Fairleigh Dickinson University Interim President Michael Avaltroni knows the school has to strike while it can — leverage its stunning victory over top-seeded Purdue on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament for all its worth, while FDU is still the talk of the basketball tourney.
From answering outreach from alums (and Gov. Phil Murphy) … to finding extra tickets for Sunday’s second-round game (the school gets more) … to leveraging social media (there were more than 7 million impressions in the first 12 hours after the game) … to figuring out how to create, sell and ship the FDU swag that is now so popular.
After all, Cinderella’s slipper only stays on so long. FDU lost in the second round to Florida Atlantic.
Avaltroni, however, knows the symbolism of the victory in Columbus, Ohio, goes much further than just being the second No. 16 seed in tournament history to knock off a No. 1 seed.
“The thing that’s really cool about this is that, in so many regards, the kids on the team represent the school — and the school represents the kids on the court,” he said. “We oftentimes have kids who were not always ready to navigate Division I athletics and not ready to navigate college. But we give them a chance, we help them find their way — and then we see them go out and shock the world.”
The magnitude of the upset is hard to measure. The school won just four games last year. It brought in a new coach, Tobin Anderson, who had never coached at this level — but brought a winning attitude and spirit that was so New Jersey.
After the school won a play-in game Tuesday night just for the right to play in the first round, Anderson confidently boasted that his team could win.
Avaltroni admitted that not every shared that opinion — which has been part of what has made this journey so fun.
“Our biggest hope going into the game, honestly, was that we didn’t get embarrassed,” he said. “They’ve got a 7-foot-4 center that literally towered over us. We didn’t want to be down 20 points at halftime. Then you’re a laughingstock.”
Instead, the team was ahead by one at halftime. There was hope. But, when Purdue ran out to a five-point lead, midway through the second half, reality seemingly had set in.
“That is usually when the bigger, stronger, better team takes over,” Avaltroni said. “Then, all of a sudden, we stormed back. With about a minute left, all of us in the crowd were looking at one another and saying, ‘Are you seeing what I’m seeing?’”
The celebration that ensued moments later included Northeast Conference Commissioner Noreen Morris — as it marked the first time in 32 tries that the conference (based in Franklin) had won an NCAA Tournament game.
The victory means extra money for the conference and its schools (each round a school advances means more money for the conference, which will divide it equally among all nine members). And it helps justify the inclusion of the so-called mid-major conferences in the event.
“We’re trying to mobilize people to come to Columbus,” he said. “We’re trying to mobilize things in Jersey, create watch parties. We’re trying to blow up on social media whenever we can.
“We’re just trying to get the message out and just ride the wave because it’s such a short window, but it’s a window that has been blown wide open and we need to take advantage of it.”
This weekend — and going forward.
FDU is unique among the tournament teams in that it has two campuses — and two sets of sports teams. The team in the tourney is from the Teaneck campus and plays at the Division I level. The school also has teams at its Florham Park campus, which play at the Division III level.
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“One of the things that I think we’ve never fully leveraged as an institution is that we’re a place where kids can come play at any level that they want to,” he said. “They can play at a more serious level at Division I. Or they have an option to play for the love of the sport at Division III, and play as a student athlete in the truest form.”
Chances. Opportunities. That’s what FDU is about in the classroom and on the athletic field. That’s what Alvatroni really hopes the school will take away from all of this.
“We need to latch on to this,” he said. “Not because, all of a sudden, we’re going to be a basketball powerhouse — because we’re not going to be.
“But, rather, we need to celebrate that this is what athletics represents at an institution like ours. It’s not to train future NBAers or NFLers, it’s not to create multimillion-dollar professional athletes, it’s to give kids a chance to play and a chance to go to college. It’s about offering opportunities to students and athletes that may not get a second look from other schools.
“And then, every so often, lightning strikes. And you enjoy every moment of it.”