The Year Behind
A man next to me in the Copley Square Marriott elevator took one look at the X on my sweater and said, “You people travel well.” And I, thinking about all the Xs I had seen on all the fans swarming in the hotel lobby, restaurant and bar, said, “Yeah. We do.” Another year, another NCAA Tournament. And not that I am spoiled or anything—thank you B.J. and C.J. and everyone—another Sweet 16.
The NCAA Tournament brings out the kid in everyone, and the deeper you go the more the kid comes out. If the occasion itself gets my skin all prickly with excitement the way the county fair used to do, the day of the game itself creeps by slow as Christmas Eve. Thank God for all those swarming fans to pass the time with—comparing notes, sizing up match-ups, saying things like, “I feel good about this,” or “We can do it.”
Four o’clock was pep rally time, masquerading as an alumni reception. The Boston area alums were out in force, of course, grateful for the opportunity to serve as the temporary epicenter of the Xavier Nation. The people had come from all over, from up and down the East Coast, across the Midwest and beyond, and in all kinds of ways. I heard more than one joke about “planes, trains and automobiles.” The record distance I heard traveled was Hawaii to Los Angeles to Boston in a single day.
The Pep Band and the cheerleaders got us all lathered up and, since Coach Miller had other things to do, it fell to yours truly to work the crowd into a frenzy. Like that was hard! I teased the sophomore cheerleaders and band members, who had only known Sweet Sixteens their Xavier career. “So when are you going to take us to the Final Four,” I asked them, booming the question out for all I was worth, like a crowd-sized high-five, and a crowd-sized roar high-fived me back.
People began filing out to make their way to the arena, anxious to get there and get started. And I filed out with them eventually myself and packed into a cab with three other Xavier fans for the ride from the hotel to the Garden. We took in the sights of Boston through the windows, all of us talking at the same time the whole way there, probably because our hearts were in our throats and the only way to keep them from bursting was to keep talking.
The trip back to the hotel later that night sure was different. It was hard for me to find much heart to watch the Villanova-Duke game, through it sure was satisfying to catch it later in the hotel bar. A wonderful Boston cop straight from central casting gave several of us a police escort to the T-stop at the Garden and on the subway I had a wonderful conversation with a man who turned out to be the father of a Pitt assistant coach. He couldn’t say enough nice things about our team, and I received it all graciously, hoping it would make me feel better somehow.
Back at the hotel, the restaurant and bar began to fill up with all those Xs and all that blue by about 10:15, 10:30, long faces all around. One of those times it is good to have the family together, everybody helping everybody else make it through the night. You could see it starting to happen. I’m not sure exactly when, but sometime about 11:15, “Tough loss” and “Too bad” started to become “Great season” and “Next year.” That’s the order we’ll take them: Great season, first. Then, next year.
Great season indeed. Great program. Great coach. Great assistant coaches. Great A.D. Great staff. Great starters. Great bench. Great seniors. Great sophomores and great juniors. Great freshmen. Great schedule. Great Puerto Rico Shootout. Great school. Great year. Again. And great coverage, too. You know you are getting to the place you have been aiming to get to when A.P. runs a story that gets headlined this way in one newspaper: “Xavier is a program competitors would do well to emulate.” Or when The Sporting News runs a piece titled, “As list of BCS victims can attest, Xavier has an elite program.” Or when Sports Illustrated titles a story, “X-emplar for the Little Guys.”
Which brings us around to next year. Funny how quickly things change, isn’t it? The hard thing about watching Coach Miller leave for Arizona was how much you get to like a guy who is as great a guy as he is. But he has made a good decision for himself and, once again, so have we. I remember having Chris Mack in class back in what seems another lifetime for me and probably another lifetime for him as well. He was always sharp, on top of the material, prepared to make a contribution. And sharp, on top and prepared is exactly what he is now, and in a way that he has never been before in his life, I suspect.
And so now with this new coach and the fire burning in his belly, I know that I better go into next year as revved up as he is with plans of my own. And I have a few. Buildings going up. A new class that we are recruiting. A strategic plan in the works. You can’t work hard enough or fast enough around this place. It is not just that the world around us keeps changing. It’s that coaches keep setting the bar higher, coach after coach, bar after bar. That’s where bars are meant to be set, of course. But we all want to make sure that this place is every bit as good as our team, and that is very good indeed.
And what about that team next year? I have heard that a certain spectacularly gifted junior was in the Athletic Director’s office recently, looking focused and intense, eager to get about the business of building toward next year. And I’ve heard as well things were different at a team meeting. Often guys are tired and beat at this time of year. Not this year. This year commitments are being made. Purposes sharpened. I’m guessing there will be a lot of sweat this summer, people paying attention during drills with every fiber they have, shooting free throws and jump shots until someone finally kicks them out of the gym. Getting used to the look and feel of Coach Mack. New coach, same Xavier. Is this how a fairy tale season next year begins? Let the Xavier Nation say “Amen.”
But that’s for next year. And next year will come next year. This year, it is time to celebrate this year. And celebrate this year we should. We Are. XU.