The last time I saw Chicago State at the Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament at Orleans Arena, the Cougars were 4-28 and facing bankruptcy.
All 900 employees of the school had received layoff notices. The Illinois legislature was threatening to pull funding. Without the state stipend, the little school tucked into a wooded area between two expressways on Chicago’s gritty South Side would cease to exist.
That was in 2016. That was the year the Cubs won the World Series. So miracles do happen in Chicago sports.
There would be no miracle in the first of four WAC quarterfinals Thursday. Chicago State, seeded eighth, was bludgeoned 86-49 by New Mexico State, seeded first.
The defeat ended a 3-29 s season, unless the College Insiders.com tournament committee is really desperate for teams.
Since the last time I saw Chicago State, the politicians in Springfield wrote the check to keep campus doors open. But the school remains in debt to the tune of $356.5 million. Which is a tune that would make a Hank Williams song seem downright mirthful.
Thomas J. Calhoun, the new university president, promised to stabilize finances and improve enrollment and graduation rates. He did neither. The school’s graduation rate has dipped to 11 percent, enrollment to 3,101 — roughly the same size as the student body at Las Vegas High.
Thomas Calhoun resigned after nine months.
Bad to worse
It couldn’t get any worse for Chicago State, unless it developed some academic muscle and fielded a rowing team that appealed to benefactors with underachieving offspring.
The natural inclination when it comes to teams such as this — Chicago State was ranked 349th among 353 Division I basketball schools by Sports Illustrated before the season started — is to dust off the Washington Generals jokes and ask why bother?
But with his team trailing by 36 points with four minutes to play, coach Lance Irvin still was engaged, still jumping up and down, still extolling his players to go, fight, win — er, continue playing as if the score were a lot closer.
“Sometimes it’s not about basketball, it’s about life,” said the Chicago native who served apprenticeships at Missouri, Texas A&M and Iowa State. “When you have adversity, you have to be able to step up each and every day. I owe it to them. I don’t want them ever walking away saying ‘Coach didn’t give it 100 percent.’ ”
Irvin doesn’t have a recruiting budget, so he is forced to get most of his players from in the city after the Power Five conferences are done blowing through the Chicago cupboard. Or from Subway sandwich shops. Cougars’ point guard Rob Shaw was working the late shift at Subway when Irvin called and asked he if would like to play college basketball as a walk-on.
“I’d still be working at Walmart or Subway,” Shaw said about where he would be today were it not for Chicago State. “Even as a walk-on, working the night shift from 10 to 6 a.m., hit the weight room at 6:30, no sleep.”
Fellow senior Anthony Harris, from hardscrabble Gary, Indiana, said to Google his hometown if you wanted to know where he would be.
“Coming from Gary, it’s tough. There’s really nothing there,” said Harris, who scored 10 points in his last college game.
“We get the (players) nobody else wanted,” former coach Tracy Dildy said after the Cougars ended a 40-game losing streak against Division I opponents by beating Missouri-Kansas City last season. “We’re like Last Chance University.”
Dildy’s one shining moment occurred in 2013 when Chicago State ran a short table (two wins) to cut down the nets at the Great West Conference tournament. The Cougars earned a bid to the aforementioned CIT, where it lost to city rival Illinois-Chicago 80-69 in the first round.
The Great West Conference no longer exists. It disbanded four months after Chicago State won the tournament championship.
As for Thursday’s game, the Cougars kept it reasonable for a half. But their only lead was 2-0 after Shaw made a layup.
I’m not sure if he’ll tell his kids about that basket some day, but I bet his former co-workers at Subway got a big kick out of it.
Best of the worst
Teams with the worst records that have qualified for the NCAA Tournament:
1995: Florida International, 11-18
1996: Central Florida, 11-18
1997: Fairfield, 11-18
1985: Lehigh, 12-18
1999: Florida A&M, 12-18
The worst record to ever win an NCAA Tournament game belongs to 1991 Villanova. The Wildcats entered the tournament at 16-14 and defeated Princeton 50-48 as a No. 9 seed before losing to 1-seed UNC 84-69 in the second round.
— Source: NCAA