This past weekend I had the pleasure of making the trip to Houston, Texas to attend my 8th Final Four in the past 11 years. I do feel like every year the Final Four gets better and better, and this year’s trip to Houston continued the trend of every year becoming my new favorite. Jim Nantz had a great quote echoing that sentiment; “It never gets old. What I find is that when somebody asks me about my favorite Final Four I say, ‘the next one.’ You get to where you appreciate it more. It gets bigger and better every year.” I could not agree more with that statement. I know what you’re thinking; that this was the worst National Championship game ever, but when you’re there, it’s so much more than the game itself.
Annual Final Four goers are a rare breed, and female Final Four goers are an even rarer breed that I thought was almost extinct until I met a group of Illinois fans at the 2007 Final Four in Atlanta. There were three Illini grads that we ran into at the Coach’s hotel; they were coach stalking just like we were. We ended up chatting, and to pass their initiation, I had to name the past 10 NCAA National Champions. A strong memory is not one of my strong suits, so I struggled, but managed to do well enough that they knew that I was a true basketball fan and was welcome to hang with them. 4 years later, we’ve kept in touch, met up at a few other Final Fours, and this year, I ended up traveling with them to Houston. That’s one thing that I find as important as the games; meeting other die-hard fans that have traveled all over supporting their teams. Every one of those fans has great stories to go with their travels. For example, we met a KU fan this year at the Hilton that told us the story of how he became “Butler Boy” at last year’s Final Four in Indianapolis. He walked into a bar before the National Championship game that turned out to be a Butler bar. The fans were fairly subdued, so he thought that he’d get them a little fired up, and ended up buying about $500 in shots and drinks for the bar. He was doing cheers with them, and was so excited, he got up on the stainless steel bar to do some chants with everyone. He ended up slipping and falling down to the ground. When he leapt to his feet (think Molly Shannon’s character Mary Katherine Gallagher), the crowd cheered enthusiastically for him, calling him “Butler Boy.”
At the Hilton, a former player approached my Illini friends and told them he was a huge fan as well. I asked if he had played there, and he said he had. My friends still couldn’t place him. He then asked my Illini friends who the school’s all-time leading scorer was. Sure enough, it was Deon Thomas, the only men's basketball player in Illinois history to score at least 2000 career points. He is now coaching at Lewis and Clark Community College, and couldn’t have been a nicer guy.
I know people always question my “coach stalking” as a hobby. The reason why I love to meet coaches is because they share the same love and passion for college basketball that I do. They are experts at their game, and I’m like a kid in a candy store just listening to their stories and soaking it all up.
A few other highlights from coaches we met, but let me preface this all by saying these were just meetings and I don’t claim to be "close personal friends" with any of them.
Gregg Nibert, Presbyterian College – Coach Nibert ended up sitting next to us at lunch, and it was such a pleasure to talk to the coach of the smallest Division One program, who has been with the program for 22 years. We chatted about how a lot of coaches are passing up big time jobs with big time money and big time pressure to stay at smaller schools. I’m pretty sure just about any coach there would love to have the longevity that Coach Nibert has. He recruits good kids that want an education and get fired up at the opportunity to play schools like Mizzou, Vanderbilt, Princeton, Wake Forest, and Kansas State like Presbyterian College did last season.
Gene Keady – This is one of my favorite coaches to speak to. I first met him a few years ago in San Antonio. I made fun of West Lafayette, and he was a good sport about it, as he really loves living there. I got a photo with him where I did not look very good, and as we were walking away, I saw noticed it wasn’t the best picture. I asked for another. He laughed and made fun of me, saying to my male friend “how do you put up with your wife, she is very demanding?” I thought that was hilarious. I asked him for a better picture this year, and he said “If you get a good shot with me, then you won’t have any reason to come up and talk to me in the future.” I assured him I would always come up to him, and if it ended up being a keeper, he’d made my Christmas card.
Steve Fisher, SDSU – it was truly an honor to meet Coach Fisher the night that he won Coach of the Year. My friend actually approached him because one of his friends played for Coach Fisher, and he could not have been any nicer or more gracious. I was in awe meeting someone that has won a National Championship at Michigan, recruited and coached the Fab 5, and has had a long and successful career at SDSU, only losing 2 games this past season.
Bill Self, Kansas – I don’t think it’s really a secret that I absolutely worship Bill Self. I have never met a more charming man in my life, and that’s why we seek him out every year to say “hello.” The 1st time I met him was in 2007 in Atlanta. He was by himself at the Coaches’ hotel, and in street clothes. He looked very different than he does in a suit. I went up to him and asked “excuse me, are you Bill Self?” He responded, “No, I’m Bob Stoops.” I think that’s one of the things that make him so likable; He’s an elite coach at one of the best basketball programs in the nation, and he just acts like a regular guy from the Midwest. He loves my Illini friends, and has known them since he coached there. When he saw them walking up, he immediately smiled and said “My Illini girls!” He makes a point of always saying how much he loved coaching there.
Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh – When we approached Coach Dixon to introduce ourselves, he had already seen us talking to Coach Self, and said “so, you all know Bill,” and was very welcoming. We were actually very impressed with Dixon, he liked my friend’s T-shirt that said “You know you’re a redneck….if you Fired Tubby Smith.” He was kind enough to take this photo with us:
We also ran into Gary Williams, Scott Van Pelt from ESPN, Ralph Sampson Jr., John Thompson, Tubby Smith, Mark Few, and many other influential individuals in the world of college basketball. For me, the Final Four is my Disneyland, it’s the happiest place on earth. Regardless of the games, it’s always an amazing experience and something new each and every year. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a Final Four, I would highly recommend it, you won’t regret it!