Florida is a state of powerhouse Division I schools. The Miami Hurricanes program has five national championships in football and four baseball national championships to go along with 29 NCAA regional titles. In basketball, the Canes have two ACC championships, one Big East championship, have played in the Sweet Sixteen five times, the Elite Eight two times and just made the final four for the first time in school history. The Florida Gators have won three football national championships and back-to-back national championships in basketball. In baseball they have won 15 SEC championships and their first national championship in 2017. Florida State has also been a force to be reckoned with, as they have won two football national championships, have made the Sweet Sixteen seven times, the Elite Eight three times and were the runner up in basketball in 1972. In baseball, FSU has 11 regional conference championships and 20 conference tournament championships.
With a vast history of success among the “Big Three” Florida schools, it is hard for the other state schools to garner attention and support from fans, and institutions when it comes to their athletic programs. Enter FAU, who plays in a mid-major conference called Conference USA. The players in their programs are usually not good enough to compete in the big three or other high-profile Division I schools. FAU’s heyday was winning two football Conference USA championships under Lane Kiffin, who used the school as a stepping stone and moved on to Mississippi the moment he was offered their head coaching position. It is tough to be an Owl, in a state dominated by Hurricanes, Gators and Noles. Yet, at this moment, the FAU Owls, who had never won a game in the NCAA tournament, are headed to their first Final Four. Currently, FAU is two wins away from becoming the NCAA National Champions.
The Owl’s impressive performance during the season is highlighted by a 20-game winning streak, which surpassed any other Division I team’s record. In addition, the Owls clinched the Conference USA Championship and ended the regular season with a record of 35-3.
During their march to the Final Four, the Owls displayed their competitiveness by defeating formidable opponents. They first overcame #8 Memphis in the round of 64, followed by a victory against #16 Fairleigh Dickerson in the round of 32. The Owls then faced #4 Tennessee in the Sweet Sixteen and emerged victorious. In the Elite Eight, they upset #3 Kansas State 79-76, thereby securing their first-ever Final Four appearance. As #9 FAU gets ready to face the #5 San Diego State Aztecs on Saturday, the question is what is the key to their success?
It is not hard to see the Owls success starts with their head coach Dusty May. May is a fifth-year head coach who has quietly transformed the FAU basketball program into one of the best programs in the country. May knows what it feels to start at the bottom and work hard to achieve results. In an interview with Rich Eisen, May catalogued his journey that led him to become a basketball coach.
Dusty May aspired to become a coach and started his journey by volunteering as a student manager under Bobby Knight at Indiana University. With a strong desire to secure a varsity coaching position in the basketball mecca of Indiana, he worked hard toward his goal. Despite the odds, May seized the opportunity when it arose, thanks to his landscaping work for Dr. Larry Rink, a close friend of Knight’s, who recommended May to the legendary coach. May poured himself into the game and defied all obstacles to make his mark in the coaching world.
May made his mark in 2023 becoming the C- USA coach of the year and turning the Owls into a well-oiled basketball machine. FAU relishes being the underdog and are unfazed by traditional blue blood programs. Reflecting on the Owl’s journey, May stated to ESPN “We felt we had to prove ourselves, that the goalposts were moving all year… I don’t know why that is, probably the lack of recognition, but we talk about it, and we are fine with that. We are not playing for the spotlight; we are not playing for the recognition; we are playing for the love of the game and our relationship with everyone in that locker room. What everyone in that locker room has is real.”
While the Owl’s once get ready for their biggest game in program history, with a shot at the title within sight, their story is a reminder of the age-old story, “The Little Engine That Could”. In the iconic story an engine was needed to accept the difficult challenge of pulling a train over the mountain. Every engine found an excuse to say no to the challenge because it seemed too great: except for a little switch engine. The little engine believed it could and against all odds, carried the train on its back, did the impossible and climbed over the mountain.
In a state full of multiple sport giants, Dusty May and the Owls have come together and done the impossible; they have climbed the mountain and made history, joining Miami, UF, FSU and Jacksonville as the only Florida schools to make the Final Four. With a win over the Aztecs on Saturday, FAU will have the opportunity to play highly favored UConn or the University of Miami, for the national title. For Dusty May and the Owls, they wouldn’t want it any other way, they believe in each other. The little school that could is not done. In their minds the next game is the only game that matters. “We expect to do great things and have high standards” May said. That great thing might just be a national championship.
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