Driving Eastward on interstate 255 from St. Louis there's large billboard with the simple phrase "Cougars rising," and each time I see it I inevitably crack a smile, because the Cougars are my work, education and my life. I'm rising too.
A short 20 minute drive from that billboard lies our den; a quaint 3,000 seat venue as freshly remodeled as it is fresh to the mid-majority. Here at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the Vadalabene Center, the rising is happening before our eyes. This is the St. Louis area's newest Division I program.
Before every game, I take a seat along the empty row of media along the baseline about an hour before tip off and set up a live game blog which will inevitably go unread. I gather notes and a bottled water from a kinesiology classroom on the far end of the gym, a room set up as a pseudo media room. It even has a skeleton model hiding behind the black and red backdrop that's set up for post-game interviews.
I grew up with this basketball program living in Edwardsville for 21 years. As a young kid, I'd spend Saturday afternoons shooting hoops in my driveway, eagerly awaiting my grandparents to pick me up and take me to a special land of hoops. At an early age I learned the ropes of this D-II sub-mid-majority, and followed SIUE basketball as if it was a D-I program... not knowing what the future would hold.
I vividly remember a few things from this era. I remember the blue reserved seats beneath a cast of puke brown bleachers. And I was that kid, the overly enthusiastic ADD one who knew every player on the team and their tendencies. I knew the records of every team in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. Yeah, that
kid. I knew just as much, if not more, about SIUE hoops than the loyal grey haired folks who come to the Vadalabene Center for every game, no matter what the record is, no matter who shows up to provide competition. Back then, I gave players from the likes of (then D-II) IPFW hell. I even provided play-by-play from the stands, practicing for a long and illustrious career in the broadcast booth. Move over, Billy Packer!
The game-night experience was not over until well after leaving. I would always have my grandparents tune into the post-game show on the local radio broadcast. I wanted to hear what then-head coach Jack Margenthaler had to say. That was usually followed by ice cream, which I'd eat while my grandparents and I shared thoughts on the game.
Margenthaler retired from SIUE in 2002 after posting a 112-150 record. Before his days in Edwardsville, he had a winning record with Western Illinois University, where he coached the Leathernecks to two D-II NCAA Tournaments.
The women's basketball team was much more successful during this period, going to the NCAA tournament in 1998, 1999 and 2001. More often than not, a day at the Vadalabene Center meant a double-header, giving me a second team to cheer for.
After Margenthaler's retirement, I was 13. The Cougars started improving as SIUE entered the Marty Simmons era. And my grandparents still had plenty of free season tickets, which were given to them by the local car dealership that my grandfather works for. Coach Simmons would eventually go back to his alma mater, Evansville, but Simmons and his signature sweater vest became the turning point for SIUE basketball.
By the time I was almost ready for college, SIUE finally broke through. After one bad year and a second mediocre one, the Cougars finally earned a trip to the NCAA tournament. I was not nearly as excited as I had been about the team, because I did not anticipate it truly becoming "my own" two short years later. I was a young man sick of his surroundings by then. The pink houses, the countless fast-food jobs I worked had caught up with me, and I felt I needed a new challenge. SIUE's postseason run, eventually culminating with a disappointing 60-58 loss to Virginia Union, was something I was following with great interest, but that year I took more of a "hometown-appreciation" approach to rooting them on. I didn't have that childhood connection anymore.
I wanted to go to college somewhere else in the mid-majority. I knew I could never get into a place like the University of Illinois or the University of Missouri; I had an utter disdain for their athletic programs. Southern Illinois Carbondale was busy wrecking the Big Dance across the state, and I wanted to go there, or somewhere like that.
Simmons went away to clear the path for former Bradley assistant Lennox Forrester, but the only college I ended up applying to was the local one with the Cougar mascot. While I was researching schools I would never go to -- like SIUE's sister school Southern Illinois Carbondale, which is highly despised in this corner of the state -- SIUE was exploring the possibility of reclassifying it's athletic programs to D-I. In March of 2007, the school formally announced it would do so.
In June of 2008, the Cougars joined the Ohio Valley Conference as the only non-American-Style Football school among its ranks, replacing Samford after their departure for the Southern Conference. This made me feel a little better about a future at SIUE. The value of my future diploma went up as high as LeShaun Murphy on a dunk!
My freshman year in college marked our last year in D-II obscurity. In 2008-2009, the Cougars officially took off. They're still rising, attempting the transitional NCAA hurdles, hoping against hope to have the necessary pieces in place by 2012-2013, when the hallowed land of March Madness will finally be within reach.
Over this past summer, I was promoted to sports editor at SIUE's student newspaper, the Alestle, where I have worked since my first day of college. I made an executive decision to place extra emphasis on basketball (as opposed to some of our other collegiate sports) because this is Our
Game. I make sure that I'm accompanied by a reporter and a photographer at each home game. I occasionally travel when economically possible, just to make sure I'm there for every step of this great basketball journey.
The majority of our student body remains apathetic when it comes to SIUE basketball. But the student section is emerging, the orange-clad Red Line supporters on campus are dwindling, and Cougar red is making its way out onto the quad and into the limelight. So I feel an editorial responsibility to help make and keep Cougar basketball relevant.
I love walking out onto the Vadalabene Center floor before a game now. I'm able to talk basketball with our sports information staff, our radio personalities and everyone involved in Cougar basketball. I can look up at those 10 banners acknowledging the teams in the Ohio Valley Conference -- as well as its torch logo on the court -- and the pride really hits me. To know first hand where SIUE has come from, its 14-year climb, makes every aspect of this transition more rewarding.
The Cougars are 3-21 on the season, and have been pushed around a lot while trying to manage this independent, pre-OVC schedule. There are lots of 25 percent shooting nights, days when we're doubled up on the boards, and Osiris Eldrige or Kenneth Farried have done plenty of standing in our way. It's been frustrating, but the guarantee game money has been pouring in -- supplemented by a cameo or two on ESPNU. We are not there yet, but the foundation is in place at SIUE. We want to become a special place in the mid-majority.
When SIUE wraps up this season Feb. 25 against Hannibal LaGrange, an NAIA school, SIU Edwardsville will be halfway there. Two of the school's four transitional years will have been completed. Though the D-I hardwood has been unforgiving at times, the Cougars continue living on that prayer, and we'll continue rising for two more seasons.