THE FIRST NCAA tournament appearance in the history of St. Francis College (Pa.) basketball will be tonight in the Huntsman Center when the Red Flash face the University of Arizona at approximately 8:30 p.m. The crowd does not figure to be heavily St. Francis-oriented, however. When fans of the Flash told the team they'd follow them anywhere, they meant, well, anywhere that wasn't west of the Mississippi."To tell you the truth, I don't know if we'll have any fans here," says Kevin Southard, St. Francis's sports information director.
The projected dearth of Red Flash followers can be attributed to three factors: 1) No airports in Loretto, Pa., 2) A 30-hour bus ride, and 3) The University of Arizona. The eighth-ranked Wildcats are favored by 22 points in tonight's game. Only one other opening-round NCAA game has a bigger pre-game spread (UNLV over Montana by 30). Who wants to drive nonstop for 30 hours just to see a two hour ballgame that launches you 30 hours straight back?
Loretto is located in south-central Pennsylvania, 80 miles east of Pittsburgh and 60 miles west of State College, the respective homes of Pittsburgh and Penn State, fellow entrants in the 1991 national championship tournament. With all these teams in the NCAAs, they're now calling the St. Francis-Penn State-Pitt area Tobbaco Road North.
Of the three, St. Francis is the smallest. For that matter, St. Francis is smaller than any team in the tournament. In fact, of the 294 teams that play Div. I basketball in America, only one - Centenary in Shreveport, La. - is smaller than the Red Flash. Centenary has an enrollment of 900 students, while St. Francis has 1,100 undergraduates.
Nonetheless, the school has a heavy emphasis on basketball - the favored sport - and accounting - the favored major. Mike Iuzzolino, for instance, is one of the stars on this year's basketball team, and also one of the stars of the accounting department. His averages are 24.3 (basketball points) and 3.85 (grade points).
The only verifiable Red Flash fan who will be in person in the Huntsman Center tonight will be, Scott Layden, the Utah Jazz's director of player personnel.
Layden played for, and graduated from, St. Francis. He was on Red Flash teams from 1977 through 1980. As far as he knows, he and one other man, who called him on the phone after St. Francis qualified for the NCAAs, are the only St. Francis almuni in the Salt Lake area.
Whereas St. Francis is rather small in size, its commitment to basketball has been bigtime. It was into basketball even before the NCAA was into basketball. Its hoops past predates the time when the NCAA was the biggest tournament in the country. In the '50s, the Red Flash spurned the NCAA three times in favor of going to the NIT, in 1954, 1955 and 1958.
The 1955 team finished fourth in the NIT. Leading the way was a 6-7 forward named Maurice Stokes, who went on to become a three-time All-Star in the NBA for the Rochester Royals. Tragedy then struck, in the form of encephalitis, although Stokes battled the debilitating disease valiantly until his death in 1970 at the age of 37. A movie entitled "Big Mo" was made of his life, and his relationship with Royals teammate Jack Twyman, whom Stokes met in the consolation game of the NIT when Twyman's Cincinnati team played St. Francis.
Stokes is one of the few non-monks buried in the St. Francis Monastery graveyard in Loretto; and the Red Flash play in the Maurice Stokes Gymnasium, paid for in part by Stokes' estate.
The Stokes Gym had a tartan floor until this season, when the school bought a wood floor from Cornell, which in turn had bought the floor from a Big East school that had hosted an NCAA regional. The joke was, the Red Flash hadn't ever gone to the NCAA tournament, but their floor had.
Until now, of course. Now, the Red Flash are in the NCAA alltime roster book, no matter what happens tonight, and no matter how many fans show up for the historic occasion.
It is Layden's opinion, however, that the BYU fans in attendance tonight will adopt St. Francis. "It shouldn't take long for the Cougars to take a liking to them," says Layden, "they'll root for the little guy - and against Arizona."
If Layden's right - and it's hard to argue with the man who drafted Karl Malone and John Stockton - a team from 2,500 miles away, with one live fan, maybe two, will still enjoy a healthy homecourt advantage.
When you learn that the Jazz are going to invite two of the Red Flash players - Iuzzolino and Joe Anderson, both seniors - to their training camp this summer - suggesting talent that's at least worth a look by the pros - an extended stay out West becomes even more of a possibility. Who's to say? If you're St. Francis, you know Big Mo is what it's all about.