As the flames of March Madness envelope the country, students, faculty and staff at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) are caught up in the celebration.
That's because both the men's and women's basketball teams qualified for post-season play in the NCAA Division II Tournament. The men finished the season with a 22-5 record and are seeded 7th in the 2012 East Regional Tournament.
The team is led by former NBA player and All-Star power forward Jeff Ruland, the Firebirds' third-year coach. School officials credit him for the team's dramatic turnaround. When Ruland took over in 2009, the team ended the season with a dismal 1-20 record. UDC meets No. 2 seed Stonehill this Sat., March 10 at 2:30 p.m.
"We're ecstatic," said UDC's Athletic Director Patricia Thomas. "Actually both our men and women are in the tournament. This is the first for the men since the 1980s, and the second time for the women in our history."
"Yes, it's been quite a long spell."
This is the fourth time the Firebirds have earned an NCAA Tournament bid in the history of the UDC men's basketball program. UDC Hall of Fame Coach Wil Jones guided the teams which made the previous three trips. The Firebirds won the NCAA Division II title in 1982 and were the runners-up in 1983. They returned to the NCAA Tournament in the 1986-87 season, but were eliminated with two straight losses. UDC is 9-3 all-time in NCAA Tournament play.
From the beginning of this season, the first in the East Coast Conference (ECC), Ruland said his plan was to take the team all the way.
"It's been a great run. We want to win the national championship," he said.
"Winning the whole thing is absolutely a goal," she said. "It's what we try to instill in our student-athletes. We want them to excel in the classroom and on the court and win the national championship."
"The essence of what we've done and what Coach Ruland has done was to start from scratch. You have to surround yourself with great people, get out there, believe in the university and sell that vision to students. This is because of who the coach is, and the president who did things to make it attractive."
Among the ingredients for success, Thomas said, "is to spice it up with integrity and ethics."
She said joining the East Coast Conference was huge.
"It enhances the kids' opportunities and experiences," Thomas said. "The conference is comprised of institutions that embrace the goals and ideals we try to instill. It offers an outstanding growth opportunity for us."
Ruland, 53, who during his years in the NBA was usually self-effacing, shared the praise with his staff and players.
"I coached at Iona and we went to three NCAA championships so I think I can coach at this level," he said. "We've definitely come a long way. I'm proud of the guys. For the most part, they let us coach them. We score a lot of points and have a good defensive team."
Thomas, who has been UDC's athletic director since 2008, said the success the team now enjoys is sweetened when she considers from where it has come.
"When I came here, my initial impression was 'wow!', I have a great deal of work to do. I'm not in Kansas anymore at Georgetown. President Sessoms understands the value of athletics and the concept of higher education. He's been a champion and a great supporter. Our success, frankly, is no surprise. It is part of a strategic plan to resurrect our teams. I credit Jeff with turning it around. He brought the expertise. He and his staff have done a great job recruiting and they are working really hard."
In an earlier ECC interview, Ruland recalled being up for the challenge, but got much more than he expected or bargained for.
"We literally came back from the dead," he said.
Ruland, a New York native who played for the Washington Bullets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Detroit Pistons, is savoring his first trip to the NCAA Division II Men's Basketball Tournament.
Lester Butler, Jr., the head coach of the women's team for eight years, is taking the women's team back to the tournament for the second time in his career and the third time in the program's history. The Firebirds (21-6) are returning to the tournament for the first time since 2009, and are a No. 8 seed in the 2012 East Regionals.
The women's team, 0-2 all-time in NCAA Regional tournaments, is seeking its first win in a regional tournament game in the history of the program.
Thomas is in the enviable position of rooting for both teams and she, as well as the UDC school community, anxiously awaits the outcome. In the meanwhile, she revels in the university's success.
"It's great, it really has been great. I'm just really proud of our staff and student-athletes," she said. "They have all worked very, very hard. It's a wonderful time for the students and the community."