College Hoops

Almost famous – 27 years ago, Phil Hopkins, coach of Western Carolina, fell short against a No. 1 Purdue

Almost famous - 27 years ago, Phil Hopkins, coach of Western Carolina, fell short against a No. 1 Purdue

Fairleigh Dickinson will live now in NCAA tournament perpetuity, intertwined in highlight reels and slow-motion montages that provide eternal March backdrops.

The Knights harassed and hounded No. 1 Purdue to become just the second men’s No. 16 seed since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to pull off a first-round upset. No. 16 seeds are now 2-150 vs. No. 1 seeds after the 63-58 win.

As history unfolded Friday night for Tobin Anderson’s team, I couldn’t help thinking of the coach of one of those forgotten 150. His funeral is Saturday morning.

I wished I could have texted former Western Carolina coach Phil Hopkins on Friday night, a coach who will be remembered for being almost famous. After nearly pulling off one of the great upsets in NCAA tournament history as a No. 16 seed back in 1996 against No. 1 Purdue, Hopkins’ story reminds us that history doesn’t remember the near upset.

Phil Hopkins died on March 2 at age 73, and his services are on Saturday morning in his hometown Pelzer S.C. Having gotten to know Hopkins in the years after his Western Carolina tenure ended up as the archetype for March heartbreak, it’s safe to say his affinity for rooting for the underdog would stay strong in the afterlife.

With Purdue again on the cusp of infamy on Friday night, it was hard not to think about Hopkins. It was Gene Keady’s team back in 1996 that got scared to the brink, as Western Carolina’s upset bid rocked the The Pit in Albuquerque to unmatched decibels. Hopkins’ plucky Western Carolina of the Southern Conference had two shots in the air in the final seconds — one to win and one to tie — that rimmed out. Purdue survived and advanced, 73-71.

Butler coach Thad Matta, who was Hopkins’ top assistant on that 1996 Western Carolina team, once told me: “I don’t know a day goes by where I don’t think about missing those two shots at the end.”

The homespun Hopkins and the Catamounts of Cullowhee, N.C., were relegated with those final caroms from tournament icons to footnotes. Instead of being the standard bearer for NCAA upsets, Hopkins and his crew were instead forever tied to what could have been. “We deserved to win,” Hopkins said in the press conference that night back in 1996.

Hopkins seized the NCAA tournament moment. After upsetting Davidson in the Southern Conference title game, he proposed to his then-girlfriend on the…

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