On a Monday afternoon in early March, the Johnson & Wales University athletic department buzzed with activity. Tom Pancoe, assistant athletic director, sports information director and sole team trainer, shoved Ace wraps, bandages and athletic tape into a boxy black travel bag. "I have to call the airlines to make sure I can get our scissors through," he muttered to himself. Tim Corrigan, the school's athletic director, was over at the administration building, trying to scare up enough money for plane tickets.
Bob Campbell, the part-time Johnson & Wales men's head basketball coach, was doing everything else -- gathering the paperwork, packing the team's warmups and washing its dirty laundry. "I don't fold it," he said indignantly.
Nobody expected any of this to happen. On March 1, the Johnson & Wales Wildcats won the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Independent regional tournament in Minnesota. So Campbell and the squad were scrambling to prepare to leave for Branson, Missouri, to compete in the national NAIA playoffs.
It's a nice problem to have, considering that two years ago, in an effort to make life more exciting for the 1,200 cooking, business and marketing students on its northeast Denver campus, J&W decided to start an entire intercollegiate athletic program from scratch. It was a painful birth. The Lady Wildcats basketball team was forced to forfeit games because its players often worked weekends and late into the night as part of their training. The men's baseball team needed to construct its own field before being able to conduct batting practice.
And the men's basketball team, which played in a turn-of-the-century, grade-school-sized gym twenty feet shy of regulation size, was regularly shellacked. Opposing teams often scored double J&W's points. The Wildcats hoopsters won a single game that year. Last year was better -- barely. They finished 5-22.
But that was then. Ever since basketball season started last October, the J&W cagers have been the scourge of the NAIA -- and, in some cases, even of NCAA Division II schools that got in their way.
The Wildcats leapt out of the chute with three straight wins. In early December, the team lost a squeaker to Metro State, one of the best D II schools anywhere. A month later, J&W pummeled Adams State by a margin of 25 points. In early February, they squashed Colorado College -- the same school that only two years before had beaten them by forty points -- by 26.
Matt Geniesse, a former assistant coach at UCLA as well as the son of a former NAIA basketball coach, may be the only person who hasn't been shocked by the school's bottom-to-top flip-flop. After all, this had been part of the plan for the 28-year-old Sheridan native, who was hired last spring after contacting the university to ask about coaching opportunities. "My goal was to come in and win immediately and make a name for the university, the kids and myself," he says. "I wasn't looking for two wins, or five, or ten or eight and then call it a building year. I wanted it right away."
Previously, J&W had relied upon convincing tall students who happened to be attending the school to try out for the hoops team. This year, Geniesse had no intention of leaving his roster to chance.
"My goal was going out and finding kids who were very, very good but who needed a second opportunity to play for a young coach who understood them," he says. What Geniesse understood was reality. Some of his players might value an education. But he also recognized that, for many, another chance to play basketball was reason enough for coming to Johnson & Wales.
Geniesse began working the phones last summer, looking for players who'd slipped out of the view of major colleges. Mike Gomez, a former all-city first-team high school player from Los Angeles who'd already made the rounds of several small colleges, was one of them.
"I had heard of Johnson & Wales as a culinary school, but nothing else," he recalls. The first time the 6' 6" Gomez walked into J&W's pocket-sized gymnasium, the sight did nothing to dispel the notion that he'd landed square in the center of podunkville.
Donald Whitfield, too, was underwhelmed by his new school. "I thought it was just an auxiliary gym," he remembers. Another junior-college refugee, Whitfield had been recruited out of Dallas by Division I McNeese State, but didn't make the cut academically. NAIA's academic standards are more forgiving than the NCAA's, however, and as soon as Geniesse saw Whitfield playing at a local rec center, he went after him. Whitfield has turned out to be the Wildcats' high scorer, averaging nearly 24 points a game.
Ryan Moats was another player who'd dropped out of view. A second-team all-state selection his senior year at Highlands Ranch High School, the point guard had attended Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) for a year on a basketball scholarship. But then Moats, a Mormon, accepted a two-year mission to Venezuela. When he returned, everyone -- including him -- had forgotten he could play basketball. This year, he's averaged about thirteen points a game.
Geniesse says his aggressive recruiting plan was hampered by not having a single athletic scholarship to give his players, several of whom had collected scholarships at other schools. (J&W's entire yearly basketball budget is $30,000.) But he offered potential players a good education, and he promised them that the team he was gathering would get them plenty of run eventually. "I told them, ŒYou'll make your money on the back end,'" he says.
Some of the players, particularly those whose grand dreams of basketball fame had been scaled back over the years, had trouble adjusting to J&W's tiny size and low visibility. "You always want to play for schools you see on TV," says Whitfield, who at one time had designs on attending Georgetown or the University of Connecticut. "At first I thought the NAIA was beneath me."
"We're kind of off the radar," adds Gomez.
In mid-January, with the team at 12-11, Geniesse quit, explaining without going into detail that he had to leave for personal reasons. The job was taken over by Campbell, who at the time was already coaching the women's basketball team. For three exhausting weeks in the beginning of the year, he kept both jobs, sleeping on the school's single training table instead of driving back to his Wheat Ridge home. The team finished out the season 14-14.
The Wildcats left for Missouri and the national tournament on March 8. The following day, they played St. Vincent College -- at 24-4, the number-three seed. The Wildcats, meanwhile, arrived with only seven players. One hadn't met academic requirements. The Stingley brothers, from Monument -- Will, who is 6' 5"; and Seth, who is 6' 7" -- had had a brother die suddenly several weeks earlier and were in no shape to play basketball.
After the first quarter, during which the teams played evenly, St. Vincent's began to pull away. The second half wasn't really all that close, and despite some bright spots -- five of the Wildcats' seven players scored in the double digits -- Johnson & Wales lost its first-round game by fourteen points. The dream season was over.
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Despite the team's lingering glow, it's not at all evident that this is the beginning of a basketball powerhouse. With Geniesse gone, the team already felt like it was playing a phantom season. Itinerant players always looking for a better game, neither Whitfield nor Gomez is sure he'll return to play another year. Campbell, meanwhile, has been unable to schedule a single home game for next season -- a problem he blames on the team's tiny playing quarters.
Still, even if it was only a flash, Johnson & Wales's stunning breakout has already paid dividends. Assistant athletic director Pancoe says he's been deluged with calls from prospective players who've heard about the team's sunny season. "They're coming out of the woodwork now," he boasts.
Campbell, who says he'll be back next year, is more circumspect. "We get letters from kids every day who want to play," he admits. But, he adds, "The problem with that is you get every 5' 8" player out there who wants to play. Just give me one seven-footer. Just one."