OGDEN — We've all enjoyed the thrill of March Madness. But for former Weber State University men's basketball coach Ron Abegglen, it was more like March Magic.
Nearly two decades have now passed since Abegglen engineered one of the most memorable moments in the Beehive State's glory-filled college basketball history.
Less than three months from now — March 11, 2019 — will mark the 20-year anniversary of when Weber State wrote its own thrilling chapter of that captivating "David topples Goliath" saga that helps make the NCAA Tournament arguably America's greatest sporting event.
Yes, it was on the night of March 11, 1999, that the 14th-seeded Wildcats knocked off perennial national powerhouse North Carolina, 76-74, in an NCAA first-round shocker at Key Arena in Seattle.
Junior forward Harold "The Show" Arceneaux stole the show indeed with an eye-popping 36-point performance against the heavily favored Tar Heels, who have long been regarded as one of college basketball's true thoroughbreds with six national championships, 20 Final Four appearances and 47 NCAA Tournament berths on their impressive resume.
Junior guard Eddie Gill added 16 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals for the Wildcats, and their poised supporting cast played its role to near perfection for a bracket-busting stunner over third-seeded North Carolina, a proud program which hadn't lost a first-round NCAA game in more than 20 years — and hasn't lost another one since.
And the feisty little coach who masterminded the brilliant game plan that allowed Weber State to rise up and slay the Carolina giant was Abegglen, a true basketball genius who passed away on Wednesday night. The guy they lovingly called "Coach A" was 81.
Abegglen guided the Wildcats' program for eight years, from 1991-99, compiling an overall record of 152-83 and capturing three Big Sky Conference championships along the way. He wound up with the third-most wins in WSU men's basketball coaching history — but he owns what are undeniably the Wildcats' two greatest victories in the NCAA Tournament.
Upset-loving fans probably shouldn't have been surprised to see the Wildcats topple the Tar Heels, because that heralded win over North Carolina wasn't the first time Abegglen and the 'Cats had crashed a big dog's party at the Big Dance.
Yes, Coach Abegglen and Co. had done this before.
Four years earlier, in the opening round of the 1995 tournament, Abegglen whipped up another batch of his March Magic and, with a team led by star guard Ruben Nembhard, the 14th-seeded Wildcats stunned a third-seeded Michigan State squad featuring a pair of future NBA players, 79-72, at Tallahassee, Florida.
Over the years, Weber State's program has boasted a long line of tremendous, highly successful basketball coaches — Dick Motta, Phil Johnson, Neil McCarthy, Joe Cravens and the Wildcats' current head coach, Randy Rahe.
But as great a bench boss as those guys were or still are, none of them ever achieved the type of national attention-grabbing postseason success with the Wildcats that Abegglen's teams did.
Gill, an intense, lightning-quick guard who went on to play for seven years in the NBA and was inducted into the Weber State Athletic Hall of Fame along with Arceneau in 2014, spoke at that time of why Abegglen's way worked so well for them, and for the Wildcats' quest for success.
The key, Gill said, was that their coach not only knew how to devise a great game plan, but most importantly, he gave them a belief and confidence in themselves that they could execute it.
"What an opportunity that was given to us by Coach A," Gill said. " … He kinda let us go. He gave us all the confidence in the world, and he had a great system in place. We were always able to play through mistakes, play through good times and play through bad times, and he'd always say, 'Hey, just go out there and get it done.'
"And that went through the entire team, not just me and Harold. I think that was the biggest key for us."
Gill said that, with Abegglen's masterful game-planning, the Wildcats definitely felt like they had a genuine shot to play the role of giant-killers against the Tar Heels.
"That's an opportunity and a moment that no one can take away," Gill said. "Carolina will always have to live with losing to Weber State. All those Cinderella stories — that's what March Madness is all about."
"I was part of something that wasn't supposed to happen," Arceneaux recalled prior to his WSU Hall of Fame induction in 2014. "We didn't realize we were making history."
Two days later in Seattle, with a chance to reach the NCAA's Sweet 16, the 'Cats nearly pulled some more magic out of their hat before finally running out of gas and falling to Florida in overtime in the second round.
It was somewhat reminiscent of their 1995 tourney run, when the Wildcats dropped a last-gasp, second-round decision to Georgetown, 53-51, two days after their stunning win over Michigan State.
Abegglen, who graduated from Uintah High School and played basketball at BYU for four years, also enjoyed an extremely successful coaching stint at Morgan High School, where he spent 13 seasons, and his 1974 team went undefeated and won the 2A state championship.
He then coached for 10 years at Snow Junior College before moving on to coach at Alaska-Anchorage. After leaving Weber State, Abegglen spent two seasons coaching the London Tower of the British Basketball League before retiring from coaching and going on to work as a golf professional at Paradise Golf Course in Fillmore, Utah.
Perhaps most impressive is that, in a coaching career spanning more than 40 years, Abegglen's teams never had a losing record. He was inducted into the WSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2011.2 comments on this story
However, it wasn't all lollipops and roses for Coach Abegglen. In 1996, Weber State was hit with NCAA penalties for improper recruiting, tuition and travel assistance. Then, in 1998, after he was involved in a domestic dispute with his wife at his Dee Events Center office, Abegglen was placed on administrative leave for three weeks. He subsequently agreed to step down as Weber State's head coach following the 1998-99 season.
Needless to say, Abegglen deeply regretted that ugly, unfortunate incident, which wound up costing him a job he dearly loved. And nobody could have ever imagined that dark day would set the stage for his and the WSU basketball program's greatest triumph of all time in March of 1999.
Yes, this was one great coach and one terrific guy who, whether on or off the basketball court, always knew how to leave 'em wanting for more and wishing he'd stayed when he walked out the door.