NEW YORK — The scenes across the floor of Madison Square Garden are exuberant, scattered, surreal and, for this Florida Atlantic University men's basketball program, yes, everyone's free to admit this is a damn stunner.
Though they claimed to believe this moment would come, its arrival has many in FAU colors staggering about in disbelief. Wardrobe changes seem to stoke the shock as reality sets in. Now they're wearing their Final Four hats and shirts, blending into a euphoric tableau.
Two FAU players, Johnell Davis and Mike Forrest, find themselves stumbling for explanations halfway through interviews. Twenty feet off, 7-foot-1 center of attention Vlad Goldin is crying at one corner of the court. Friends and family have made their way onto the hardwood. The hugs are huge, the smiles even bigger, their eyes as wide as this night will be long for these impossible Owls who've done the borderline-unthinkable.
An East Region that boasted top-seeded Purdue, No. 2 Marquette, No. 3 Kansas State and fourth-seeded Tennessee, in addition to three powerhouse programs (Duke, a 5; Kentucky, a 6; Michigan State, a 7), will not be represented at the Final Four by any of those big names, most of which carry national-championship pedigrees and all hail from power conferences.
It's FAU. Only the third No. 9 seed to ever pull off the feat, clinching it with a 79-76 regional final win over K-State.
The man responsible for this is easily lost among the throng. FAU coach Dusty May stands 5-foot-10 (in shoes) and gets hidden behind the ever-moving bodies as dozens of interconnected bursts of celebration play out over the better part of 30 minutes following the landmark victory. There's May on the dais with his team, hat cocked crooked, being interviewed by Allie LaForce; there he goes to hug his wife, Anna, and their three children; he's soon climbing up the ladder to snip the net; next, he's giving an elongated interview to Ken LaVicka, FAU's one-man radio broadcast team, who has called Owls games solo for 17 years.
Vintage March moments.
"Very, very emotional," Anna May told CBS Sports as the celebration played out around her. "I'm just so happy for the guys. I mean, we love them. My husband loves them like his own. And they've worked so hard for this. And I think that's what's been so amazing about this group is that they're all about each other. Just how hard they've worked and what they've put into it. It's unbelievable."
All this, almost five years to the day after her husband thought he'd made the biggest mistake of his life.
Dusty May opened the door, looked at Anna and broke down into tears.
It's March 2018. May had signed FAU's contract that made him a first-time head coach just a few hours earlier.
And here he was, bawling in a hotel room, trying to figure out a way to back out of the deal.
"I walk in the room and I started crying and said, 'I just committed career suicide. I'm not good enough. I can't do this,'" May told CBS Sports.
May admits to having an impulsive personality. He wanted the job, then he didn't want the job. He signed the contract before ever seeing FAU's basketball facilities. Once he did, panic set in.
The meeting with athletic director Brian White, who at that point wasn't even a week into his new job at FAU, was so good that May agreed to be the Owls' coach just hours after arriving in Boca Raton, Florida.
"When I feel something in my stomach I go with it," May said.
May had no agent, so almost purely on vibes and the temperature in the air, he put pen to paper.
"At that point, I still haven't been to our gym, our weight room, our locker room," May said.
When he saw the gym, the weight room, the locker room, May was cloaked in remorse. He tried not to show it on his face.
"We didn't trick him or anything. I mean, I'd be lying if I told you that we showed him the arena before he signed his contract," White told CBS Sports. "That came after."
Brian White comes from a major college sports family (his father, Kevin, a former AD, was a high-profile figure for decades), and his connection to May was the catalyst for both May being his top target and for May even taking the interview in the first place. Brian's brother, Mike, was May's boss when they coached together at Louisiana Tech and Florida. Brian, Mike and Dusty all worked together at Louisiana Tech which, for Brian, made May the practical pick as soon as he became FAU's AD.
"When I get to the gym, there's a pickup game going on," May said. "The facilities weren't up to par. And I had already accepted the job."
The locker room had these old, ugly wooden lockers. It was exceptionally tiny. There was more square footage for the six showers than the actual space for people in the locker room. The arena sat 2,500, had an outdated scoreboard and looked superannuated. High school teams in the area were playing in better facilities.
May was freaking out internally. He wanted to go back to Florida and stay on as Mike White's top assistant.
"I knew we just had a lot of work even to fill a competitive roster," May said. "I would've left and went back to Gainesville after signing the contract if it wasn't for my relationship with Mike and his family."
"I would say Dusty experienced buyer's remorse, as probably a lot of first-time head coaches do," Mike White told CBS Sports.
So, Brian White dropped May off at his hotel. He wasn't back in the room but a minute before the weight of the decision broke him down.
"I'm not a big cryer," May said. "But I burst into tears like a baby."
