College basketball: March Madness 2005
Meet the Grizzlies, a team on a wacky ride
By GARY SHELTON
Published March 15, 2005
Today, you are a Grizzly.
Tomorrow, you can be a Tar Heel again. You can be a Wildcat or a Gator, a Blue Devil or a Demon Deacon. If you can figure out what an Illini is, you can be one of those, too. Tomorrow, you can sing the alma mater and salute the diploma on your wall.
Today, you are a Grizzly.
No, not that Oakland. The one in Michigan.
Today, you are a Grizzly because you love unlikely characters on impossible journeys. Today, you are a Grizzly because you believe the NCAA Tournament is about underdogs and overachievers. Today, you are a Grizzly because you have to admire the wacky, wild journey of a no-name team from nowhere.
How can you help but cheer for Oakland, a small school wrapped around a pond called Beer Lake in Rochester, Mich.? How can you not grin at the sight of the Grizzlies, all 12-18 of them, as they belly up to the big boys of college basketball? How can you not pull for a university eager to introduce itself to the nation?
"At least Cinderella had her looks," Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. "We're the ugly sister."
Kampe laughs, and the miles flash past his window. On Monday, he was on the team bus, doing one telephone interview after another as the Grizzlies drew closer to Dayton, where they will play Alabama A&M tonight in the NCAA play-in game. If it wins, Oakland gets a shot at North Carolina. If it were to keep winning, and the seeds would hold, it would then play Minnesota, then Florida, then UConn, then Duke, then Illinois.
Just think. If Oakland were to beat all of them, the Grizzlies could finish with a winning record.
"I was looking in the paper today," Kampe said, "and I saw the odds against us were 22-gazillion to one. Twenty-two gazillion. I don't even know what a gazillion is! I was tempted to bet a dollar, but we just showed our team a video against gambling, so I can't.
"Just think. If I won 22-gazillion dollars, I could buy the Orlando Magic, and I could go down there and coach."
At this point, all dreams are possible. And that's the point. There are schools, such as Maryland or Indiana, that would have you share their pain over not getting into the tournament. Humbug. Those schools have all the advantages as it is.
College basketball needs for its coaches to be able to tell its teams, no matter their record, there is still a heartbeat.
"This is the best moment in the history of our school," Kampe said. "Everyone keeps asking me if we belong. That's what this tournament is all about. When the Final Four gets here, you'll have Illinois and Carolina and Kansas, the usual suspects. Maybe that part of the tournament is for them. But the early rounds are for the other schools. This is their day.
"I was hoping we would play in the play-in game. If we win, there will be 5,000 people on Tuesday morning, maybe 5-million, who have to write "Oakland' on their tournament bracket. Isn't that great?"
How did this happen? Only three months ago, the Grizzlies were 0-7 and miserable. Two of the best players on the team had a fight last summer, each pressing charges against the other, and the bad feelings lingered. It wasn't until one of the players, Kris Krzyminski, quit last month that the chemistry improved. Even then, there was the trip where the airlines threw all the team's gear off the plane to make room for other luggage.
Can you see that happening with, say, Kentucky?
Oh, Kampe will tell you his team was better than its record. Isn't everyone? Oakland had lost games at Michigan State, at Illinois, at Texas A&M.
"If we had just wanted to win games," he said, "we would have come down there and played Rollins College or Florida State. But if we do play North Carolina, we won't be afraid, because we've played a great schedule."
Such talk is all well and good, but if you press him, Kampe will admit that he didn't see this coming, either. Ask his mom.
Before the M-id Continent Tournament, 78-year-old Mary Kampe wanted to come see her son's team play. No, he said. His wife wasn't coming to the tournament, and Kampe feared a one-and-done situation. So he told her to stay home. She wasn't happy.
Next thing you know, the Grizzlies were on a run, and a throwaway player named Pierre Dukes was launching one from the corner with 1.3 seconds to go. Then the ball was through the net, and the entire world was in line to hug Greg Kampe.
That night, Mary called her son again.
"I'm going dancing," she said. "And you can't stop me."
Kampe laughs again. His mother is going to the NCAAs. She told him she wanted to ride the student bus so she could have more fun.
For Kampe, these are marvelous days. He came to Oakland 21 seasons ago, full of fire and ambition. He was 28, the youngest coach of any school giving out scholarships, and he was going to hang around for two or three years before fame found him.
"I was going to win the national title," Kampe said. "Then I was going to UCLA to win four or five more national titles. Then, I guess, I was going to coach the Detroit Pistons."
Instead, he has been at Oakland for two decades, telling recruits that, no, Oakland isn't in California and telling opposing coaches that, no, he can't get them tee times on Pebble Beach.
"I've been here so long because I can't get a job," Kampe said. "Not just at another school. I mean, I can't get a job at A&W or McDonald's."
The trip to the NCAAs could change all of that, you tell him. McDonald's is hiring.
"I love chili cheesedogs," Kampe said. "I'm going to hold out for A&W. If we win a game, maybe I could be managerial material."
Dare to dream, Greg.
It's the season for it.
[Last modified March 15, 2005, 05:04:05]
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