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FGCU has big fan at WNMU

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Western New Mexico president helped Fla. school get off ground

Regarding the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s basketball team, the observation has been made that the players are older than the school is.

Likewise, Joe Shepard first set foot on the FGCU campus before there was a campus.

“It was five feet of swamp water,” says Shepard, now the president at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, of his former employer’s beginnings in Fort Myers, Fla. “There were no roads, there was no electricity, there was nothing.”

That was in 1995, when Shepard was hired as chief of student affairs at Florida Gulf Coast. Ground would not be broken on university buildings until the following year, and doors would not open to students until 1997.

The school would not have an athletics program until 2001.

So, how do you like the Eagles now?

After a stunning victory over second-seeded Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament South Region, 15th-seed FGCU then ousted San Diego State.

Tonight, college basketball’s latest Cinderella faces in-state rival Florida in the Sweet 16.

Within Shepard’s family, there is at least potential discord.

“My son is graduating from Florida Gulf Coast University,” he said Thursday in a phone interview, “and my daughter is a sophomore at the University of Florida.”

For Shepard himself, there’s no such conflict. He worked at FGCU for 16 years, seeing it grow from swampland to a state-of-the-art campus serving some 13,000 students, before leaving for Silver City.

The Eagles may have shocked the college basketball world (and ruined many a bracket along the way), but Shepard said he’s not surprised by their run in the tournament.

While there’s some good fortune involved, he said, FGCU’s success in athletics is mostly a product of forward thinking.

William Merwin, the school’s second president, took office in 1999. He built FGCU from a sleepy commuter school into a progressive, four-year university.

A major part of Merwin’s vision, Shepard said, was an athletic program.

“We built an arena, about a 4,500-seat arena, that we got through a mix of state money and donations,” Shepard said. “That launched the program, and we started to recruit.”

Merwin intended Florida Gulf Coast to become a national power in NCAA Division II competition. But, unexpectedly, in 2007, the chance to become a Division I program presented itself with an invitation to join the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Men’s basketball coach Dave Balza had done well at the Division II level, but the program struggled to make the transition to DI. Balza, who now is being credited for laying a solid foundation, was fired after the 2010-11 season.

In came Andy Enfield, a Florida State assistant.

“He’s an excellent guy in terms of his recruiting abilities,” Shepard said. “We went out and recruited some great, great talent.”

It has been reported that Enfield — who is independently wealthy — is making some $157,000 a year at FGCU. Shepard believes the correct figure is closer to $180,000, but said he’s a bargain at any price.

“You get the right person with the right energy, you can go far, and I think FGCU’s an example of that,” Shepard said.

Florida, the South Region’s No. 3 seed, is a double-digit favorite to end FGCU’s run tonight in Dallas.

Shepard isn’t so sure. The Eagles, he said, are playing “old-school basketball, just going out and saying ‘we’re gonna have fun and we’re gonna play the game to win, not to manage the clock.’”

He notes that, after playing Georgetown and San Diego State essentially even in the first half, FGCU ran away from their high-seeded opponents in the second.

“I predict that if the University of Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University are close at halftime, all bets are off for the second half and FGCU wins.

“They just have the legs to do it.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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