Excuse me if I call Southern University’s loss Thursday in the NCAA basketball tournament against Gonzaga University one of the most glorious defeats ever.
Southern against Gonzaga was not David vs. Goliath. It was David against a Blackhawk Helicopter. There was nothing that suggested Southern should be mentioned in the same breath, let alone on the same Salt Lake City court as almighty Gonzaga.
Southern has been through some incredibly difficult times in recent years. You name it, and it has been served up on a silver platter, sometimes more than once. State budget cuts still loom.
But on Thursday afternoon, that was put aside when hundreds of Southern students piled into the Cotillion Ballroom to eat popcorn, hot dogs, sip soft drinks and believe. This is a school that needed to believe.
Southern is not a big school with 20,000 to 35,000 students. There are about 6,600 students who basically know each other. They know personally the players, the cheerleaders and the pep band members that were in Utah.
Just think, two years ago Southern basketball was about to get banished by the NCAA for not living up to its classroom obligation — not to mention being blown out by nearly every team they played.
Now, they were playing Gonzaga the No.1 team in the country — and America’s sweetheart.
What was Southern up against? They were playing a team that had better everything than they had. Better facilities, better dietary programs, a national following, a loving media and presumably far-superior players and coaches.
Think about this. Tuition alone at Gonzaga, $33,000 a year, is probably more than the annual salaries of the parents of some Southern players and students. Nine out of every 10 students at Southern get some form of federal aid to attend college.
I got goose bumps when the students roared with joy when the team appeared on a grainy Skype hookup prior to the game.
As the contest unfolded and SU continued to hang with Gonzaga, you could feel the intensity in the room. The crowd in the ballroom had increased. There were faculty members, administrators, the chancellor, old retired faculty members, employees and janitors watching and cheering. They all wanted to be part of it.
A student next to me was squeezing two stress balls saying she was ready to cry no matter how it turned out.
When a close up of an SU player would appear on the screen, you could hear someone talk about classes taken with the player or where he hangs out on campus. That’s how small Southern is.
Then in the last three minutes, with score close, the crowd rose to its feet. Maybe, just maybe. …
Then in an instant, it was over. Southern had lost. But, I had never felt better about a loss.
The students screamed a fight song in unison, almost as if they were hoping the team could hear it. For about two hours, the nation got to witness an incredible show of grit, and heart from students representing a little school they had probably never heard of.
A reporter told me on Friday, after a crowd of fans welcomed the team back to Baton Rouge, “It’s time for y’all to let it go.”
Sorry, my man. There are thousands of grads like me who will cherish this glorious loss because in defeat we gained respect.
Ed Pratt is a former Advocate editor. He is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.