Wherever you may be, Thanksgiving inspires thoughts of home. For me, that’s also inspired a lot of thinking about the Northern Iowa Panthers in the last week.
As I’ve mentioned, my current home is almost as far from a mid-major school as you can get. (Casper, Wyoming, I’m pretty sure you have me beat.) Heading east, I won’t run into one until Milwaukee; I run out of country to the north before I find one of our teams. Which leaves South Dakota State, 200 miles or so to the west — and Northern Iowa, about the same distance south in Cedar Falls.
I’ve got plenty of personal history with SDSU. I grew up an hour away; my dad’s master’s degree and my high-school trumpet lessons both happened on its campus. But the Jackrabbits, like the other three Dakota-based mid-majors, didn’t make their transition to Division I ball until well after I’d moved to Minneapolis. I didn’t grow up knowing Frost Arena as a D1 gym, or the Jacks as one of our national tournament hopefuls. Their story will have to wait.
By the time the 2010 NCAA Tournament rolled around, spirits were high at my other “home” school, the comparatively nearby University of Northern Iowa. With a North Dakotan coach, all-MVC forward Adam Koch (and his brother Jake) from Wisconsin and a roster loaded with Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois players, UNI’s ’09-’10 team was about as wholesomely Midwestern as it was possible to get, and they were about to make their second ever tournament appearance.
The Panthers tore through the Valley that year. They dropped only three conference games, all on the road, and avenged two of those losses on their way to the Arch Madness title. The autobid earned them a #9 seed in the Midwest despite a gaudy 28-4 record; in a can’t-make-it-up culture clash, the corn-fed Panthers’ first-round matchup would be against the Runnin’ Rebels from Sin City.
Playing in Oklahoma City, UNI had a home-court advantage over UNLV, or as much as you can in a big-arena, first-round matchup. For neutral observers, the game was the exact up-and-down, lead-swapping affair you’d hope for in an 8/9 tussle. With just 40 seconds left — after a scoreless minute and a half that felt like an eternity — an Oscar Bellfield three for the Rebels tied the game at 66. And so Northern Iowa, as they’d done all game, put the ball in the hands of guard Ali Farokhmanesh.
You’d be forgiven, just hearing his name, for thinking that Ali Farokhmanesh’s home was somewhere far from Cedar Falls. But that’s not quite the case: while his dad, Mashallah, had been born in Iran, he emigrated to the United States in the ’70s, leaving his captaincy of the national volleyball team to try his hand at playing and coaching professionally. And in a true, verging-on-cliche American-dream story, Mashallah Farokhmanesh met and married a fellow volleyball coach; he and wife Cindy Fredrick have coached together for two decades. Ali, born in Washington, wound up at Iowa City West high school when his mom took the Hawkeyes’ head volleyball job. His collegiate journey took him to a pair of Iowa junior colleges before heading to UNI. He’d been a key part of the excellent ’09-’10 season. And, on this night, he was the best player on the court.
With 35 seconds to go, UNI inbounded, barely getting set up in the face of UNLV’s press. The offense ran without urgency, holding for the last shot. Farokhmanesh set up on the back side of the play; on the left wing, 25 feet from the hoop, the Rebel defense didn’t pay him much attention.
When the ball came his way, he had a wide-open shot. With 4.7 seconds left, it went in, and Northern Iowa had its second-ever tournament win.
You, of course, know the rest. The Panthers’ next matchup pitted them against mighty #1 Kansas, the only team with more fan support in OKC than they had. It was wildly unlikely that they’d win. It was practically impossible that they’d do so on another last-second shot. And it was totally unthinkable that the same kid would do it from nearly the same spot on the floor.
Yet he did. Ali Farokhmanesh became a Sports Illustrated cover and a household name. Northern Iowa provided the 2010 tournament’s best early-round feel-good story (outside Lawrence). It was a once-in-a-lifetime March for any mid-major — but for UNI, it had happened before, and almost exactly 20 years earlier.
The 1989-’90 UNI team had some key differences from their 2010 counterpart. They played in the Mid-Continent Conference, not the Valley, and they didn’t exactly dominate it; the Panthers entered the conference tournament with a #4 seed. But Eldon Miller, a central-casting picture of a wily veteran coach, had led them to a 17-8 season and a home victory (oh, fine, a signature win) over the hated Hawkeyes from the Big Ten. The team was loaded with unflappable upperclassmen, and dynamic sophomore point Dale Turner orchestrated an inside-out game with leading scorer Jason Reese and 3-point gunner Troy Muilenberg.
Thanks to a fortunate turn of the hosting rotation, they also found themselves with home court for the Mid-Con tournament. The UNI-Dome rocked as they outdueled UIC in three overtimes, then held off Southwest Missouri State (who’d beaten them twice). The coronation came against old friend Dick Bennett’s UW-Green Bay team; after ten years in Division I — and a manic three-day tourney run —