From a leaky bus to the Final Four: Inside Florida Atlantic's unfathomable run

Thirty years ago, opposing fans felt sorry for Florida Atlantic University. Saturday, FAU will play in the Final Four. That's how far the Owls have come.

About three decades before its remarkable run from obscurity to the Final Four, Florida Atlantic was trying to avoid making a different kind of history.

The Owls were in jeopardy of going winless in their first Division I season after making the leap from Division II independent.

They had failed to post a single victory in 19 games. They had lost more than half by at least 20 points. And they were setting out on a two-game road trip without head coach Tim Loomis, who had come down with a convenient case of food poisoning.

"Or at least he says he was sick," Loomis' assistant coach Dave Pilipovich joked. "To this day, I’m still not sure I believe it."

The absence of Loomis highlighted the gap in resources allocated to men’s basketball at other lower-tier Division I universities and at FAU. Whereas other schools had up to three assistant coaches and as many support staffers as they could afford, Pilipovich was the only non-player who traveled with FAU to Centenary. Pilipovich says FAU paid him $16,000 per year with no benefits to be Loomis’ lone assistant coach.

Pilipovich managed to juggle play calling, player substitutions and strategic decisions during the first half, but he neglected a simpler task. When he mistakenly left FAU’s warmups on the bench at halftime, the Centenary crowd ruthlessly mocked him while he walked across the court to retrieve them.

Two Centenary fans eventually felt bad for Pilipovich after halftime and asked, “Coach, can we help?” Not too proud to admit that he was overwhelmed, Pilipovich put them to work tracking how many fouls his players accumulated and how many timeouts he had left.

“I’ll never forget that,” Pilipovich said. “They felt sorry for me, so they helped out.”

The program that once drew opposing fans’ pity will play Saturday night on college basketball’s biggest stage. The program that used to cram into battered vans and minibuses for road trips will face San Diego State in front of 70,000 fans at NRG Stadium. The program that until this season had never won more than 21 games is now a single victory away from playing for the national title.

Evaluate FAU based on just this season alone, and its presence in Houston isn’t that stunning. This is a deep, talented 35-win team that advanced stats pegged as top 25-worthy all season even if playing in off-the-radar Conference USA sometimes obscured that.

And yet to consider only this season is to ignore FAU’s 30-plus years of basketball irrelevance. No other program has produced a more out-of-nowhere Final Four run. No program that started so humbly has climbed so far.

“It’s kind of shocking how far we’ve come,” said Ron McLin, the player who scored FAU’s first basket in 1988. “When we started playing basketball in front of 200, 300 people, I’d never have thought we’d make it to a Final Four.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 25: Head coach Dusty May of the Florida Atlantic Owls celebrates with the team after defeating the Kansas State Wildcats in the Elite Eight round game of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 25, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Head coach Dusty May of the Florida Atlantic Owls celebrates with the team after defeating the Kansas State Wildcats to advance to the Final Four. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Building a commuter school

Florida Atlantic University stands on the same ground in Boca Raton where U.S. airmen once learned how to operate ultra-secret technology called radar and where B-29s once roared in and out. When the World War II-era airbase outlived its usefulness in the 1950s, the state of Florida sought permission to build its fifth public university on the site.

The university that opened its doors to 867 students in 1964 bears only passing resemblance to the 30,000-student behemoth of today. For two decades, FAU was one of the only universities in the nation that offered exclusively upper-division and graduate-level courses, theorizing that the community college system could serve freshmen and sophomores.

FAU was initially founded to be a commuter university. Little consideration was given to campus life. On-campus housing wasn’t available until 1969. A student union didn’t open until 1972. Another few years passed before FAU dipped its toes into intercollegiate sports by founding men’s and women’s golf and tennis teams.

The decision to welcome freshmen and sophomores for the first time in 1984 accelerated FAU’s metamorphosis into a more traditional university than first envisioned. Only then did FAU administrators begin to envision athletics as a way to invigorate campus life, raise the profile of the university and increase student enrollment.

