Moments after Jacksonville State’s upset of the Ohio Valley Conference top seed Belmont I asked Coach Ray Harper what is the message to the team about balancing this win with prepping for the championship. He replied, “We talk about it every day. This wasn’t the championship. This was to get us to the championship. We left Jacksonville with one thing in mind, these guys know, we’ve talked about it and we don’t have to talk about it here, but we didn’t come here to play one game. We came here on a mission.” Coach Harper understands the mission. He has won 4 National Championships as a head coach. 4! Two at Kentucky Wesleyan in NCAA DII and two at Oklahoma City in NAIA. But what about the fans? What is their mission?
The fans of so-called mid-major schools like those at the OVC Tournament have a completely different mindset than their counterparts at college basketball blue blood programs. It’s not a win-at-all-costs-or-fire-the-coach mentality. Nor are there the abundance of tee-shirt fans over the age of 12. You know t-shirt fans: the fans who have no connection to the institute of higher education other than to buy a t-shirt and root for the athletics teams.
I spoke with two retired Murray State fans who traveled to the OVC Tourney from Marshall County, KY to support their beloved Alma Mater. They shared that the sense of community around the program and the campus supersedes the need for wins. It’s not rare for players to come to their own homes for meals, while athletes at top schools are sometimes on strict diet plans given to them by the team’s trainers. (Just an NCAA regulations reminder: it’s not improper to prepare meals for players, but it is improper to buy meals for players). This builds a strong bond in the community. Don’t mistake the need for wins over the want for wins. Murray St. ended up with a losing record for the first time thirty years and you could tell it burned, but never once did the coach’s job security creep into the conversation.
After Jacksonville State won the OVC title game and the first automatic bid to NCAA tournament, the JSU band played a rousing rendition of the school song. When the ensuing celebration settled, the several band members were trying to figure what this all means. They feverishly checked their phones and yelled to friends in the crowd asking when the Gamecocks play next. Apparently, it was a little known fact that Selection Sunday was still eight days away. Clearly the next trip for band had not been planned or discussed.
Such is the beauty of mid-major fandom.