It was February 28, 1998. I was a sophomore at Western Michigan University, driving home to my parents' house in Metro Detroit for Spring Break.
Four hours previous, Miami RedHawks head coach Charlie Coles had a heart attack on the University Arena court. There was 11:23 left in the first half when Coles went down. Doctors from the crowd came down to the court, performed CPR and stabilized Coles so he could be transported to a nearby hospital, saving his life. The decision was made to resume the game two hours later.
One hour before, the Mid-American Conference West Division Co-Champion and #2 seed Western Michigan Broncos were eliminated in the First Round of the MAC tournament, their NCAA Tournament hopes over.
On the two and a half hour drive home, I reflected on the season, proud of the team, but sad on how it had ended. Just three days ago, myself and a group of my friends traveled down to Muncie, Indiana to watch our Broncos take on Ball State. You see, that's one of the great things about the MAC: the geography of the schools is so close, road games are a simple road-trip away. That game was for the division championship and the #1 seed in the conference tournament. Unfortunately the ride home was disappointing since WMU could not defeat the Cardinals on their home floor. I certainly
did not think that I would be repeating that disappointing ride home so soon.
I thought back on other games during the season. WMU reached the finals of the Hoosier Classic before falling to IU. They defeated Derrick Dial and Earl Boykins by 20 points on another road-trip to the old Bowen Fieldhouse on Eastern Michigan's campus. That was the only loss EMU suffered at home that year.
The most important game to me that season, however, was the season-opener way back in November. That night, the Broncos defeated the University of Michigan. Thinking back now, that game forever changed the way I would follow sports. Growing up in a suburb of Detroit in the 1980s and 1990s, it was hard not to be a Michigan Wolverine fan. Throw in the Fab Five and I'm surprised anybody was a fan of any other college in the state. Rooting for Michigan is just what you did
I almost went to school at UM, because, like I said, that is just what you did. However, on a visit as a high schooler, the campus felt cold and unforgiving, while WMU's campus just seemed to "fit". I chose to go to school in Kalamazoo.
Anyway, defeating Michigan in that season-opening game proved to me that WMU was just as good as UM. After that, I couldn't figure out why anyone would want to go to a school where you had to sit in the upper deck for basketball games or be one of 106,000 people in a football stadium. At WMU, I could sit courtside for basketball games and at the 50-yard line for football games; and the quality of the athletics was the same, and even better in some cases. I would tell everyone how great it was at WMU, but Western Michigan University was mine.
In the car ride back home for Spring Break, I was disappointed in how the season ended up. I had talked up the Broncos the entire season to all my friends and now they failed to deliver.
A week went by and I recovered, the bitter taste subsiding.
Selection Sunday came around and of course I watched (this obviously was before I realized how much of a curmudgeon Billy Packer was), hoping in the back of my mind something miraculous would occur.
And in the last of the revealed brackets: "#6 Clemson will take on... Western Michigan University of the Mid-American Conference."
I could not believe it. A mild cheer sounded in the halls of my dormitory (unfortunately, WMU lives in the shadow of the Big Ten and it is difficult to even get your own students to care about your athletics). My thoughts quickly turned on how to obtain tickets, since the game was a mere three hours away in Chicago.
I was able to only score one , so I made the solo trip to Chicago to watch my
team in the NCAA Tournament. The upstart Broncos jumped out to a huge lead, then held off Clemson down the stretch; the first tournament victory for the school since the Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1976. Sitting in the WMU section, with all the other Bronco fans around me, I was busting with pride. It was truly a special moment. It was only one victory, but it felt like the national championship.
Since that season, I always looked forward to March Madness. However, the subsequent seasons all ended with disappointment, ending in the conference tournament or occasionally in the NIT.
The season even inspired Robin Hook, the radio voice of the Broncos, to pen this poem:It started at midnight, an evening of madness,
With Saddi, Aaron, Jason, and Shaun Jackson's badness.
Newcomer Isaac and a rookie named Lo,
Van Timmeren's elbows and Rashod Johnson's glow.
Blondes Jenson and Black were back from the beach.
Little did we know how far this team would reach.
They opened at Michigan with a manchild named Tractor,
But with Jackson and Toothman, he wasn't a factor.
