Heading into the 2010 NCAA Tournament, many college basketball fans never gave a thought to the Northern Iowa Panthers.
Sure, the Panthers were ranked in the top 25 for much of the 2009-2010 season, but even a power in the Missouri Valley Conference was not expected to do too much in the Tournament, and certainly not knock off top overall seed Kansas.
Off the court, only a very few college basketball fans outside of UNI fans and alumni could tell you anything about the school.
It turns out the Panthers are giving us all a crash course on the University of Northern Iowa heading into tonight's Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan State.
University of Northern Iowa is located in Cedar Falls, Iowa. UNI was founded in 1876 and currently enrolls a student body of about 14,000, with 92 percent of its student body from within the state.
Northern Iowa, which was previously known as the State College of Iowa, funds 16 varsity sports with an endowment of $65.8 million.
The first exposure sports fans around the nation had just to the name Northern Iowa was the emergence of Kurt Warner over a decade ago.
In fact, it was Warner's status as a Northern Iowa alumnus that made his fairy tale story that much more compelling.
Warner's story would have lost some cachet had he been a backup at a national power program. Instead, Warner came from Northern Iowa (Who? What? Where?), and that added to his charm when he led the Rams to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Currently, four other NFL players hail from Northern Iowa: Brandon Keith (Cardinals), Brad Meester (Jaguars), Chad Rinehart (Redskins), and Benny Sapp (Vikings).
Current Iowa senator Charles Grassley is a UNI alumnus.
Northern Iowa may have emerged out of nowhere for some, but when looking at recent history, one will see that head coach Ben Jacobson has something serious brewing.
Until 1990, Northern Iowa made just four NCAA Tournament appearances. However, the Panthers have earned five tournament bids since 2004.
The program has been in business since the 1940s and has played at the NAIA level, Division II, and now sits atop the Missouri Valley Conference, which is annually a tightly contested conference.
The Panthers play at the 7,000-seat McLeod Center.
Northern Iowa was handed a No. 9 seed, faced down the tournament's top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament in the second round, and scored the biggest upset of the season.
However, in the opinion of this writer, Northern Iowa was actually under-seeded in this year's tournament.
The Panthers posted a 25-4 record in one of the strongest mid-major conferences in America and thrashed their conference tournament opposition. Their No. 9 seed was the strongest seed they received in program history.
The Panthers' non-conference schedule was rather nondescript, but the Panthers made the most of every opportunity. They raced to a 22-2 start and left the Missouri Valley Conference in the dust by the home stretch.
The Panthers won the MVC by three games over Wichita State and posted an undefeated home record (15-0).
As mentioned, Panthers head coach Ben Jacobson is building his team into one of the strongest among all the mid-majors.
Jacobson, in his fourth season, has guided the Panthers to an 89-42 (.679) record and two NCAA Tournament appearances.
His Panthers' victory over Kansas was the team's 30th win of the season, which set a school record one year after winning 23 games. The Panthers went a combined 36-27 in his first two seasons.
The university rewarded Jacobson, who was promoted from an assistant role in 2006, for the victory over Kansas with a new 10-year, $4.75 million contract, which nearly doubled his salary in the first year of the new deal.
Should UNI's success continue, the biggest question will be whether the school has enough artillery to keep him.