Andrew Dys

Winthrop’s March Madness a distant memory

The place was Spokane, Wash., and the event was the greatest in the history of Winthrop University.

The Eagles – a mid-major college, not a factory for athletes but a former girls school – beat mighty Notre Dame on national television in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The whole country knew Winthrop – and Rock Hill.

“I still get asked about it, hear about it, from people who were there or watched it,” said Winthrop’s biggest fan, President Anthony DiGiorgio. “For anyone who was there or remembers it, it was magical.”

DiGiorgio loves to share memories about that game and he is not alone.

I drove more than 5,000 miles round-trip with Hall of Fame Herald sports editor Gary McCann to cover that Winthrop team – and the thrill is unmatched. Fans cried and screamed and yelled.

I tell anybody who will listen, and even those who won’t.

“A big, huge deal for this university and community,” DiGiorgio said. “It was exciting, thrilling.”

People still bring it up across America, DiGiorgio said.

Unfortunately, that was 2007.

In 2013, the same Winthrop that enthralled a nation is a win-loss loser.

Winthrop was routinely the Big South Conference champion, playing in the NCAA tournament nine out of 12 years from the late 1990s through 2010.

Winthrop played in the tournament almost as often as Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, Kentucky.

That Winthrop almost always lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament made no difference. They were there.

Because Winthrop went, Rock Hill went.

This year, Liberty University made the tournament representing the Big South. Liberty, the school founded by Jerry Falwell and known more for prayer meetings than basketball, lost more games than it won again this season, but won the conference tournament and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

It is supposedly a feel-good story.

Nobody who cheers for Winthrop should feel good. When Winthrop was great, Winthrop crushed everybody in the Big South.

And, in 2007, Notre Dame.

Now that was a feel-good story.

Rock Hill and York County and Winthrop earned national acclaim after that win. For years after the consistent NCAA bids, the school wallowed in free publicity from the team’s success, and had a surge in applications for admissions.

Interest boomed. A few times as many as 6,000 people showed up to watch home games.

Fans back then packed Winthrop Coliseum on Selection Sunday – the day 64 teams find out if they qualify for the NCAA tournament – to see where the team would go. CBS sent its cameras for live coverage.

Winthrop mattered.

Today, Selection Sunday 2013, the coliseum is again empty. Often this year, the home stands were at lot closer to empty than full. I would buy a $6 ticket this season and have entire sections of seats to choose from.

Flamboyant and successful coach Gregg Marshall left for Wichita State in 2007, and even though there were two NCAA appearances in 2008 and 2010, both times the Winthrop team was demolished.

There was no more losing by a last-second basket to Tennessee in the 2006 tournament.

“What a game!” said DiGiorgio. “No way that shot goes in.”

No losing by a whisker to Gonzaga – ranked No. 1 in the country now, and a long-successful mid-major like Winthrop used to be – in 2005.

This year, Winthrop had a losing record. The only news the team made was when first-year coach Pat Kelsey, after a late December road game at Ohio State, told America it needed to do something about gun violence after the school shootings in Connecticut.

Kelsey became a national story for a couple days. Winthrop lost that game, too. That brief publicity is long gone.

Last year, the team had a losing record. The coach got fired because in 2011 the team lost more than it won. Four players were accused and convicted of crimes involving drugs and sex. Players fought with Rock Hill toughs at the McDonald’s restaurant across from campus.

The excitement has flagged, no question. The NCAA basketball tournament creates interest among not just sports fans, but secretaries and plumbers and teachers – everybody who fills out a bracket.

It has become an American institution and great, in part, because small schools such as Winthrop have a shot at greatness.

So surely DiGiorgio, who hired Marshall to bring the school a marquee program to match the school’s rising standards, and is retiring in a few months as his 24-year legacy is shined up like a basketball trophy, should be upset.

A campus building is named for him. The university is bigger, nicer, acclaimed nationally for its academics, its vision. In 24 years, DiGiorgio was one of two driving forces that turned Winthrop University from a regional former women’s college that churned out schoolteachers into a school known across America.

The other force on campus, for a few years anyway, was basketball.

“No question about it,” DiGiorgio said, of men’s basketball elevating the school’s profile.

He even will be inducted into the school’s sports hall of fame.

But DiGiorgio is not upset. He remains a huge fan.

DiGiorgio is such a fan that he cheered on his team in a game to get into the NCAA tournament while fielding phone calls about one of the campus buildings on fire.

In March 2010, the last time Winthrop made the tourney, the Eagles won at Coastal Carolina in Conway while Owens Hall’s attic and roof burned on the Winthrop campus three hours away.

The school still has name recognition from those great years, DiGiorgio said. The team improved this season under a new coach. But the university “has to deliver” to “regain the excitement,” DiGiorgio said.

He used the word “reclaim.”

“The university has to deliver,” he said.

After he retires, DiGiorgio will still be there as a fan. He will have to pay for his own seats, though, and gladly so.

Winthrop had great success in basketball and can again, he said. The school should expect it, he said. Many Big South schools have never been to even one tournament, let alone nine. Nobody else beat Notre Dame.

But that was six years ago.

Today, the only sound on the Winthrop campus as America watches to see who makes it into the NCAA tournament will be students returning from spring break.

President DiGiorgio will enter the last few weeks of his quarter-century tenure watching somebody else at another college smile at the attention of America.

But he’ll still be the Eagles’ biggest fan.