Blue Hose trio playing for bigger ideas
They came to college on a promise, a pinky swear vow that their leap of faith would be rewarded. They would have to sacrifice. They knew that. They'd have to sit on the bench for a year, unable to play while their team struggled without them.
But in the end it would be worth it. Before Al'Lonzo Coleman, Pierre Miller and Josh Johnson left Presbyterian College, they'd have a chance -- not a guarantee, but a chance -- to play in the NCAA tournament.
And so when it all came crumbling down, when the promise proved as thin as the stack of papers submitted to the NCAA; when that stack of papers, which were supposed to carry the path to their dream realized instead turned into a bureaucratic roadblock to their dream deferred, Coleman, Miller and Johnson got in a room together.
And that's when something extraordinary happened.
After they learned that the NCAA Committee on Athletic Certification denied Presbyterian's application to become a full-fledged Division I member in 2012, Coleman, Miller and Johnson decided to stay.
Their redshirt season already burnt at their coach's advice, they will be out of time when and if the little school from Clinton, S.C., becomes eligible for the postseason.
This year and the next, they will have nothing to play for -- no chance at winning a Big South tournament title, no hopes of hearing their school's name called on Selection Sunday, no shot at seeing their faces played to the strains of One Shining Moment.
Except they don't see it that way, not at all.
"We decided there had to be a purpose for what happened to us and that's what propelled us, what convinced us to stay," Miller said. "I can't tell the future. I don't know what that purpose is yet, but I know it's there. I know we're working toward something, maybe not for us, but for the people who come after us. We're pushing for something. That's why we're here. It's bigger than us."
Gregg Nibert had a plan -- an unorthodox plan, but a plan all the same.
The head coach at Presbyterian since 1989, he had successfully guided the Blue Hose from their transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II.
But he knew that the last jump, to Division I, would be the trickiest.
He'd have to recruit players who wouldn't be eligible for the postseason, but would be subjected to the wrong side of a host of guaranteed games -- the Washington Generals to a bevy of BCS teams filling the role as the Harlem Globetrotters.
So when he sat down to recruit what would be his Class of 2011 he gave players an unusual pitch: Presbyterian would be postseason eligible in 2012, pending NCAA approval on the school's self-study certification.
But that process, Nibert assured them as his bosses had assured him, typically receives an easy stamp of approval.
How about if they agree to a five-year plan and redshirt at some point? They'd have to sit it out for a year but before they left, they could compete in the Big South tournament and have a fair shake at the NCAA tournament.
"I looked at it as a chance to continue to work on my game," Coleman said. "To me it wasn't losing a year. It was using a year to get better."
And so he and his classmates signed on. They didn't want to sit out immediately and didn't want to miss Presbyterian's first run through the Big South, so they chose their junior year -- last year -- to sit out.
As sophomores the trio proved to the Blue Hose's best players -- Coleman, the leading scorer and rebounder; Miller, the top assist man and 3-point shooter; Johnson, the third-leading scorer.
Without them and with a roster of six freshmen and no juniors or seniors, the Blue Hose got hosed, losing by 30 or more points six times.
But the reward was close. In late April 2010, not long after Duke was crowned national champion, Presbyterian submitted its self-study to the NCAA.
By summer's end, the school would be approved and by 2012, with a veteran team and a schedule intentionally designed by Nibert to include 16 home games, the Blue Hose would be positioned for a run through the Big South tournament and into the NCAA tournament.
"My athletic director called me and said we were denied," Nibert said. "I was devastated. There was no way this could happen, as far as I was concerned. I didn't even think being denied was a possibility. It's not like this was a little six-month project. This was a five-year plan."
Presbyterian's 2009-10 Division I Athletics Certification Self-Study Instrument is 125 pages long. It is a detailed look at both the college as a whole as well as where and how athletics fit into the mix, spanning the hot button issues from compliance to gender equity to academics.
It wasn't, as Nibert said, put together on a whim. Presbyterian first declared its intention to become a Division I member in 2006, when it joined the Big South Conference.
In between, the school put together a board of trustees subcommittee, hired an assistant director of compliance, renovated its baseball and softball facilities and the year before, added three sports to get to the 16 mandated for Division I membership.
