ATLANTA - Byron Larkin appreciated the sales job, even if, all things considered, it was a bit ridiculous. But back in 1984 Larkin was a top high school prospect when he gave hometown Xavier a recruiting visit, even though the school had enjoyed just four winning seasons in two decades.
Xavier's then coach, Bob Staak, was a big dreamer who wouldn't stop telling Larkin about how great the school's new home gym, the Cincinnati Gardens, was.
By most standards, the Gardens was a humble, overused municipal facility. But Xavier had been playing its games in the loveable, but thoroughly smalltime, Schmidt Fieldhouse, a glorified high school gym that said everything about the Musketeers' place in college basketball.
The Gardens (capacity 9,000) was going to be great, Staak assured. Although when the two drove over for a tour they discovered the circus was in town. That means animals. And animal smells.
"It smelled like a multi-purpose facility," laughed Larkin Saturday as he recalled the story. "It was all set up for the circus. (Staak) was saying, you have to envision the court over there.'"
Larkin envisioned it though. He envisioned greatness at Xavier, even if anticipating what the program would accomplish in the ensuing two decades would be considered foolish.
Sunday, 20 years after that tour of Cincinnati Gardens, after Larkin went on to led XU to three NCAA tournaments, after years of slow growth, smart coaching hires, and steady building, Xavier plays Duke for a spot in the Final Four.
We repeat: Xavier plays Duke for the Final Four.
"To see them come to where they are, on the cusp of the Final Four is very gratifying," said Larkin. "Because I know where they've come from."
Xavier isn't a Cinderella team – its players are too good for that label – but it is a Cinderella program.
Twenty years ago this was a mid-major member of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now the Horizon League) with no football team that considered sharing an old facility with the monster trucks a step up. There had been a NIT title in 1958 but virtually no success since. It was so bad many people didn't even know how to pronounce the school's name.
It's ZAV-YER, not X-aav-YEAR.
"You just try to politely explain to people that if they make copies using a X-ear-OX machine then they can call us X-aav-YEAR," said Tom Eiser, the program's media relations director for 18 years.
For years Eiser even had to ask the media to stop referring to the school as Xavier of Ohio. "We are the only Xavier in the NCAA," said Eiser.
Not that the message is fully out.
"X-av-YEAR is a really good program," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
But Krzyzewski is half right. Xavier by any pronunciation is really good. This isn't a flash in the pan team. Since 1985 XU has been to 14 NCAA tournaments. It has produced All-Americans, NBA stars and even a national player of the year.
It now plays in the respected Atlantic 10 and in 2000 moved into the luxurious, state of the art, 10,250-seat on-campus Cintas Center, gladly leaving the Gardens behind.
What was once a pipedream is now reality.
"This was always the intention of what we were trying to do," said Jeff Fogelson, who was Xavier's athletic director from 1983-1998 before moving to Seton Hall.
Lots of mid-majors have good intentions, but few ever accomplish it. But Xavier was able to continually hire good coaches – Staak, Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser and now Thad Matta – keep momentum going and get into a strong league.
"You need the coach, you need the administration," said Fogelson. "But I think the league is of monumental importance."
Since getting the A-10 recruiting card, the program has really taken off. Matta now goes after some of the best prospects in the country, with a lot more to sell than Staak ever could have envisioned possible.
Sunday the ultimate prize is within reach. For years Xavier has been a nice program, a mild NCAA threat. But this is different. This is forty minutes from glory, one more shining moment from the Final Four.
For the small school on Victory Parkway in Cincinnati, it is the impossible journey – from the circus to Cintas. From dreams to Duke.
People might even start learning to pronounce Xavier.
"It used to be about 50-50," said Matta. "After this year it should be about 80-20 of the people getting it right."
Beat Duke, and even Krzyzewski might get it straight.
- Cincinnati Gardens