“The Cinderella Code” is a six-part series by Matt Craig, who spent last season as the lead mid-major writer at The Fieldhouse, which is The Athletic’s national college basketball platform. He has shared with us his senior honors thesis from his time at Ball State University, which examines why so-called Cinderella teams can make Final Four runs. You can sign up for his newsletter, “No Content For Old Men,” here.
Here is the final installment of the Cinderella Code.
As we return to the spring of 2006, try to imagine for a moment being on the George Mason basketball team. The Patriots played their home games in front of an average of 4,500 fans, and were lucky to have one nationally-televised game during their entire regular season. No one knew who Jai Lewis was, and few could identify Jim Larrañaga.
No one had ever heard of George Mason. When the final buzzer sounded against Connecticut and players climbed on top of the media table to pump their jerseys out to the crowd, they were introducing the university to the entire world. At the Final Four they played in front of 43,000 fans at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, with nearly 15 million people watching on television at home. Everyone knew their names.
Underdog stories are inspirational. They’re relatable. They’re lovable. Everyone roots for David to topple Goliath. What many college basketball fans might not realize is a mid-major school’s run to the Final Four is also transformative. The dozen or so members of the basketball team alter the course of a university forever. Millions of dollars and thousands of lives are affected.
The first and most obvious example of this impact comes in the form of direct payment to the basketball programs. The NCAA distributes reward money to its conferences based on the number of NCAA Tournament games they appeared in each year. These “units” vary in price each season, but for mid-major conferences the money is substantial. For example, Loyola Chicago’s five units in 2018 earned the Missouri Valley Conference $8.5 million. The money is then divided evenly amongst the member schools and given out across six years, equaling about $140,000 per school per year in this case. That’s more money than any of the schools receive from the conference’s television rights deal with ESPN.
It’s no coincidence Loyola Chicago, which joined the Missouri Valley the same year member school Wichita State made it to the Final Four in 2013, had the resources necessary to make the Final Four within the six-year window. Or that VCU’s 2011 run out of the Colonial Athletic Association came within six years of George Mason earning five units in 2006.
The direct payments are just the tip of the iceberg. In 2012, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School set out to measure the effect of a highly visible athletic success on a university, popularly referred to as the “Flutie Effect.” The term comes from Boston College experiencing a swell in applications interest after a 1984 football game in which quarterback Doug Flutie threw a game-winning Hail Mary pass on the final play.
The study found not only were there 30 percent more applications within two years of the game, the applicants had higher test scores and came mostly from out-of-state, where tuition costs were much higher. The school had added to its academic prestige, and had more money to reinvest in the school to continue the growth, totally separate from the athletic department. Thanks to one pass from Flutie, Boston College students received a better education for decades after he left the school. The football program raised its profile as well. Within a decade they had gone from being an independent to a member of the Big East Conference, sending them on a track that eventually landed them in the mighty ACC in 2005. Prior to Flutie’s season, Boston College football had won one bowl game in its entire history. They’ve won 12 since.
Our mid-major schools can boast similar results. George Mason commissioned one of its business professors to study the effects of its Final Four run. He reported $677 million in free publicity during the tournament. In the two years following the run, admissions inquiries increased 350 percent, while applications increased by 22 percent and out-of-state applications numbers were up 40 percent. A $100 million capital campaign launched after the 2006 tournament exceeded $132 million in donations. The basketball program was never the same. Season ticket sales for basketball home games doubled in one year. They joined the Atlantic 10 conference in 2013, a much more prestigious league, and currently operate with an athletics budget twice as big as they did in 2006.
Butler’s total applications rose a mind-boggling 52 percent from 2009 to 2011 after two consecutive trips to the national championship game. The school commissioned its own study, and found the two runs combined for over $1.2 billion in free media publicity. That’s not all. “Our corporate sponsors have grown significantly, which is attributable to our success in 2010 and 2011,” said Barry Collier, Butler’s director of athletics. “Licensing has jumped somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 percent.”
The Bulldogs competed in the Horizon League when they made their two runs, but jumped to the Atlantic 10 and then the Big East in 2013, a legitimate power conference. Today, with a basketball budget approaching $6 million, Butler resembles Goliath far more than it does David.
Stories like these abound for all of our teams. “I was talking with someone who works with our admissions,” said Loyola Chicago athletic director Steve Watson only about a month after his team appeared in the 2018 Final Four, “and he said we’re going to have to change everything, blow up our model; this is going to change the way we do business forever.” On the athletics side, Wichita State jumped from the Missouri Valley to the American Athletic Conference and is a perennial powerhouse. VCU hopped from the Colonial to the Atlantic 10. Bigger conferences mean bigger television contracts, which means more money. More money means better facilities, better recruiting, and better coaching. Those things translate into more wins and more exposure. The cycle continues.
. . .
Who will be the next mid-major school to experience these effects? In this paper we’ve assembled a set of criteria the prospective school needs to follow: a coach who’s an outsider, players who are catalysts, an administration that supports the basketball program and a fearless attitude.
Though not black and white rules, we’ve found benchmarks for each aspect: the coach shouldn’t have played high level Division I basketball or be an assistant coach for a long time under a hall of famer, none of the players should average more than 16 points per game, the school shouldn’t have a football program, and the team should win close games to prove their clutch ability. The final question is whether these criteria can predict future mid-major runs to the Final Four. Only time will tell, but here are three schools that fit the profile.
