The elusive NCAA Tournament could have saved D-I Centenary athletics

SO CLOSE: Blaine Russell (defending) was a key part of Centenary teams that came one win short of the 1989 and 1990 NCAA Tournament fields.

By ROY LANG III, Journal Sports

Tommy Vardeman spent 18 years at Centenary College. For a decade, he was an assistant basketball coach under Tommy Canterbury before getting his shot at the top gig, where he lasted eight yearsSBJ spotlight.

In the mid-1990s, Vardeman fielded a question during a speaking engagement in Shreveport.

“This lady asked, ‘I want to know how a school of 960 people is going to play Oklahoma tomorrow night and they’ve got 40,000?’” Vardeman, who fielded similar queries during his near-two-decades stint at the smallest Division I school in the nation, told The Journal.

“I said, ‘We don’t have to play all 40,000, we just have to play five at a time.’”

“The smallest D-I school” moniker was a source of pride throughout the athletic programs.

“We’d tell them when we went to recruit them: ‘You have more people in your high school than we have in our college.’ But we took that on, and we were proud of it,” Vardeman said.

When it came to resources, the deck was often stacked against Centenary, but success wasn’t scarce.

Despite often traveling by RVs, cars and vans, the Gentleman nearly earned a berth in the NCAA Basketball Tournament on multiple occasions. Back-to-back losses in the Trans America Athletic Conference Tournament championship games in 1989 and 1990 were two of the toughest blows.

The 1990 title-game loss to Arkansas-Little Rock came after the Gents (22-8) had won both regular-season games.

In the end, dwindling enrollment and a lack of money skewered one heck of a David versus Goliath story. Finally, a decade ago, Centenary athletics dropped to Division III.

As the conference tournaments wind down and a new darling will undoubtedly surface during the 2022 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, it’s a good time for a “What if?” or two.

What if the Gents could have collected a TAAC tourney title? What if the tiny program from Shreveport had unveiled itself as a Cinderella of March Madness — even just once?

“I think making it to the Big Dance would have truly changed Centenary’s fate,” former Gents great and seven-year NBA veteran Larry Robinson told The Journal. “We would have let the whole world see how competitive we were back then.”

Look no further than Florida Gulf Coast, nationally a relative unknown in Fort Myers, Florida, before a remarkable run in the 2013 NCAA tournament. The group known as “Dunk City” had Division I status for less than two years before it slayed No. 2-seed Georgetown and No. 7-seed San Diego State to become the first 15 seed in the history of the Tournament to reach the Sweet 16.

The effect — on and off the court — in southwest Florida was incredible after the school’s first Tournament appearance.

Out-of-state admission applications spiked 88 percent for 2013-14. Overall, applications jumped 29.9 percent. In less than three years following the tournament appearance, FGCU Athletics expanded its scholarships by 50 percent. A $7 million plan went into motion to improve the home of the basketball team, Alico Arena. The Eagles Club, which helps fund scholarships, recruiting and special projects, nearly tripled in the three years after “Dunk City’s” coming out party.

And Florida Gulf Coast is just one example.

Centenary’s postseason losses to rival UALR cut even deeper if you ponder what could have been.

“Getting the smallest Division I school in the country to play on national TV against one of the top teams in the country — it would make people ask about Centenary. They may know they had a good basketball program and find out they had a great math program,” said Cory Rogers, a former Centenary student and sports information director. “It was a PR dream.”

Vardeman was saddened at the fate of Centenary athletics, but has no “ill feelings” toward the school.

“Because of financial reasons it got so hard to compete, but I spent 18 years there and I had two daughters who cheered there and graduated from there. And they’re still in the area,” Vardeman said. “A tournament appearance could have changed it all. Anything can happen.

“We scrambled around. One time we arrived at the Baylor tournament and we had to use the choir bus. My friend who coached at Auburn joked, ‘Vardeman done brought the choir.’”

Rogers recalled the team driving as far as Charleston, South Carolina, to play.

The Gents were one victory shy of changing history in some years, a couple of wins in others.

“If we could have won one of those conference finals games, it would have changed the course of not only basketball, but everything for Centenary,” Rogers said.