But in November 2009, Bee Carlton, the athletic director hired to shepherd Presbyterian through the process, resigned to take a new position at the College of Coastal Georgia.
During the critical final months of the self-study, Presbyterian was left without an athletic director.
"We had an interim athletic director who was trying to lead this but you're essentially a man down in the process, and he's trying to do his own job and run the department," said Brian Reese, hired as athletic director in July. "It was also a budget year, so it was a perfect storm for things to just slip through and not get done."
Reese, who came to Presbyterian from Vanderbilt, was on the job only a handful of weeks when he got the no-go from the NCAA.
He said the problem wasn't that Presbyterian is ill-equipped to be a Division I school; it just didn't adequately explain how its department worked.
For example, Presbyterian doesn't have academic counselors for its athletes, an intentional choice for a school of 1,200 that insists its athletes are treated like the rest of the student body.
To the NCAA, that's a red flag.
Another trouble area, Reese explained, is with the school's gender equity. Presbyterian offers eight sports for women and eight for men but of those 16 sports, only one is coached by a woman. In the future the school needs to do a better job.
"What we failed to do was really describe and give the information about how unique we are," Reese said. "Being small, we need to explain better how our board of trustees and our president is actively involved in the supervision of athletics. We need to better explain our gender equity issues. It's a bunch of stuff we have to get our arms around better. We can definitely transition to Division I, but we have to do a better job of explaining who we are."
The NCAA said it is not uncommon for a school to be asked to respond to numerous questions as part of the self-study process.
Reese has turned his multi-dimensional job into one simple focus: getting the self-study done correctly this time. Presbyterian will resubmit its findings April 29, with another late-summer ruling expected to come. He said he feels good about the process, that he's received better direction from the NCAA and has a fresh set of eyes looking at the information.
"I was the one who had to stand up in front of all of our coaches and student-athletes and explain what happened," Reese said. "I promised them it won't happen again."
The news hit all of the athletes at Presbyterian hard but none harder than Coleman, Miller and Johnson.
When Nibert called them to his home for a meeting, they went, thinking nothing of it.
Until they saw his face.
The emotional coach was visibly upset and when he started to speak, he broke down.
"I think I just went numb," Miller said. "I didn't know what to think or feel and I remember looking over at Josh and Zo. Their faces were like, I don't know. I just never saw anyone look like that. We were really distraught and we didn't know what to do. That was our dream and it was just taken from us."
Nibert explained their options. Academically, they were already seniors. They could play this season, graduate and move on or, because of the unique situation, they could apply for a hardship waiver from the NCAA and transfer. Nibert promised to back them if they did.
The trio -- Johnson injured his knee and had surgery last week, so was not available for an interview -- left Nibert's house and held their own private meeting.
It was raw and painful, but quick. Nibert left his house to gather the rest of the team and tell them the news. Before he started that meeting, Coleman, Miller and Johnson arrived and told the coach their decision -- they were staying.
"The reason I came to school here was because I thought it was the right place for me to grow," Coleman said. "I have grown. That's the purpose of living and that's bigger than playing in any NCAA tournament."
The Blue Hose's only postseason hopes for the next two years rest in the CBI. Since the NCAA took over stewardship of the NIT, that's out as well as the Big South and Big Dance.
They will aim for the CBI but along the way, shoot for something more. They want to be known for their asterisk, as a team good enough to make the postseason but held out of competition.
"If we can get people to say, 'We're glad they're not here,' then that will be a successful season," Nibert said.
If their start is any indication, the Blue Hose could indeed be a conference contender. The same team that was walloped last season lost by a respectable nine to Kansas State and by 15 to Missouri.
With one nonleague game left (against Old Dominion), Presbyterian is 6-6, with wins over Ivy League favorite Princeton, Auburn, which was its first victory against a BCS-conference member in 23 tries, and Wake Forest on Tuesday for back-to-back BCS-conference wins.
"These next two years we're here, we're going to prepare the young guys and remind them to never ever take this for granted," said Miller, who had 10 against the Tigers. "We want people to understand what it really means to have a passion for basketball. We're playing because we love this game. That's it but that's enough."
Sure, Al'Lonzo Coleman, Pierre Miller and Josh Johnson may not be playing for a championship.
They don't need to.
They've already won.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.