Tiny Terriers ready for huge spotlight

Focus on hoops is novel twist at quirky campus of 1,450 students

03/14/2010 12:00 AM

03/13/2010 11:16 PM

SPARTANBURG - Things do not change much at Wofford, even with the school's first NCAA tournament berth at stake.

Well past midnight on Monday and hours after reaching the Southern Conference finals, Terriers forward Noah Dahlman urgently needed coach Mike Young's laptop to e-mail a micro-economics report. Young obliged - even though he was scrambling to break down title-game opponent Appalachian State.

"Pretty big game, right?" Young said. "But then Dahlman says, 'Coach, you've always said academics before athletics.'"

Dahlman then took care of the athletics part, lifting Wofford into the NCAAs with a 56-51 victory for the school of about 1,450 students mostly known as the summer home of the NFL's Carolina Panthers.

"This is the chance," athletics director Richard Johnson says, "to share our story."

It is a place where the school's longtime president, Joseph "Doc" Lesesne, retired in the spring of 2000, then coached the Terrier tight ends and is now the director of football operations.

"He's one of my best employees," joked Johnson, who spent 17 years as the Terriers' basketball coach before he was asked to move into administration.

Johnson still follows Lesesne's advice: "Wofford is a place where people do serious work, but don't take themselves seriously."

That, football coach Mike Ayers says, is why most who work for the Terriers never seem to leave.

"Most people think jobs are about money," said Ayers, who reached the FCS semifinals in 2003. "To us, it's a quality of life."

Johnson listened as intently as anyone in the early 1990s when Lesesne and then-athletics director Danny Morrison detailed plans to take the NAIA program into the NCAA's top division.

Young, then Johnson's assistant, thought Morrison was crazy, not imagining how the small school might elevate its facilities and profile.

"It hasn't been all peaches and balloons," he said.

Slowly, Johnson and Young brought Division I caliber players to campus. They went 8-8 in the Southern Conference in the Terriers' second season in the league in 1999.

Young had improved from 16-16 in 2008, to 16-14 last year before this season's championship.

Much of that is thanks to Dahlman, a 6-foot-6 junior Young calls a "program changer."

Dahlman, from Braham, Minn., had not heard of the school when former assistant Dustin Kearns called.

When he saw the school's aging Benjamin Johnson Arena, Dahlman was taken aback.

"What's going on with this?" he asked.

Then he experienced a picture-perfect September football weekend and picked the Terriers over Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wright State.

"I did like the challenge of being a trailblazer," said Dahlman, who has averaged 16.8 points, nearly double any of his teammates.

Entering the season, he thought the Terriers were strong enough to win the SoCon. But despite victories against SEC teams Georgia and South Carolina, Wofford dropped its first two league games.

"There were a lot of expectations," Dahlman said. "But then we got going and started stringing those wins together."

Now it is 13 and counting.

Dahlman has not calmed down from Monday's victory, which he says was as much a celebration of all Wofford sports as a singular milestone. It was hard to argue.

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson watched the final, as did Morrison, the ex-AD who is the team's president and Richardson's right-hand man.

"It was exciting to watch because you saw so many people you care for succeed after taking some pretty big risks," Morrison said.

The whole campus has joined in the celebration. Dahlman said his Latin American history professor wondered why he didn't tell TV cameras the Terriers played like "Aztec, Mayan warriors."

And that econ report he sent in?

"I got a 98," Dahlman said.

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