As the NCAA men’s basketball tournament gets underway, Julianne Couch looks back at the University of Northern Iowa’s upset victory over Kansas in 2010. The game's cosmic proportions have a hard time fitting back into day-to-day living in Bellevue, Iowa, which is home to both the author and star center Jordan Eglseder.
This is one of those “I’ll-never-forget-where-I-was” sports stories.
It all began in March 2010. Actually, it began before that, when my husband and I decided to move from Laramie, Wyoming, to Bellevue, Iowa. Although we found our home in 2009, we did not move to Bellevue until 2011. In between, I tried to learn about my new home state by following a few sports teams. I paid nominal attention to the Big Ten’s University of Iowa Hawkeyes, the Big Twelve’s Iowa State Cyclones, and the smallest public university, the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) Panthers, of the Missouri Valley Conference.
Somewhere along their 30-4 season, I noticed UNI had a 280-pound, 7-footer who hailed from Bellevue, my new home to be. He’d gone to high school at Marquette, the tiny K-12 Catholic school in a town that also has a larger public school. I can imagine a young Jordan Eglseder, as a perhaps 6’10” sophomore, stationed under the basket, barely needing to raise his arms to score in the post, and on the defensive end, serving as the corn stalk in the zucchini patch of other players, pulling down rebounds and lobbing the ball down court.
Upon graduation, off to UNI went Eglseder, a formidable center averaging 12 points and seven rebounds a game by his senior season in 2009-2010. I felt pride in his accomplishments, taking ownership of this kid from my future hometown as though I had something to do with him. I also gave him a nickname, the Beast of Bellevue, because of his size and on-court presence, and because I like alliteration.
The Panthers had a great season, even though our young hero ran into a bit of a hurdle when he was arrested for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, in the wee hours after a home game. Suspended for three games, he came back to controversy, some wondering if the punishment was a bit light due to the looming conference tournament, but others finding it appropriate. Regardless, he returned to the court after the suspension and helped his team beat Wichita State by 15 points for the title. That earned the Panthers an automatic bid and number nine seed in the NCAA tournament known as March Madness.
A bit of a digression: I come from a family that supports its local school, the University of Kansas. I have a repressed hatred for the Jayhawks for reasons only psychoanalysis could uncover, but suffice it to say I did not attend college there, choosing instead a third-tier state university in Kansas where I went to zero athletic events during my undergrad and grad school years. I didn’t start to enjoy spectator sports until I moved to Laramie and starting following my favorite under-doggies, the University of Wyoming Cowboys. Even though the UW basketball team rarely makes the NIT, let alone the NCAA tournament, over the years I grudgingly admitted that March Madness was pretty fun to watch.
Back to the present, or at least the more recent past. In that first round of 2010 March Madness, overall number one seed Kansas beat their opponent Lehigh by 16, and UNI beat the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, by three. As a result, Kansas and UNI would meet in the next round, and I thought it would be fun to watch, in a wistful sort of way. But I had concert tickets to see Ray Davies at the Paramount Theatre in Denver, and nothing would stand in the way of a concert by my favorite singer/songwriter/rockstar.
So my husband and I, along with a friend, went to Denver, arriving early enough for dinner at Marlowe’s. This is an upscale but comfortable place in Denver’s bar and restaurant district. In the restaurant section, a man was giving a formal talk about various types of scotch. People were attentive and quiet, taking in the distinction between peat and bog, or some such. I couldn’t really hear because we’d taken a seat in the bar, where we ordered a meal and idly watched basketball on TV.
As my eyes slowly focused on the screen, I realized I was seeing UNI and Kansas. And that Kansas was not winning. In fact, they were down by 12. UNI was pumping out the points and even better, defending. My man Jordan Eglseder was rebounding. Point guard Ali Farokhmanesh was scoring. When he hit an ice-veined three-pointer to seal the win, I lost my mind. I forgot that I wasn’t in a basketball arena, where I could scream as loud as I wanted. I screamed, then yelled, then pounded on the bar. The scotch drinkers in the next room must have thought a bag pipe had been made flesh and was coming through the wall.
No one was more surprised than I at my reaction in that moment. I didn’t think I really hated Kansas that much. I didn’t think I loved UNI that much. Yes, it was a huge upset for a team from an underdog conference, and yes, I admit a perverse satisfaction seeing the big ones fall. But after some reflection, I started to see I took UNI’s win personally. It didn’t matter they would lose by seven in the next round of the tournament. That startling and almost inexplicable win over Kansas was validation that ridiculous and unexpected choices are in harmony with the universe. That I, in concert with my husband, had chosen to move to Iowa for no logical reason: not for job, or family, or as a way to get away from something. We’d just picked it, and I was waiting for a sign to show me why. This was it. Yes.
Now I have this woo-woo mystical understanding of a life-altering choice and the explanation for why my spirit moved me when the rightness of that choice was revealed via basketball. So who do I encounter in my new town? Who bartends at the local golf course on occasion? Whose very tall dad works at my grocery store? Jordan Freakin’ Eglseder. That’s who.
You’d think that would make me happy. That I’d go out my way to approach him, to stick out my baseball-sized hand and offer to shake his basketball sized one, to stand on my tip-toes and say, Wow, Jordan, that was some show back in 2010. I suspect if I said those words, I’d blush and stammer like a 10-year old asking for an autograph. I suspect he’d be very nice about it. He was raised in Bellevue, Iowa, after all. I imagine he’d say thanks, ma’am.
I’ve decided my discomfort has to do with the scope and scale of hero-worship folks like me can feel for a sports figure. In a world the size of television, no reaction or feeling of attachment is too big. But in a town of 2,100, you can’t walk around feeling an out-of-proportion admiration for a normal local guy. Or if you do, you risk being perceived as a creep or a stalker or a creepy stalker. Other people in town know who he is, what his team did in 2010, and manage to keep it together. They know he went on to play a few seasons in the NBA Development League and even signed with a professional team in Poland for a season. People note this news with a “yeah, that’s kind of cool” attitude that covers any local kid’s achievements, from cosmetology school graduation to winning an archery competition to bagging a really big deer. In a small town, individual achievements are flattened, not exaggerated. That isn’t because individuals aren’t appreciated, but because in so many ways they are the product of everyone’s efforts.
Jordan, if you are reading this, please don’t get creeped out. After all, we’ve been friends on Facebook for a few years. Say, I wonder if you are on Twitter…
The Panthers and Cowboys didn’t make the NCAA tournament this year, but Julianne Couch will be cheering on her Hawkeyes, Cyclones and yes, even Jayhawks in this year’s March Madness. If anyone wants to follow her on Twitter, she is @wyojay.