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Florida Gulf Coast defines March Madness

Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 5:36 p.m. CST

(MCT) FORT MYERS, Fla. _ The school bookstore ran out of shirts Monday. The athletic website crashed twice. The basketball coach received more than 1,000 texts. The star guard saw three alias Twitter accounts start in his name.

"And one already has more followers than me," Sherwood Brown said.

Before last Friday night, no one knew about Florida Gulf Coast University, which opened in Fort Myers in 1997. After two surprise victories, the Eagles became the first No. 15 seed to qualify for the regional semifinals in the men's NCAA college basketball tournament.

This is an unlikely feat, considering it is just in its second season as a tournament-eligible Division I program. It has gone from a relatively unknown program to becoming the darling of the 2013 NCAA tournament.

But the epicenter of a college basketball earthquake is located here on a usually quiet campus Monday to where the director of admissions points at his office computer.

"Look here," R. Marc Laviolette says, tapping the screen. "We usually get 20 emails a day with some kind of inquiry. Today we've got 200. And our Web traffic is up 400 percent."

March Madness hits the admissions office?

"And it's just after noon," he says.

This is what two wins at the right time can do for the most unknown of schools. A week ago, Florida Gulf Coast officials celebrated getting eight seconds of national television for being picked to play in the NCAA tournament.

On Friday night, the Eagles will play a bigger brother, the University of Florida, in Arlington, Texas. The Eagles have two NCAA tournament wins on their resume. The Gators have two national titles notched on their belt.

After capturing the imagination of America, FGCU staggered under the sweet onslaught of attention. An ESPN crew gave hourly updates outside the basketball arena. National radio shows wanted any player or coach they could get.

Sports information director Patrick Pierson sat at his desk after 45 minutes of sleep Sunday night and tried to wade through the hundreds of unanswered texts and emails.

"We aren't capable of handling this," Pierson said. "I'm not too proud to say it _ this is too much for us."

And he laughed, because he knew this is how sports feels on its best days. Florida Gulf Coast is an upstart by any definition. It started classes on restored wetlands in 1997, meaning its basketball players are older than the school and most people nationally had never heard of it before this weekend.

After its first tournament win against traditional powerhouse Georgetown, school officials corrected CBS for labeling it "Florida G.C." After Sunday's win against San Diego State, TBS put up a graphic of "Florida Golf Coast."

Coach Andy Enfield, who was hired two seasons ago said when he began recruiting his first season most people thought it was a community college.

"I'd get the whole line of questions _ Who? What? Where?" Enfield said. "One thing about this, I hope more people will have heard of us."

Enfield, 43, knew it was a builder's job and figured he was right for the job. He set the NCAA career record with a 92.5 free-throw percentage at Johns Hopkins, was an NBA assistant in Milwaukee and Boston and co-founded a technology company in health care before returning to basketball as a Florida State assistant.

It's also a question in the Enfield household of who got more TV time this past weekend _ him or his wife, a former model, Amanda Marcum, who was on fashion magazine covers like Elle and Maxim.

"One thing my wife has impressed on me _ this story isn't about me," Enfield said. "It's about the players and the university and she's right about that. This is their story."

The players have similar stories that the upcoming game against Florida underscores. Brown, for instance, grew up in Orlando and was a Florida fan all his life. Eddie Murray, the only Fort Myers native on the team, also was a Gator fan.

"It's funny how it's all worked out in playing them," Murray, a fifth-year senior, said. "When I first started here, we'd play after the women's game, and people would be filing out of the gym as our game started.

"Now, everywhere we go, it's crazy."

Brown went to have lunch at his normal spot in the student center on Monday and ended up taking pictures with fans for 90 minutes. Some of those he took pictures with were donning new school shirts from the neighboring bookstore, which was undergoing its own issues.

As 156 people stood in line to buy the dwindling supply of apparel, the school's book store manager told others a new shipment was coming Tuesday.

"What time?" asked Ron Kaposos, who retired five years ago to Fort Myers from Hudson, Ohio.

When told the time was uncertain, Kaposos shrugged and said, "My grandsons called and said they want shirts for the game this week."

All this is evidence of the surprise sports can carry. Laviolette already heard from admission directors at other schools that spiked nationally through sports who say it will translate into a 20-percent increase in applications next year.

"You can't buy the kind of marketing and advertising we got from the past few days," Laviolette said. "We're all slammed right now in a good way by the reaction to it."

Laviolette plans to call his counterpart and friend at Florida.

"I want to make a little bet on the game," he said.

He smiled and, like a lot of people on campus these days, then said, "I never thought I'd get to say something like that."

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