INDIANAPOLIS – On the massive Texas A & M campus in College Station, Tuesday has been designated as a “maroon out,” in which students, faculty and staff are asked to wear school colors.
A game featuring A & M’s Top 10-ranked baseball team will be moved up to a late afternoon first pitch.
A healthy slice of Aggie Nation will grind to a halt by mid-evening Tuesday as that part of the deep heart of Texas will be euphoric about the rare chance to see their school compete for a national championship in a major sport.
The Texas A & M women’s basketball team wasn’t the only Aggie program that was moribund when Bill Byrne became athletic director in 2003 and made Gary Blair his first hire.
But it might be the most unlikely team for which those students and alumni will be wearing Aggie maroon Tuesday.
When Texas A & M (32-5) meets Notre Dame (31-7) at Conseco Fieldhouse with an NCAA championship on the line, the game will feature two teams that knocked out all the No. 1 seeds in the tournament and deprived a repeat of last year’s final between UConn and Stanford.
“I think I know we screwed it up for ESPN,” said the amiable, but rambling Blair, who’s been here before, with Arkansas in 1998. “But it’s good for the game of basketball right now. Right now for our sport to grow we need Texas A & M and Notre Dame in this game.”
It’s a refrain that’s heard every five years or so, when the dominant powers in the game get tripped up along the way. A & M took care of Baylor and Stanford, while the Fighting Irish pulled off a rather notable feat, eliminating Tennessee and UConn in successive games.
“This is my week for exorcizing demons,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who had never defeated the Lady Vols before and had posted only four previous wins over UConn in 32 tries.
In the last two weeks, what Blair and McGraw have done is to give hope that the UConn-Tennessee lock on the sport’s dominance doesn’t have to be permanent.
But since UConn won the first of its seven NCAA titles in 1995, only four teams other than the Huskies or Lady Vols have claimed titles.
One of them was Notre Dame in 2001, when McGraw’s team famously overcame a double-digit halftime deficit to overpower UConn in the national semifinals.
The push toward parity
During most of the 1990s, a number of programs new to the Final Four elevated hopes that suspense in March was just around the corner. UConn reached its first Final Four in 1991, laying the groundwork for a dynasty.
In 1993, the Final Four featured four first-time teams in Texas Tech, Vanderbilt, Iowa and Ohio State. But none of them have returned.
Neither have Alabama in 1994, N.C. State and a Blair-coached Arkansas in 1998 and Penn State in 2000, when the Huskies reeled off the first of six NCAA crowns in nine seasons.
At the same time, Purdue, North Carolina and Notre Dame moved into the elite ranks by winning national championships. Duke, LSU and Rutgers were to follow, but national titles have eluded them. More recently, Baylor in 2005 and Maryland in 2006 captured NCAA crowns with young teams.
Since then, it’s been Tennessee and UConn. That would have been the national semifinal matchup had both reached the Final Four, and the renewal of a bitter rivalry that no longer is contested during the regular season.
“Like I said, ESPN didn’t envision it,” Blair said of the Notre Dame matchup. “But the thing is we’re both No. 2 seeds. We’re both in the Top 10 all year. So what’s the big story? We’ve both done what we were supposed to do all year long.”
Notre Dame’s McGraw thinks it’s been “a good thing to fly under the radar. I don’t think that anybody was talking about us.”
A model to emulate
Beating the elite powers of the sport on the floor on a regular basis, and not every few years, is the only way to reach the competitive balance that coaches and others in the sport say they desperately crave.
And with the onset of recruiting parity in the late 1990s have come commitments to upgrade facilities and lay out money – some serious money – to lure top coaches and provide resources to recruit, travel and win.
Blair makes a reported $800,000 annually, but he’s far from being the higest-paid coach in the Big 12. Baylor’s Kim Mulkey, Sherri Coale of Oklahoma and Texas’ Gail Goestenkors are in low seven figures.
“The salaries, are they justified? You betcha,” he said. “And I want everyone to feel good about their sport. Does a CEO deserve $65 million? Probably not, but he’s still responsible for that company going to the next level. And if he’s earned it, go ahead.”
The Aggies drew home crowds in the hundreds when Blair first arrived. This season, they averaged 6,104 for home games, putting them among the nation’s leaders. Next year Texas A & M will play host to an early stage of the the NCAA tournament.
Blair says selling his program – whether it’s meeting with small groups, handing out tickets or pushing for more media coverage – requires tireless passion and hustle that goes far beyond the matter of “dollars and cents.”
“It’s getting people out to sell it, because I’m tired of going into airports and seeing all Texas and Michigan and UCLA and even Miami stuff,” Blair said. “Now, I want to sell A & M. I do not have to want to explain A & M to a person from Connecticut or Gonzaga. They’re going to know who we are and what we’ve accomplished.”
The best potential advertisement for that comes Tuesday.