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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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O’Neill: Florida Gulf Coast should leverage celebrity

It wasn’t just the Fort Myers and Estero crowd. It wasn’t just Sunshine State fanatics. Tens of millions of basketball-crazed fans across America were recently caught up in “Dunk City” mania, aka the Florida Gulf Coast University Cinderellas who made that unprecedented run in the NCAA Tournament. While the Eagles from those repurposed Southwest Florida wetlands didn’t make it beyond the Sweet 16, what a history-making, nation-captivating ride it was – and what an opportunity it is. To be sure, Florida Gulf Coast, which sounds like a chamber of commerce letterhead, was the perfect glass-slipper fit. No tourney 15 seed had ever gone that far – let alone one whose first class of four-year graduates post-dates the 20th century. Most of its senior alumni are still 20-somethings. In effect, it’s an overgrown, overachieving University of South Florida regional campus that began playing at the Division I level only two years ago. Last season the Eagles lost more games than they won. This year they finished behind Mercer in the Atlantic Sun Conference regular season. The turnout at more than a few home games this year never got above triple digits. And it lost to some school named Lipscomb this season – twice.
No wonder an embarrassing number of media outlets misnamed it Florida Golf Coast. But there they were – the “Iggles” to Philadelphia fans who adopted them in first- and second-round play – on one of this society’s biggest, most boisterous stages, before midnight was eventually ushered in by the Florida Gators. Now comes, arguably, an even bigger challenge. What do you do with such unforeseen visibility and unexpected celebrity? The easy answer: You take advantage of it. The rest is details. I once asked Skip Holtz, at the time the newly-minted head football coach at USF, what the role of a major sport was at institutions whose societal aims were something loftier than becoming bowl eligible or punching a ticket to the “Big Dance.” Aims such as research, teaching and service. Holtz replied that a prominent athletic program was “your front porch. It’s curb appeal. Then you get an opportunity to introduce people to all that you have.” In other words, “Now that I have your attention, for whatever reason, let me show you around.” That’s how more – and better – students and, yes, even professors, find out about a heretofore obscure Florida state university. Nobel laureates might not be hard-core hoops fans, but they can’t be interested in an institution they’ve never heard of. And it can be an eye-opener and an icebreaker for would-be sponsors, donors and boosters. Naming rights become pricier as name recognition ratchets. Even philanthropists want to be associated with winners. In FGCU’s case, by doing well – and there was a definite game plan to succeed sooner rather than later – in something as high-profile as Division I college basketball, you can put yourself in a position to do more good. As in research, teaching and service. And it can help fast-forward an identity beyond eco-friendly campus and energize an entire community – while merchandise sales spike out of sight. As Alabama’s famed Bear Bryant once noted: “It’s kinda hard to rally around the math department.” Already there is tangible proof of how 80 minutes of fame in Philly can be leveraged. Second-year FGCU coach Andy Enfield has parlayed the Eagles’ Cinderella season into a new job. He was wooed in a whirlwind and hired for a lot more money by the University of Southern California. Promotion Potential: Should the Tampa Bay Lightning tenure of new coach Jon Cooper go well, he may have a fortuitous marketing opportunity. Cooper, 46, is no hockey-lifer-jock sort. He has a business degree from Hofstra University and a law degree from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan. He practiced law before switching to pro hockey in 2003. Cooley, which is one of the largest law schools in the country, recently opened a campus – its first outside Michigan – in Riverview. Cooley – known for its open admissions and diverse student bodies – has particular appeal to aspiring, nontraditional students looking to change course. Now one of their own is head coach of a feisty franchise in need of a turnaround in a nontraditional hockey market. Stay tuned. Amid the ongoing, charged debate over all things gun-related, two tragedy-provoked points keep resonating. First, an armed officer was on duty at Columbine High School and a nearby (highway patrol) officer was fortuitously available. A slaughter still happened. Second, for all the obvious help that background checks can be, they can never be as effective as an outright (and re-instated) assault-weapons/high-capacity-magazine ban. Nancy Lanza, the arsenal-owning mother of mass murderer Adam Lanza – as well as his ironic enabler-accessory-victim – would have passed any background check.
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