April 7 - 13-18, But Who Cares?
It's been a great month to be an Oakland University student, fan, alumnus, employee, coach, etc.
The Golden Grizzlies, in just their fourth year of NCAA Tournament eligibility, became a part of millions of
brackets and every CBS/ESPN/Fox Sports/CSTV basketball promo. Now, people actually know that
Oakland University is not in California, but is a thriving institution, part of the State University System of
Michigan, located in Oakland County, about 30 miles north of Detroit.
Looking back as recently as 1997-98, the O'Rena (OU's 3,000 seat state of the art building) was under
construction, and smart college basketball fans were picking out season ticket locations on a seating
chart from inside a trailer, the temporary home of the athletics' marketing department. That same year,
sponsors were being walked through the almost completed facility with hard hats and construction
boots, figuring out where to place their signs. And the politically incorrect Pioneer Pete mascot (a Daniel
Boone look-alike with a rifle) was being shown the door as the Golden Grizzly logo came on board.
The marketing message to season ticket holders and sponsors was the same - "It's awfully hard to be
successful as an 'expansion team' in Division I, so we don't know how good we'll be on the court, but we
can promise you a good night's worth of entertainment, with no seat more than 15 rows from the court."
So what happens? They start winning! First weekend of official Division I play, Oakland wins at Illinois
State of the Missouri Valley Conference. So maybe the fans who packed the O'Rena for the first ever
home game (vs. Michigan State) knew they might be getting in on something special. And as Oakland
found its way through the Mid-Continent Conference versus the likes of Valparaiso, Oral Roberts, IUPUI,
etc., the coaching brilliance of Greg Kampe and a modest collection of talent recruited with the promise
of D1 competition would ensure Oakland's level of respectability.
There were lots of ups and downs on the D1 roller coaster, though. How about an unlikely run to the
regular season Mid-Con Championship in 1999-2000, when Oakland won its' final six games and
mighty Valpo couldn't close out the season? The nets were cut down at the O, knowing that in the late
stages of D1 transition, the Mid-Con couldn't take a chance on Oakland (not eligible for the NCAAs)
winning its' post season tourney bid, therefore prohibiting the Grizzlies from participating. Or how could
anyone predict an upset of the mighty Michigan Wolverines in the home opener of 2000-01, a night
when OU made 15 of 29 three point attempts, which was followed by an upset loss at home vs. Ferris
State, or a win at Northwestern or a pounding of hated rival U. of Detroit?
But as Oakland grew up in Division I and more legit D1 talent found its way to Rochester, OU could
surprise no one. Still, there were struggles and in their first three tries in the Mid-Con tourney, Oakland
went 0-3 in FIRST ROUND games. But that doesn't matter anymore. Three weeks ago, Pierre Dukes,
a defensive minded floor general who last summer wasn't even going to come back and play, fires a
three pointer from the corner to wipe out all the '0s in Oakland's post season history. The shot capped a
beautifully constructed game plan by Kampe, who, knowing he did not have the talent to play up and
down with Oral Roberts U. in a building filled with their fans, scripted the game to a point where the last
shot could make a difference - and it did.
So, the Grizzlies took their 12-18 record to the same dance as Illinois, Duke, Syracuse, Kentucky, etc. for
the first time. And then, Oakland goes and wins the play-in game vs. Alabama A & M. How many schools
win their first game in NCAA Tournament play in front of a nationwide audience on ESPN?
So did it matter that Oakland took their 13-18 record and had to play North Carolina, a #1 seed, in their
backyard, Charlotte? No way. Not to the fans who picked their seats on that chart in the trailer or the
alumni who work next to Michigan or U. of Detroit alums, whose basketball programs are in disarray. Or
to the students, whose first ever sense of community spirit will come from their men's basketball team.
Or to everyone who ever purchased some Golden Grizzlies merchandise. All of you have earned a
moment in the sun.
And that is what March Madness is about.