FAU baseball launched in 1982 before the school even had built a stadium. FAU women’s basketball debuted in the school’s new gymnasium two years later. Finally, in May 1987, athletic director Jack Mehl secured permission to bring more “polish” to campus life by adding men’s basketball beginning the following year.

“That was a big deal,” former FAU baseball coach Kevin Cooney told Yahoo Sports. “They thought they would get the community behind men’s basketball and it would become like it is at most schools, but there’s a lot of things to do in South Florida. It was a hard sell.”

Ex-players describe the coach who Mehl hired to start the program as an intense disciplinarian whose iron-fisted disposition struck fear into many of them. Former South Florida Community College coach Lonnie Williams spent his first year at FAU hunting for incoming freshmen and junior college transfers who would fit his aggressive, fast-paced system.

“Our first day of practice, his goal was to run us until someone threw up,” Ron McLin, FAU’s leading scorer that season, told Yahoo Sports. “Well, it took about an hour until someone finally threw up and he ended practice.”

A crowd of 844 supporters watched FAU debut in style on Nov. 18, 1988, with a 111-62 throttling of Palm Beach Atlantic. Alas, the victory proved to be an outlier, not an omen. FAU went 9-19 in its inaugural season playing an assortment of Division I, II and NAIA programs.

To some players, the mounting losses were the toughest part of the season. To others, it was Williams’ grueling practices.

“When practice finished, I would already be thinking, ‘Oh man, how many more hours until the next practice?’” center Ingo Wolf recalled. “That’s how bad it was.”

Loomis and Pilipovich took over the following season after Williams left for another job, but the change in leadership only solved some of FAU’s problems. This was still an athletic department with ambitions of ascending to Division I but no clear idea what it would take to be competitive.

The lean days

Ron McLin learned to dread rain on game days.

The downpour would often seep into the athletic department’s aging mini-bus that transported the Owls to road games near and far.

“We always hoped it didn’t rain because the back of the bus leaked and that was where all the gear was,” McLin said.

Of course, it wasn’t much better when the basketball team crammed into vans instead of the mini-bus. Pilipovich recalls a van with more than 200,000 miles on it breaking down as he drove past Port Saint Lucie on the way to a 1991 road game at Valdosta State.

“The police came,” Pilipovich said. “They said that we should never drive that van again. They said if we stepped down too hard on the floorboards, our feet could go right through the floor.”

Transportation to and from games was just one way that FAU lagged behind other aspiring Division I institutions. The cramped weight room available to FAU basketball players was smaller than ones you might find at a no-frills chain hotel. The Owls' locker room, said Loomis, was “like a gym locker rooms in high school.” It had a fence down the middle separating the steel lockers belonging to the basketball team and those used by students playing intramurals.

Coaches who worked at FAU during that era say that trying to overcome those obstacles bred an unusual level of camaraderie. They laughed together about having to find the gym light switches and push the bleachers out themselves two hours before a big game. Or about buying sodas and snacks for players out of a hotel vending machine, only to have that purchase flagged on an expense report for the lack of an itemized receipt.

It also helped that nobody was above tackling two and three jobs to compensate for FAU being short staffed and underfunded. Ken Elder began at FAU in 1987 as the athletic department’s volunteer sports information director. By the time he left a few years later he had chauffeured recruits visiting campus, urged student groups to attend more games, come up with marketing promotions to attract new fans, served as a color analyst on radio broadcasts and sweet-talked potential donors into opening their wallets.

“I became the everything,” Elder said with a laugh. “We all did what we had to do to get it going.”

Despite Elder’s best efforts, crowds at the 3,000-seat FAU Gymnasium were often sparse. Players remember plenty of nights with only a couple hundred fans in the stands even after Loomis and Pilipovich molded the Owls into a 21-win team in 1990 and produced back-to-back 15-win seasons the next two years.

