The tales from the early years of FGCU Athletics are so widely known they can almost tell themselves: swamp land clogged with thickets of invasive melaleuca trees, alligators as big as airboats, a pioneer spirit, no recruiting budget, great camaraderie, a refusal to lose…
Twenty years since the first ball was struck in an official Eagles capacity, what remains as fresh as the day they arrived is the awe at how much has been accomplished in so short a time.
“Some days you really have to sit back and say wow,” FGCU Director of Athletics Ken Kavanagh says of a program that began in 2000-01 with four sports – men’s and women’s golf and tennis – before growing to a 15-team, NCAA Division-I program widely lauded for its many on-and off-field successes. “There have been some really special people.”
In a department where praise is broadly shared and notions of character and integrity go far beyond lip service, the credit always starts in the beginning, with great vision and devotion.
It was founding university President Roy McTarnaghan’s desire for all students to accumulate service-learning hours that has long been such an important piece of FGCU Athletics’ close connection with the community, Kavanagh said.
It was second FGCU President William C. Merwin’s vision for an elite D-II program that he thought would someday grow to D-I that helped enable so rapid an ascension.
There’s eternal indebtedness to boosters past, present and future, starting with late school benefactor Ben Hill Griffin, III, who died in July at age 78. His $5 million gift turned what would have been a modest gym into the prized Alico Arena, opened in 2002.
Recent years have seen critical, seven-figure donations from multiple donors, including FGCU baseball alum and MLB star Chris Sale, to continue expanding facilities never intended to host a midsize D-I juggernaut.
But all also point back to the day-one devotion of area backers, such as the late Duane Swanson, for whom FGCU’s baseball stadium is named, and Harvey Youngquist, responsible for calling in countless favors to help turn that reptile-infested swamp into premier facilities.
“He called everybody under the sun, anybody that had a trucking business or fill (dirt),” said Stanley “Butch” Perchan, who retired in 2014 as FGCU’s long-time lead fundraising officer for athletics but who still supports that role through the FGCU Foundation.
“He told them, ‘These boys ain’t got no money. They need your help.’ It was hundreds of thousands of hours. And he put it together – saved us so much money.”
With no alumni of which to speak, FGCU then – and to some extent still today – has depended on Southwest Floridians who attended college elsewhere to adopt the Eagles as their own.
“Without this community,” Perchan said, “I don’t think we’d be anywhere near the level we’re at now.”
“I don’t know if there’s another school that’s won more conference titles in all sports than we have over the same time,” said Eagles baseball coach Dave Tollett, one of four program founding coaches still with FGCU. “We’re good in everything.”
“Without this community, I don’t think we’d be anywhere near the level we’re at now.”
‘STANLEY “ BUTCH” PERCHAN, LEAD FUNDRAISING OFFICER, RETIRED
From Year One through today, though, it’s the endless immeasurable contributions that arguably have been the strongest storyline in FGCU Athletics.
That includes FGCU founding coaches and staff sometimes working two jobs – and sleeping in their cars and showering at rest stops on recruiting trips – while funding was found.
“Carl recognized we were hungry,” FGCU founding softball coach Dave Deiros said of Carl McAloose, the school’s first full-time athletic director. “We were going to work hard and do whatever it took to grow this program.”
Working closely together from portable trailers that fed now-famed tales of intense staff competition, the founding coaches had great success selling unheralded recruits on the idea of building a program from scratch.
“We recruited the right kids,” said Tollett, using the term “hungry” as well to describe the overlooked high school gems he helped polish. “We won 35 games our first year with no scholarships. Second year we had one and we won 37.”
After immense success in five D-II seasons, including women’s basketball reaching the D-II national championship game, the Eagles never wavered after an unexpectedly early move to D-I, which required a four-year transitional period from 2007-2011.
Kavanagh, who succeeded McAloose two years into the transition, came in emphasizing what he saw as the program’s commitment to academics, community engagement and a sense of ownership and responsibility for all parties, student-athletes included.
“Ken sets a high standard,” said FGCU senior associate athletics director Kathy Peterson, who joined the athletics staff in 2003 after working in the FGCU registrar’s office before the campus was open in 1997.
A list of some banner achievements only hints at FGCU’s many great measurables:
- The famed Dunk City men’s basketball team that reached the Sweet 16 the NCAA March Madness in 2013;
- World Series champion Chris Sale and four other Eagles reaching the Major Leagues;
- FGCU alums reaching the NBA, WNBA and MLS;
- All seven of FGCU’s primary team sports notching at least one NCAA tournament win;
- Top-25 rankings at least once in seven seasons;
- Four ASUN all-sports titles and 82 regular- and postseason conference titles;
- Multiple Olympic swimmers and one in beach volleyball – Brooke (Youngquist) Sweat.
“He is a big proponent of student-athlete welfare,” said Peterson, pointing to exit interviews for departing student-athletes, the student-athlete advisory council she oversees and more.
“Ken really wants to know what we’re doing well, and what we can improve on. We want candid feedback, and we genuinely take into account what student-athletes have to say. I think the empowerment part is critical because they do have so many responsibilities.”
The Eagles take great pride in being able to win in academics, too. And they’re competitive in that area as well, naturally.
“(FGCU student-athletes) should take pride in the 22 straight semesters that we’ve had a grade point average that’s exceeded the undergraduate student body,” said Kavanagh, pointing to all 15 FGCU teams having GPAs above 3.0 in the spring of 2020.
Twenty years since they first began competing, the Eagles still are winning in a fashion that benefactors say showcases Southwest Florida in the greatest light – and returns every penny, and then some, on their investments.
“That was the promise from day one, Perchan said. Whatever we were doing, it had to benefit the five-county area (of Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry counties), and we get rave reviews from that still today.”
It’s all so lofty, stakeholders wonder how much FGCU will achieve in the next two decades.
“If you would have asked me 20 years ago to make predictions, I would have been wrong about all of them probably,” said program founding FGCU women’s basketball coach Karl Smesko, the ASUN Coach of the Year 10 times in 14 years in the league.
“I would have underestimated greatly. When I think about the next 20 years, (FGCU) is going to have even higher levels of success. I think we’re going to have multiple sports make deep runs into the NCAA tournament. Wouldn’t it be great if I was under-predicting again?”