I walked into a bustling War Memorial Gym on a pleasant Saturday evening on the University of San Francisco Campus about 15 minutes before tip-off.
The USF Dons were taking on the Broncos of Santa Clara, a classic Bay Area rivalry that is probably older than any surviving alum of either University. Both teams entered the night at 5-2 in the West Coast Conference (WCC), tied for second in the conference behind the mighty Gaels of St. Mary's College.
Despite being 5-2 in the WCC, USF was only at .500 with an 11-11 record. Impressive? Not from anyone looking in from the outside, but if you had told me that the Dons of San Francisco would be either playing .500 basketball or second in the WCC, I'd have laughed at you.
I went to the University of San Francisco from 2005 until graduating in 2009. During those four years I was at USF, the Dons went through three coaches, made no postseason berths and averaged just over 12 wins in those four years.
A sorry state of affairs to be sure, but made even worse by the fact that the only basketball team in the large metropolitan hub of San Francisco could barely draw 500 fans a night. Often there were more fans of the opposing team in the stands than USF fans.
For those who are not familiar with USF, from the 1950s through the early 1980s the team was a national powerhouse.
USF won three championships. USF had featured big name coaches Pete Newell, Phil Woolpert, Bob Gaillard and Jim Brovelli. USF developed the likes Eugene Brown, KC Jones, Mike Farmer, Quintin Dailey, Phil Smith, Bill Cartwright and the legendary Bill Russell. USF was the first team to be shown on CBS's national college basketball broadcast.
However, the bigger they are the harder they fall; a phrase holding true for Dons basketball. In the late '70s and early '80s, despite great success on the court (including a 29-2 1977 season that including a No. 1 ranking), the USF basketball program was placed on probation two separate times by the NCAA as their players were given the stereotypical "special treatment" with their academics.
It came to a climax in 1982 when All-American Quintin Dailey assaulted a female student. An investigation discovered that Dailey had a no-show job provided by an alum who also paid him $5,000. The program, and its treatment of athletes, had gone off the rails and was voluntarily suspended by the school.
The program was revived in 1985, but since then the once storied Dons of San Francisco made the NCAA tournament only once. They have floundered in mediocrity, seemingly still in a daze and unable to recover from the scandals that crippled the program in the early '80s. Five coaches since the program restarted have tried but have not recaptured national attention.
That is, until now. Coach Rex Walters, now in his third year as head coach, had a difficult start to his tenure. He won 11 game his first year and 12 in his second. However, despite the losses, he recruited effectively, aiming to bring glory back to Dons basketball.
His current team features only one senior, Moustapha Diarra, the backup center. His starting five features a youthful look with juniors Rashad Green and Angelo Caloiaro, sophomores Perris Blackwell and Mikey Williams and freshman Cody Doolin.
Those names may mean nothing to those outside of the WCC, but Mikey Williams leads the Dons in scoring, Blackwell shoots 54 percent from the field, and Doolin established himself as the best freshman guard in the conference after dropping 23 on Gonzaga. All three of them will be in the Dons starting lineup for at least two more years.
Additionally, there are eight other freshmen on the roster, many of whom were targeted by big college programs—like Dominique O'Connor, who chose USF over USC and No. 7 San Diego State.
The fans have come back, not because the team is a winner, but because students, alums and people in San Francisco see light at the end of the tunnel. Saturday night, War Memorial Gym was virtually full, and that full house left happy as USF beat Santa Clara to take hold of second place in the WCC.
USF probably will not win the WCC. St. Mary's remains the cream of the crop and is primed to make another NCAA tournament run. Nevertheless, USF has a season that they can finally build upon.
They beat quality opponents in Gonzaga, Colorado, Santa Clara (twice) and 17-7 Portland; they also stayed even with San Diego State before the Aztecs squeaked out a win at the end. The season still isn't over as they get to play St. Mary's and Gonzaga again, and if they can beat both they could make the NCAA tournament, but it will take flawless basketball from such a young team to do that.
Finally, USF has been able to recruit good talent. Finally, the city of San Francisco has fun basketball to watch. Finally, the USF Dons have appeared to shake off this 26-year malaise. This USF team has no where to go but up. Given the youth and the quality of the players that Rex Walters has brought on board, the USF Dons will be a team to watch in the WCC for the next few years.
Look out NCAA, the program that produced Bill Russell, Bill Cartwright and KC Jones is on its way back, and it means business.