"I think a lot of it was just fatigue and being completely overwhelmed," Anna said. "We weren't looking to make a move. The job kind of fell in his lap."
Truth is, Brian was so close with Dusty, he would've almost certainly let him out of the contract if push came to shove. But it didn't get to that point because of two people: his wife and Mike White.
May had been through this before — on the opposite end. He'd been the counselor, the one who helped Mike White through the same thing when White got the Florida job. His guts were turning then. The self-doubt was crippling.
"Wrenching physical sickness," Mike White said. "That's the real part of it. "Him and I in the foxhole together. Uncertain days. Wishing we were sitting back in Ruston together."
Ruston, Louisiana, where the two of them built a sturdy Louisiana Tech program.
It took multiple calls between Dusty and Mike, his best friend in the business, in order to convince him to stay on at FAU. But beyond that, Anna kept him accountable.
"He accepted it after speaking to our boys," she said. "That was a big deal. Our boys were in high school. We made sure that they were on board before he accepted it."
Anna and Dusty have known each other since the first grade. They grew up together in Indiana's Eastern Greene County, home to a single flashing light. The town is so small it doesn't even have a name. They were high school sweethearts and will celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary in August. She knows Dusty better than Dusty knows himself. An occupational therapist, Anna told her husband he was built for this. It's what he wanted.
She told him to toughen the hell up.
"We have that kind of relationship," May said. "'You'll figure it out.' It was like, 'It's time to get to work with this decision.'"
May wasn't the only one with initial immediate regrets.
A couple days after May took the job, he used his connections at the University of Florida to help fill out a staff. Then-UF assistant Darris Nichols called Akeem Miskdeen, who was wiping snow off his windshield in Kent, Ohio, when he picked up the phone. Miskdeen Googled FAU and Boca Raton and thought: Hell yeah, I'd be interested in that. He was young, no kids, wanted to get out of his Midwest comfort zone.
"When I got the job and I saw the facility, in my head I was like, I left Kent State to come to FAU? I left a real job to go to Florida Atlantic," Miskdeen told CBS Sports. "The first thing I thought was, Why did I take this job?"
The facilities were so small for both basketball teams and the volleyball program, that if any of the three had a game — or sometimes even a practice — there was no space for the players to keep their gear because the visiting team had to use the second/only other locker room.
"The campus is a paradise, a mile and a half from the beach," former FAU assistant Erik Pastrana told CBS Sports. "If you didn't take anyone to the gym, it's incredible."
Though the school has made some facility upgrades in the years since (and will now be making massive improvements thanks to this blessed Final Four run), the state of the place in 2018 was so piteous, the staff actually prided themselves on signing 10 players in their first year without ever allowing one recruit to see the locker room. They'd show recruits the football facilities, which at that point were starting to be built under then-coach Lane Kiffin.
"We'd avoid certain things and had to sell ourselves," Pastrana said.
It got so comical that a few of the first commits to FAU under May found themselves asking, "Coach, where's the locker room?" after they enrolled on campus.
They'd never even seen it.
"We basically said it was under renovation," Pastrana said.
Recruiting was so touch-and-go, May and his staff convinced a Wright State transfer — who was only in the area for spring break to see his girlfriend at the University of Miami — to stop by for a quick visit. They eventually signed that player, Everett Winchester, who finished his FAU career a year ago.
May is a basketball junkie. He was going to make this work. He had to.
"Dusty can sell the beach all he wants in recruiting, but I think he's only been to the beach a few times," Pastrana said.
On Saturday night, FAU not only clinched a Final Four berth, it also guaranteed it will finish this season with more victories than any other Division I program. Mike White hung back for a good while, inconspicuously watching his brother and his best friend celebrate this outrageous turn of events.
"This is one of the most special days of my life," White told CBS Sports as he stood a few rows off the floor.
"We see today how special he is and this program he's built is," Brian White said of Dusty. "I can't believe where we are today. It's just incredible."
He took the job reluctantly — but he took it. That's what matters. And once he steadied himself, there was no second-guessing this. He's never had a losing season and has won 101 of his 160 games, a ludicrous accomplishment for a program that's comparatively a newbie in college sports (it didn't exist until 1988). FAU, which did not have an NCAA Tournament win to its name earlier this month and almost no basketball history, is now a team for the ages. An incredible American sports story.
On March 22, 2018, the opening line of the FAU's press release read: "Dusty May has accepted the challenge of building Florida Atlantic University's men's basketball program into a team that will consistently compete on the national stage."
Turns out, that was a massive understatement. Dusty May has changed the image and reputation of Florida Atlantic University's men's basketball program forever, and on Saturday night, this job brought tears to his eyes yet again.