Fairleigh Dickinson University President Michael Avaltroni knows the school needs to strike while it still can — use its stunning victory over top-seeded Purdue on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament for all it’s worth, while FDU is still the talk of basketball tournament.
From answering outreach from alums (and Gov. Phil Murphy) … to finding extra tickets for Sunday’s second-round game (the school will get more) … to using social media (there’s more over 7 million impressions in the first 12 hours after the game ) … to learn how to make, sell and ship the FDU swag that’s so popular right now.
After all, Cinderella’s slipper only lasts so long.
However, Avaltroni knows the symbolism of the victory in Columbus, Ohio, is more than being the second No. 16 seed in tournament history to knock off No. 1 seed.
“The thing that’s really cool about it is, in so many ways, the kids on the team represent the school — and the school represents the kids on the court,” he said. “We often have kids who aren’t always ready to navigate Division I athletics and aren’t ready to navigate college. But we give them a chance, we help them find their way — and then we see them come out and shock the world.
The magnitude of the anxiety is difficult to measure. The school won just four games last year. It brought in a new coach, Tobin Anderson, who had never coached at this level — but brought a winning attitude and spirit that was quintessentially New Jersey.
After the school won a play-in game Tuesday night just for the right to play in the first round, Anderson boasted confidently that his team could win.
Avaltroni admits that not everyone shared that opinion — which was part of what made this trip fun.
“Our biggest hope going into the game, honestly, is that we don’t get embarrassed,” he said. “They have a 7-foot-4 center that literally towers over us. We don’t want to be down 20 points at halftime. Then you are ridiculous.”
Instead, the team went into halftime ahead by one. There was hope. But, when Purdue raced out to a five-point lead, midway through the second half, reality seemed to set in.
“That’s usually when the bigger, stronger, better team takes over,” Avaltroni said. “Then, suddenly we rushed back. With about a minute left, all of us in the crowd were looking at each other and saying, ‘Do you see what I see?’”
The celebration that followed shortly included Northeast Conference Commissioner Noreen Morris — as it marked the first time in 32 tries that the conference (based in Franklin) won an NCAA Tournament game.
Success means more money for the conference and its schools (each round of school advancement means more money for the conference, which will be split equally among all nine members). And it helps justify the inclusion of so-called mid-major conferences in the event.
Alvatroni said he had never spoken University of Saint Peter — Cinderella last year — about the impact of the momentbut he said he knows the playbook.
“We’re trying to mobilize people to come to Columbus,” he said. “We’re trying to stir things up in Jersey, doing watch parties. We try to hit social media as much as possible.
“We’re just trying to get the message out and just ride the wave because it’s a short window, but it’s a window that’s been opened wide and we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
This weekend — and going forward.
FDU is unique among tournament teams because it has two campuses — and two sets of sports teams. The tournament team is from the Teaneck campus and plays at the Division I level. The school also has teams at its Florham Park campus, which play at the Division III level.
“One of the things that I don’t think we’ve fully utilized as an institution is that we’re a place where kids can play at whatever level they want,” he said. “They can play at a more serious level in Division I. Or they have the option to play for the love of the sport in Division III, and play as a student athlete in true form.”
Opportunities. Opportunities. That’s what FDU is all about in the classroom and on the athletic field. That’s what Alvatroni really hopes the school will take away from it all.
“We have to handle it,” he said. “It’s not because, all of a sudden, we’re going to be a basketball powerhouse — because we’re not going to be.”
“But, instead, we need to celebrate that this is what athletics represents at an institution like ours. It’s not to train future NBAers or NFLers, it’s not to create multimillion-dollar professional athletes, it’s to give kids a chance to play and a chance to go to college. It’s about offering opportunities to students and athletes who might not get a second look from other schools.
“And then, every so often, lightning strikes. And you enjoy every moment of it.”