“You didn’t have to ask the crowd to quiet down when you shot free throws,” McLin said. “It was already quiet.”

Had FAU landed an invitation from the Sunshine Conference, Loomis might have built the Owls into a capable Division II program and laid a foundation for an eventual leap up to Division I. Instead that league of Division II Florida private schools left FAU in a difficult spot when it declined to take a public university with a rapidly growing enrollment.

“When they rejected us twice, it was like what do we do now?” Loomis recalled.

FAU brass had listened to spiels from consulting groups on the increased front page coverage that schools with Division I athletics get. They had heard how that can translate to more alumni donations and more undergraduate applications. In the end, FAU saw more upside accelerating its Division I timetable than continuing to compete as a Division II independent.

“We decided,” Loomis said, “you know what, we have to bite the bullet and go Division I.”

BOCA RATON, FL - FEBRUARY 11: Florida Atlantic Owls center Vladislav Goldin (50) tips the rebound to a teammate who converts a three pointer during the game between the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs and the Florida Atlantic (FAU) Owls on Saturday, February 11, 2023 at FAU Arena in Boca Raton, Fla. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Florida Atlantic plays its home games in Eleanor R. Baldwin Arena — formerly FAU Arena — which seats 2,900 fans. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The run to Division I

The FAU baseball team was on its way back from a game at Barry University during the school’s first year in Division I when the mini-bus, as it so often did in those days, broke down.

As the Owls climbed out of the bus to push it to the side of the road, a veteran player turned to coach Kevin Cooney and mimicked the slogan that FAU Athletics had adopted.

“Coach, we’re on the run to Division I,” the player quipped with a grin.

Nothing about the Division I transition was easy for any FAU sport. The Owls had a difficult time winning recruiting battles against universities with more pedigree and more name recognition.

It was common for potential FAU recruits to show up to visits wearing a Miami or Florida State cap. Cooney said he once even had a pitcher on his team take the mound against Florida while wearing a Gators necklace under his jersey.

“The running joke was that we were ‘FAWho’ or that FAU stood for Find Another University,” Cooney said. "Even in [Boca Raton], nobody thought about FAU. It was the place you watched fireworks. It was not known for anything else at all."

Cooney’s baseball program eventually found its footing in the now-defunct Trans American Athletic Conference, but Division I success proved more elusive for FAU men’s basketball. Loomis went 6-49 in his final two seasons at FAU, the one-two punch of inadequate resources and a schedule overloaded with buy games becoming too much to overcome.

Basketball became less of a priority to FAU when it launched football in 2001 and when the program that Howard Schnellenberger built from scratch began to gain national recognition soon afterward. Alumni donations and athletic department resources were used to build up the football program.

FAU did little to upgrade its basketball facilities until Hurricane Wilma blew through Boca Raton and ripped the roof off FAU’s gymnasium. Even then, the school merely dressed up the facility, adding a modern scoreboard, overhauling the locker rooms and installing a few suites where racquetball courts once stood.

Dusty May, the rising star coach behind FAU’s current Final Four run, told last week that he almost backed out of the job in 2018 when he saw the condition of the basketball facilities after he had already signed his contract. Asked to elaborate on Thursday, May said that “the people, the area, the campus at FAU, it blew me away how impressive it was,” but the basketball facilities “were still in kind of a time warp.”

May is the first coach who has shown the ingenuity to overcome FAU’s disadvantages, leading the Owls to four winning seasons before this year’s stunning breakthrough. In return, FAU athletic director Brian White has been soliciting donations to use toward extensive upgrades for the school’s basketball arena and athletic offices.

The basketball program’s sudden momentum elicits big smiles from some of FAU’s first players. They take pride in seeing the Owls soar to heights they never thought possible.

“For a while, it was not something to be proud of to be a former FAU player,” Wolf said. “Now I’m bragging a little bit. It’s extremely exciting. Nobody expected this.”