his father (a high school coach in Pennsylvania), Mike Dunleavy (Bucks), Rick Pitino (Celtics) and Leonard Hamilton (Florida State). FGCU had lost its leading scorer, leading rebounder. Friends fretted for Enfield, asked what he'd do.
The first thing he'd do is go back to Tallahassee for the birth of his third child, which his wife Amanda delivered that April 8. He did some recruiting from the hospital room, such that: "In fact, she had to tell me to put the phone down after she had Marcum (the baby), the first night. The nurse came in to change the IV. I was talking so loudly that she couldn't hear. I didn't even know the nurse was in the room because I was so focused. She had to tell me to be quiet because she couldn't hear what the nurse was saying."
So now it's March Madness already, and yeah, it's strange, March Madness. Other cultures don't do it. Future anthropologists might puzzle over it. Yet it might show us places we never realized existed, show us how fast a university can gain steam, even wind up teaching us the real reason we shouldn't feed alligators.