Grand Canyon University is a school of about 19,000 on-campus students located about seven miles north of downtown Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the United States. Until 2013, its athletics teams competed at the Division II level. It has never made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Yet Grand Canyon is a perfect David. As the only for-profit school in all of Division I, money is no issue for the Antelopes. Its basketball team had a $4.34 million budget for the fiscal year of 2016, which if you’re keeping track is already quite a bit higher than Wichita State’s budget in 2013, or any of our other mid-major schools for that matter.
With that money the school is recruiting heavily overseas, finding talented players that can’t be poached by more prestigious schools. And that number doesn’t take into account a $1 billion campus expansion project that includes a massive new basketball practice facility and 2,000 more seats to the arena it plays in, where they sell out every game. It’s no surprise the basketball program is well funded, because Grand Canyon does not have a football team. As for coaching, head coach Dan Majerle might not seem like an outsider at first glance considering he played 14 years in the National Basketball Association. He is. His college basketball experience was at Central Michigan, a definite mid-major, and his only coaching job prior to taking over at Grand Canyon was as an assistant for the Phoenix Suns in the NBA. He comes to the college game with an NBA perspective, a style far different than the college basketball lifers.
The leading scorer on the 2017-2018 Grand Canyon Antelopes? That would be Alessandro Lever at 12.2 points per game. Five players averaged between nine and 12 points. A run to the Final Four might shock the college basketball world, as the team competes in the Western Athletic Conference. It shouldn’t.
Another candidate is the University of Pennsylvania, competing out of the Ivy League. The league might have been a power in the middle of the 20th century, when Penn made a Final Four appearance in 1979. It’s not now. The Ivy League has only advanced past the second round of the tournament one time in three decades. According to the college basketball ratings percentage index, it was ranked as the 24th best league in the country out of 32 total conferences. With a $1.8 million budget, Penn is definitely an underdog.
But there’s a lot to like for the Quakers. They are led by Steve Donahue, who played college basketball and baseball at Ursinus College, a Division III school northwest of Philadelphia. He coached in the high school and Division II ranks before taking an assistant job at Penn for 10 years. Then he then took the reigns as head coach of Cornell for 10 years, where in 2010 he led the team that made the Ivy League’s only Sweet 16 since 1979. He took a high profile job at Boston College in the ACC, but didn’t much fit in as a Goliath. He was fired after four years, and returned to Penn. Just like Shaka Smart, Donahue rattles teams with his tempo. Instead of speeding up the game he slows it down to a glacial pace, which doesn’t allow more talented teams the opportunities to take advantage.
Finding catalysts shouldn’t be a problem for Donahue. In recent years he has adopted a motto for his team: Whānau. It’s a Maori word for extended family, which he picked up from The Legacy, a book about the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. The word symbolizes the culture of the Penn program, setting aside all personal egos to help out your teammates. The proof is in the construction of Penn’s roster. There are 21 players on the team. He sees all of them as important. Not only did Penn have four players in double-digit scoring on the season with none more than 14 points per game, but it was the only team in the country which had eight different players score 20 or more points in a single game. That’s textbook catalyst behavior.
And Penn’s location is its greatest asset. It is situated in downtown Philadelphia, the sixth largest city in the United States and a hotbed for grassroots basketball talent. Its historic basketball arena, the Palestra, has often been called “The Cathedral of College Basketball” since opening its doors in 1927. Penn is able to attract large schools to come play at the Palestra during the regular season to boost its profile and NCAA Tournament résumé, a luxury few mid-major teams in the country can claim. Momentum for the program is building towards something special, potentially even a trip to the Final Four.
The final contender is Lipscomb University, a private liberal arts school of less than 5,000 students out of the Atlantic Sun Conference. For a school of that size, supporting a football team is completely out of the question. The Bison made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in the school’s history in 2018. The school is located a stone’s throw away from Nashville, Tennessee, the 24th largest and one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Though Nashville has plenty of competition from a three other Division I basketball programs in the city, the potential for economic impact is enormous.
Head coach Casey Alexander played college basketball at nearby Belmont University, a mid-major school, and learned how to be a David from one of the greatest mid-major coaches in college basketball history, Rick Byrd, for 16 seasons. Lipscomb plays at a blistering pace, the fifth fastest in all of college basketball according to leading analytics expert Ken Pomeroy’s tempo metric. The only reason its players average more than 15 points per game is the team’s up-tempo style. It’s difficult for any opponent to keep up. In the 2018 conference championship game that sent them to the NCAA Tournament, the Bison scored 108 points. With a few more successful seasons under its belt, Lipscomb could become a mid-major capable of a deep run in March as well.
When any of these teams, or other mid-majors not mentioned here, does make it to the Final Four next, it won’t be because of magic or coincidence. It will be because the schools have desirable disadvantages. They won’t have enough money to play America’s most popular and most profitable sport, football. Their coaches will be people who never fit in. Their playing style will be strange and disorienting. Their players won’t be superstars, and may even wear turtleneck socks and greasy hair. They’ll almost certainly be underestimated.
For these reasons and many more, these teams are fun to cheer for. But supporting the teams means much more than basketball. Success on the court can transform the lives of thousands of young people that can’t dribble a ball or even tell the difference between Shaka Smart and Shaka Zulu. It’s why the stories of mid-major basketball teams, just like David and Goliath, should be told forever.