Amid backdrop of heartbreak, NCAA underdog aims to make noise in March

·8 min read

No matter how much the snow piles up across the campus of Saint Bonaventure University — and 6, 7 feet will fall each winter — a particular, if peculiar bit of Western New York sunniness pervades.

The students and faculty will peer out into the heart of winter and shrug. At least Olean isn’t Orchard Park or Hamburg or even Lackawanna, they’ll tell each other. At least it isn’t part of the snowbelt South of Buffalo, a little more than an hour drive to the north.

Now that is where it really comes down. This … this isn’t so bad.

Optimism in the face of reality might as well be Saint Bonaventure’s motto (“Becoming Extraordinary” is the real one). The attitude fuels the place, this Franciscan school with a high school enrollment (1,800) in the middle of nowhere. It probably should have shuttered decades ago, yet somehow, someway it continues to not just survive 163 years after its founding, but actually thrive.

That includes the preposterous concept that a campus with all the characteristics of Division III would not only go D-I, but compete in, and routinely even win, the rugged Atlantic 10, which is filled with either big-state schools (UMass, VCU, Rhode Island) or ones in big cities (Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Pittsburgh).

Yet under coach Mark Schmidt, a program whose excellence dates back to Bob Lanier in the late 1960s has posted eight consecutive winning seasons. The Bonnies (16-4) will make their third appearance in the past nine NCAAs Saturday when they take on LSU.

None of it makes sense, except all of it makes sense.

That’s Bonaventure, where the negatives are somehow the positives, the challenges somehow the point of the whole operation. The smallness of the school provides a shared experience that cuts across generations. The remoteness of the campus bonds the students, faculty and administration like almost nowhere else. The lack of distractions creates a core ethos, rooted in the ancient Franciscan value of serving each other. It’s about the only way to make it.

“There’s an old canard that this is a place where people hold the door for you,” said Tom Missel, the school’s chief communications officer. “But, you know, just today there was a student who stood there holding the door for me.”

St. Bonaventure's Jaren Holmes reacts after beating VCU in an NCAA college basketball game on March 14. (AP)
St. Bonaventure's Jaren Holmes reacts after beating VCU in an NCAA college basketball game on March 14. (AP)

And, of course, there is the basketball program that shouldn’t even dare, but instead rallies everything and everyone across those harsh winters, reconnects scattered alums and offers proof that a Bonnie can always punch above their perceived weight — LSU’s men’s basketball budget ($9.5 million) is nearly six times that of Bonaventure ($1.6 million).

Those who dare to come tend to not ever want to leave.

“I didn’t want to even apply,” said Cam Hurst, a 2019 graduate who grew up in Jamestown, New York. “But everyone who went there kept saying, ‘You’re overlooking Bonaventure, it’ll be the best four years of your life.’ ”

Dennis DePerro never needed any convincing about the uniqueness of the school. Growing up in 1970s in Buffalo, he saw the passion of the place. It was the same small-but-connected alumni singing its praises — “I call it a cult, but in a good way,” Schmidt said. That was a campus and a community he wanted to be a part of. He wanted those best four years.

Then Canisius offered him a scholarship and for a local working class kid, that was that. Across nearly four decades as a college administrator though, St. Bonaventure never left him. So when the chance to become the school president arrived in 2017, he jumped at it. All these years later, he was home.

DePerro was a brilliant academic who never forgot his roots, somehow keeping an everyman appeal while managing a university.

Schmidt described him as a president you’d want to have a beer with — “he never acted like he was better than anyone, which is actually what St. Bonaventure is all about.” Missel recalls watching him work a Board of Trustees meeting and then going to check on the campus food service staff and hanging out with them for an hour.

Athletic director Tim Kenney says the man “actually cared” about everyone, from employees to students, and routinely walked campus or the dorms asking what he could do to help.

He was a tour de force for a university that needed one. Like most small schools, enrollment is a forever concern. The demographic trends in Western New York are not favorable. SBU lacks the state funding or a billion-dollar endowment to offset rising costs. A small, residential experience is never going to be for everyone.