With his crossover dribble, Jason Kimbrough did tease,
While Washington and Johnson knocked down a whole bunch of three's.
When it was over, Ann Arbor was in shock.
The Brown and Gold Broncos just cleaned the maize and blue's clock.
Then Michigan beat Duke, so what did we say?
"Hey, we're number one." If only for a day.
Using Coach D's motion offense and Aaron Toothman's picks,
On Chicago State's Cougars, they put up a hundred plus six.
The Sycamores, Milwaukee, Wright State were no match.
The Broncos had the triple threat who opponents can't catch.
Washington, Kimbrough, and Johnson on the run,
Brought joy to Western fans who said, "Wow, this is fun."
At Market Square Arena, UNC Charlotte did fall,
Bring on Luke Recker, A.J. Guyton, and The General, scowl and all.
They raced out to a lead in the Hoosier title game,
But dropped a close one that brought Saddi MVP fame.
Attack the MAC was now the coaching staff's plea.
Preseason number four, you gotta be kidding me.
Ask the Huskies, the Falcons, the Rockets, the Zips.
Good night, fourteen straight, on the CMU Chips.
At Eastern, Earl and Dial were cocky as all get out,
But inspired by bus loads of fans, it was Western in a rout.
Twisting and turning through the EMU 'D',
Super Saddi scored inside, while Rashod hit the three.
"The greatest game in school history," many would say,
And now the Broncos controlled their own destiny.
Back home on Monday night, Northern Illinois came calling,
While in Mount Pleasant, Central sent the Ball Staters home balling.
The Broncos won their game and a piece of the title.
"You must maintain focus," Coach Bob said. "That's vital."
Down to Muncie they went, a worn out bunch.
They battled their hearts out, though Coach had a hunch,
That it wasn't their night on the Cardinal's home floor,
But the season's not over, there's the MAC tourney, and more.
With a home court site for the first round of play,
The Broncos would host Charlie's RedHawks that day.
The arena was filled to watch super talents,
When Coach Coles went down hard, his life in the balance.
The doctors on hand kept Charlie alive.
Then Wally rose up and beat Western by 'bout five.
With a first round loss, Dickie V would say,
"The Broncos aren't worthy of postseason play."
But Saddi and his teammates held out hope,
The Committee would look past that loud mouth dope.
And low and behold, there it was on TV,
The Broncos were in, while Dick barked, "Can this be?"
The Committee said, "Yes, Dick. The facts are plain to see.
"Western, you're dancing. Ball State? N. I. T."
On to Chicago for a date in the dance,
Against Clemson's Tigers, whose fans shouted, "No chance!"
But little did they know how good Saddi would be,
And that Johnson would hit 32, eight times three.
When the horn went off, Bronco fans came unglued.
Western Michigan 75, Clemson 72.
Thanks seniors, you gave us a wonderful ride.
We're happy you chose to be on Western's side.
Best wishes from all of us, sitting here so.
Because of you all, it's a great day to be a Bronco.
My time at WMU shaped who I am as a person and who I am as a sports fan. I now always root for an upset, no matter what teams are playing. I rarely watch SportsCenter anymore, their stories and highlights focus too much on BCS-conference schools. I always lose my March Madness pools because I always pick the sub-Red Line teams to go one round too far.
After I graduated from Western and got a job in the real world, I chose to go to Oakland University for my Master's Degree. I am proud to say that I am now one of the lucky (or one of the cursed?) people to root for two sub-RL teams. In an interesting twist, current Oakland assistant coach Saddi Washington was the senior point guard and leader of that 1998 WMU Tournament team. Seeing him always reminds me of my time at Western. I'm thankful OU and WMU have only played each other once in the last decade, because I wouldn't know which team to root for when the two schools meet.
My experiences at both OU and WMU have been very similar. Both schools live in Big Ten Country, fighting with Michigan and Michigan State for coverage from local newspapers and television stations. Both schools have had consistent successes, avoiding the cellars of their respective leagues, but there has not been any "national" recognition. So while this essay is one from my perspective, I will always have the bond of WMU basketball with my fellow alumni, and I'm sure this story projects to fans of other mid-major schools.