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Keith Strudler: On Rooting for the Bad Guy

There was an entertaining documentary on ESPN recently about North Carolina State’s unlikely run to an NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1983 where they beat an otherwise unbeatable University of Houston team in the finals. NC State was the ultimate underdog, winning games in the final moments against much deeper competition. And particularly since their coach Jim Valvano’s passing from cancer several years ago, this Wolfpack team has been memorialized as perhaps the most cherished championship team in college basketball history.

In the final moments of the title game, there was a point where Houston looked like they might steal it. One of the former NC State players said nervously in the film, “it looked like the bad guys were actually going to win.” I took offense to that. I grew up in Houston, and as a kid I was a big fan of those bad guys. Houston was Goliath, but they were my Goliath. And when they lost, I spent the better part of a week replaying the game’s final moments over and over in my head, like it was a brand new Duran Duran album. But the ending never changed, and it hasn’t changed in the years since. And I know that because they show that same clip over and over again, and I’m maybe one of five people in American that cries tears of actual sorrow, not joy.

So now in this year’s NCAA tournament, the David of the day is Florida Gulf Coast University. The university itself has only existed for 16 years. And now, Florida Gulf Coast is in the Sweet 16 of the tourney, after upsetting Georgetown and San Diego State, two schools expected to play each other in the second round.

That puts the 15 seed Eagles, and that’s out of 16, two games away from the Final Four. No 15 seed has ever made the sweet 16, much less the Final Four. And to take that next step, the Eagles must beat no other than in state power the University of Florida Gators. This is like a local diner taking on all of Denny’s in a pancake making contest.

So on Friday night, most all of America will cheer for this small school on the beach to upend the mighty Gators. Everyone but me.

See, I spent too many years as a graduate student at the University of Florida. I own Gator hats, shirts, and my kids like singing along with the fight song. I go back to campus for football games, and I take a certain joy in watching Florida State and Tennessee lose.  And I want to see Florida Gulf Coast lose this game.

It’s not easy, or even natural to root against Cinderella. It’s like watching the Karate Kid and hoping Daniel loses.

I suppose in a world of reason and logic, I’d change my allegiances just this once. I’d view this sporting event a way to teach kids how to overcome obstacles, to make something out of nothing, to defy humble beginnings in route to greatness. For every kid born without a silver spoon and a trust fund. For what we all think America is supposed to be all about.

But if sports were logical, they’d call it math. Sports are about loyalty and devotion, not mind and reason. And I’m somewhat devoted to my own Alma matter, not the place down the beach that deserves it more.

So on Friday night, myself and a two small groups of Americans – Florida grads and compulsive gamblers – will root for the Gators to end this inconvenient Cinderella Story. We’ll cheer for the Soviet Union rolling through Budapest in the 1950’s. We’ll applaud the Death Star and celebrate Big Brother. On Friday, I’ll hope the bad guys win, even if they didn’t really do anything in particular to be bad.

Then again, neither did the University of Houston in 1983. Hopefully, it will work out better for me this time.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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