 St. Bonaventure pays tribute to Dennis R. DePerro before a game against Dayton on March 1. (Photo courtesy of St. Bonaventure athletics)
St. Bonaventure pays tribute to Dennis R. DePerro before a game against Dayton on March 1. (Photo courtesy of St. Bonaventure athletics)

There were times the numbers dropped to precarious levels and threatened the school’s very existence. DePerro brought ideas and energy though.

He pushed major initiatives — redoubling recruiting efforts for undergraduates in Buffalo and Rochester, and creating multiple market-driven graduate programs, including physician assistant. He kept doing the small things — learning not just the name of every student on campus, but often that of their parents too.

“I once posted a picture on Facebook with my parents outside a restaurant,” Hurst said. “And Dr. DePerro commented underneath, ‘Joy and John should be very proud.’ Where else does the university president do that?”

This was St. Bonaventure at its best — thinking bold while maintaining, even celebrating its small stature. Oh, and basketball kept winning — offering external publicity, alumni pride and a big-time entertainment option for students.

“When I took the job, I knew basketball was really important,” said Schmidt, who has been there 14 years, routinely brushing off overtures from bigger and better-funded schools. “I just didn’t know it was this important. It binds the students together, Saturday nights at the Reilly Center. It gets people through the winter and connects the alums.”

This is about as college as college basketball can get. There are no athletic dorms, no special academic programs for the players, no fancy walled-off practice facility to isolate power forwards from the rest of the student body. The star player is the kid who lives down the hall or is in your political science discussion group — he just also sometimes appears on ESPN and CBS.

Schmidt has proven adept at finding the gym rat seeking that traditional educational environment. It’s about substance, not sizzle.

“In recruiting, people always use our size and location against us, ‘the Frozen Tundra,’ ” Schmidt said. “But I tell guys, ‘You have to come and see it, experience it.’ What you have here is each other. That’s what you have. Everyone lives together, goes to the same restaurants, the same bars. The connections you’ll make are bigger than basketball. And that’s why it’s such a close-knit place.”

There are certainly larger fan bases and more storied programs in the NCAA tournament, but none mean more to its campus than the Bonnies. No one understood that more than Dennis DePerro, who was often the program’s rowdiest fan. “He knew all our guys,” said Kenney, the AD. “He was everything you’d ever want in a school president.”

In the fall of 2020, despite the pandemic, St. Bonaventure welcomed a 500-student freshman class, the largest in over a decade. Things were rolling.

Then, on Christmas Eve, DePerro got a COVID-19 test back. Positive. By Dec. 29, he was admitted to a Syracuse hospital, and by mid-January, he was put on a ventilator. He never got off of it.

On March 1, he died. He was 62, survived by a wife and two adult sons.

“Words simply can’t convey the level of devastation our campus community feels,” vice president Joseph Zimmer said.

“Just a great, great man,” Schmidt said.

St. Bonaventure's Jaren Holmes lays flowers on a cutout of Dennis R. DePerro before a game against Dayton on March 1. (Photo courtesy of St. Bonaventure athletics)
St. Bonaventure's Jaren Holmes lays flowers on a cutout of Dennis R. DePerro before a game against Dayton on March 1. (Photo courtesy of St. Bonaventure athletics)

Less than two weeks later, the Bonnies defeated Virginia Commonwealth, a school with an enrollment 12 times larger, to win the A-10 and secure an automatic bid to the NCAAs.

The team celebrated. So did Schmidt. These days are never guaranteed. Each NCAA trip defies the odds.

But everyone’s thoughts were with the former president who wasn’t there, the guy everyone on campus believed in. Schmidt was quick to announce that one of the championship nets would go back to campus and get displayed in a trophy case, a token of proof that almost anything is possible if you work hard enough.

The other would go to the DePerro family.

“We wouldn’t be here without him,” Schmidt said. “He meant so much to our university and our program and all of us personally.”

The little school that probably shouldn’t even try is headed once again to the NCAA tournament. It just feels a little different this time.

“Bittersweet,” Schmidt said, but pressing on and full of purpose.

It’s just how Dennis DePerro would want it. It’s the only way St. Bonaventure knows.

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