The surprise of Miami and FAU being in the men’s NCAA Final Four cannot be overstated. That either would be this close to the mountaintop of college basketball defies all convention and logic. That both would be is about as likely as winning the Powerball lottery ... twice.
The Hurricanes reaching the Elite Eight a year ago was seen as such an outlier, a fluke, that UM was not even ranked in the preseason Top 25. This was the football school, nobody’s blue blood in hoops. The school that had no basketball program at all from 1972 through ‘84, canceling it essentially for a lack of interest.
Florida Atlantic didn’t even have a basketball program until 1993, and had never won an NCAA Tournament game or been ranked until this season. (I happen to be an FAU alum. No basketball when I was there. Just a barren campus dotted by underground burrowing owl nests protected by orange plastic tape.)
Yet here now is UM facing a pedigreed, four-time national champion UConn on Saturday night, after FAU faces San Diego State in a duel of Final Four newbies like Miami.
Imagine: UM and FAU, playing for the national championship Monday if both win their semifinal.
Do you believe in miracles?
Now here is Canes coach Jim Larranaga, at 73, with what could be a last and crowning hurrah, reprising his 2006 run to the Final Four with George Mason in what had been his career’s defining moment. Until now.
And here is the FAU Owls’ Dusty May, who hadn’t been a head coach anywhere until the Boca Raton school took a shot and hired him in March 2018.
After signing the contract, May looked at his wife Anna and dissolved into tears at his hotel room, grasping for a way to back out of the deal.
“I just committed career suicide,” he said.
It wasn’t because he worried the FAU job was beneath him. It was the opposite.
“I’m not good enough,” he told his wife. “I cant do this.”
He could. His Owls could.
Now, five years later, the man who thought he wasn’t good enough for FAU may be a few days from being wooed by bigger schools, likely Power 5 teams.
FAU beat Memphis, Fairleigh Dickinson, Tennessee and Kansas to get here.
Miami beat Drake, Indiana, Houston and Texas — the latter two victories suggesting a Final Four in Houston might not find UM the crowd darling.
Our flight from Fort Lauderdale to Houston on Friday was full of Final Four-bound Canes and FAU fans. (I invented an Owls chant, “They say Who? We say Hoot!,” but, alas, it has been slow taking off.)
The two schools, their campuses 50 miles apart, are linked by proximity but also because of the late Howard Schnellenberger, who coached Miami to its first football national championship in 1983 and years later founded and coached the football program at FAU.
That got me thinking how the Canes and Owls in the Final Four ranks among the other biggest surprises in the history of South Florida sports.
Schnellenberger christening the Hurricanes football dynasty (five national titles in a 19-year span) would rank high among those surprises. UM had been 7-4 the year before. Now they had beaten Nebraska, 31-30, to rise from No. 5 to No. 1 in the final polls. They had won because safety Ken Calhoun got a fingertip on the ball to deflect a last-second two-point conversion — the fickle finger of fate steering Miami’s destiny.
The Dolphins’ first Super Bowl win in 1972 was a stunner because it was a perfect 17-0 season, but the championship itself was not a huge surprise. Miami had been in the big game the year before, and Don Shula had a team of future Hall of Famers.
Likewise the Miami Heat’s first NBA crown in 2006 was historic but no great surprise. This team was a popular pick the moment Shaquille O’Neal joined forces with budding superstar Dwyane Wade.
The then-Florida Marlins winning the 1997 World Series in the club’s fifth year of existence was a shocker following four straight losing seasons. But owner Wayne Huizenga spent for an all-star team he would soon disassemble.
Closer to a genuine surprise — this will test the memory — was the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL reaching the 1980 Soccer Bowl at RFK Stadium before losing to the star-laden New York Cosmos. Before the Heat, Marlins or Panthers existed, before UM football got great, and before the Dolphins drafted Dan Marino, that Strikers season was the biggest thing in local sports since the Fins’ back-to-back Super Bowl wins.
The biggest surprise season we have had in Miami/South Florida sports has been the Florida Panthers reaching the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, a real Cinderella-on-skates tale. A blue-collar team in its third year of existence, rubber rats cascading onto the ice. Magic.
Those ‘96 Cats held our mythical biggest-surprise crown ... until now.
The Miami Hurricanes and FAU Owls together in the Final Four has taken over.
Now imagine if what was once unimaginable is about to happen?
One of them wins the national championship.