I must say, it is fun to root for the underdog, especially when they win. From the looks of 2013’s edition of “March Madness,” I’m not alone. Two lower-seeded entrants in the NCAA men’s division I basketball tournament, the La Salle Explorers and the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, have developed a national following for their overachieving efforts. Both teams have won their way into the “Sweet Sixteen” in this year’s single elimination extravaganza.
For me, this year’s overcomers are especially meaningful. There is a personal connection–a Maine connection. La Salle is guided by former University of Maine coach Dr. John Giannini. With a division III national championship already on his resume, I watched Coach G labor in vain for eight years in Orono. He produced two of the winningest teams in University history by salvaging players whose dreams stronger programs had dashed. And from all appearances, he operated with compassion and integrity. Yet, his Maine teams never qualified for the “Big Dance.” His 24-win team seemed destined to end Maine’s lifetime absence from the NCAA tourney, but fell short when its star point guard broke his hand in the conference tournament.
A few years later, Giannini left Maine in good shape, and went on to a La Salle program that was in the midst of upheaval due to NCAA infractions. He was brought in to restore the program’s dignity, and to build a program that could again contend in the much stronger Atlantic-10 conference. In this his ninth year at La Salle, he makes his first tournament appearance. It has been gratifying to see a sincere and good man, one who has paid his dues, be rewarded for his efforts to shape young men and achieve excellence. His La Salle team, which has won three games in just five days, has exhibited the same grind-it-out determination that he poured into his coaching at Maine, my alma mater.
Enter Florida Gulf Coast, a school founded in the 1990s. Its basketball team has only been eligible for the division I tournament for the last two years. The Eagles play with a defiant confidence that belies their rookie status. Their sometimes reckless style of play has nonetheless demoralized their higher-rated opponents on college basketball’s biggest stage. It’s one thing to grind out a high level of success in a pressure-packed setting, but quite another to win with carefree personality and style. These high-energy, exuberant upstarts are reveling in the national spotlight of their history-making run. They are living a dream, a moment in time to which they have been called, becoming the only team seeded #15 to ever advance to the field of sixteen. And, oh yes, the Maine connection: Maine defeated Florida Gulf Coast back in December! Frustrated and trophy-barren Black Bear fans can lay some claim to prominence through the impressive exploits of one of their few victims this past season.
Why is cheering for the underdog so popular–and natural? Perhaps we all aspire to greatness, but others are always getting in the way. When we see a fledgling on the verge of success, we put our collective goodwill to work for them. It just feels good. It helps them, or so it seems…and it helps us. Perhaps our instinct to nurture is thirsty. Supporting and empathizing on a promising joyride is too appealing to pass up. Or, perhaps we suffer from an innate sense of inferiority…and we’d rather not. We want a thrilling victory over being lost amid the facelessness of the unchosen many. A vicarious trip conquering the improbable promises to delight and fulfill. Human beings were wired to overcome, or least to strive to. It’s a journey we all need. So, jump on board–if you can’t live it out yourself, live out your dream through the appointed. The fantasy will be over before you know it. Then return to the dreams you were appointed to pursue. Aim high. Others stand in the wings ready to raise you up.