Maverick Madness

From stage.

To national stage.

UT-Arlington, whose athletic legacy seemed eternally chained to both the humor of playing hoops on a theater floor in Texas Hall and the horror of axing its football program, is about to participate in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. It's historic. It's surreal.

It's reaffirmation that March is indeed for madness.

"If it's not our best moment, it's right up there," says UTA athletic director Pete Carlon, who started with the school 27 years ago as head trainer. "Thinking about all the struggles and now finally getting it done, I get pretty emotional."

After 49 years of failure, indifference and punch lines, UTA earned its first invitation to the Big Dance by snatching last weekend's Southland Conference Tournament in Katy. The Mavs, seeded seventh in the eight-team tourney, upset Lamar, Sam Houston State and Northwestern State to gain their initial berth into college basketball's prestigious 65-team field.

Last Sunday's championship game was televised on ESPN2, which—to us long-suffering UTA alums—was startling enough. But when the Mavs survived, 82-79, fantasy magically morphed into reality.

"I can't describe the feeling," second-year UTA coach Scott Cross said after the game. "It's unbelievable."

Enjoy it while we can. The honeymoon will be short and none too sweet.

Unless right has suddenly become wrong and Bear Stearns is still a blue-chip stock, the 16th-seeded Mavs will get bitch-slapped by mighty Memphis in their South Region first-round game Friday night at Alltel Arena in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Though entering the tournament with a school-record 21 wins and unprecedented momentum, UTA is hardly a sleeper team worth building your bracket around. The Mavs face a No. l-seeded Memphis monster that is 33-1 and likely to run them into a version of the Washington Generals. The Tigers, favorites to reach the Final Four April 5 in San Antonio, are bigger, badder and better. UTA, seeded as the tournament's third-worst team, is a 25-point underdog.

Furthermore, a No. 16 has never beaten a No. 1, going 0-for-92.

Eliot Spitzer has a better chance of landing a national gig speaking on the virtues of trust, loyalty and keeping it in your pants.

"We're not going to go in intimidated," Cross says. "You never know. It is March Madness, after all."

For a school and a program that has long been cast as anonymous extras, just making a cameo is a momentous achievement. Sure, there have been random, notable students:

Space Shuttle astronaut Kalpana Chawla. Iraq invasion leader General Tommy Franks. Dallas sheriff Lupe Valdez and state senator Royce West. KTVT-Channel 11 anchor Karen Borta and KTCK-1310 AM The Ticket afternoon host Mike Rhyner. "Chavez" from Young Guns, better known as Lou Diamond Phillips. Oh, and—if you count the dweeb who learned his trade at The Shorthorn campus newspaper, dominated sports trivia night at the Dry Gulch pub and actually wore leg warmers over his parachute pants into Ransom Hall—yours truly.

But the history of UTA athletics has been equally spotty, framed by the school's 1985 decision to yank a football program that was mediocre on the field and mortifying for the budget.

Before Sunday the bulk of the national acclaim went to the Movin' Mavs wheelchair basketball team, winners of multiple national championships, and the women's volleyball team for advancing to the 1989 Final Four in Hawaii. Derrick Jensen had also scored a touchdown for the Los Angeles Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII, Tim McKyer won three Super Bowl rings and John Lackey won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series for the Anaheim Angels. But for the most part, UTA's Hall of Fame is more Who's That than Who's Who. You may recognize names such as Dexter Bussey, Jody Conradt and Trey Hillman, but localized legends Chena Gilstrap, Klepto Holmes, Hoss Dunsworth, Dink Ford, Snake LeGrand and Cotton Mitchell sound more like Bonanza rejects than school stalwarts.

The basketball record books are littered with heroics by Al Culton, Ralph McPherson and Steven Barber, the school's all-time best player now earning a minor-league check in Iceland. UTA, in fact, was most synonymous with basketball via its physicists' 2006 study of the NBA's new synthetic basketballs, prompting the league to switcheroo back to traditional leather balls.

But on Sunday, stigmas were trashed, reputations restored and school spirit rekindled.

A season that began 9-0 with wins over North Texas and Wichita State plummeted with the loss of second-leading scorer Brandon Long to a season-ending thumb injury. The Mavs lost in overtime at TCU, by five at Oklahoma State and then zombied through an underwhelming 7-9 SLC regular season. But during the tournament the locally born 'n' bred boys—seven of their 14 went to metroplex high schools—got big plays from Mesquite's Rog'er Guingard, bigger ones from Lake Highlands' Rod Epps and the biggest from Houston's Anthony Vereen.

Vereen, who led UTA with 25 points in the title game, says, "All these schools have their tournament appearances listed, and it just says 'None' by our name. Now when you look it'll say '2008'."

Climaxing an otherworldly celebration, 70-something booster emeritus Jack Davis—after patiently waiting each of the 49 empty years—finally got to cut down his piece of UTA's championship net.

"We held the ladder for him, but he made it up," says Carlon. "There wasn't a dry eye on the court."

Out of its other hat, perhaps UTA can finally replace Texas Hall.

When it opened in 1965 it was the grandest theater west of the Mississippi. Louis Armstrong, Willie Nelson, Jerry Seinfeld and Desmond Tutu have walked its floorboards.

The 4,200-seat joint also doubles as college basketball's most bizarre and ridiculous home gym. On one side of the court are traditional wooden bleachers; on the other cushioned movie seats rising to a balcony. The court, flanked by majestic theater drapes at either end, is literally placed atop the stage, making for an 8-foot drop into the orchestra pit for a hustling, naïve player.

I guarded Spud Webb on the stage during a high school tournament. I walked across the floor upon my '86 graduation. But I've yet to experience the place as a legitimate, credible college basketball venue.

With UTA's stunning success, that immediately changes. The positive residue of March Madness is popularity, publicity and a proposal for a new arena that will no longer fall on deaf administrative ears.

"You can say it's unique, but the truth is it negatively affects recruiting," Carlon says of Texas Hall. "I'm pretty certain we can use this to get some momentum for the building of a new special events center. Our president is watching and willing to listen. Its time has come."

UTA used to be the team that drew only 331 fans for a basketball home game. Used to be the school that prioritized its nursing school over athletic programs. Used to be the gym where fans never dared to dream of March Madness.

Not anymore.

Laughable legacy, exit stage left.