Fairleigh Dickinson hopes to be the next March Madness adventure

TEANECK, NJ — The jokes of “FD – who?” go back more than 30 years, to the last time Fairleigh Dickinson University played Purdue in the NCAA Men’s Tournament.

Purdue fans held up signs with the slogan when the two teams met in 1988.

Purdue won.

FDU faded back into obscurity.

So for alumni of the New Jersey commuter school who remember the old shootout, FDU’s shocking win against No. 1 Purdue on Friday was especially sweet.

On Friday night, Marc A. Wolfe, who worked for the student newspaper at the time, posted photos he took from the sidelines of the 1988 game, just before he watched his alma mater topple the Boilermakers, 63-58, in the first round of that year’s tournament.

“I’m glad that FDU has done what was not only unexpected, but now people want to know more about what’s possible,” Mr. Wolfe said.

FDU’s basketball team has the shortest average height in Division I, while Purdue’s roster includes Zach Edey, who is 7 feet 4 inches. FDU Interim President Michael J. Avaltroni said the David-and-Goliath victory was consistent with the legacy of the small university.

“We’ve really always been about giving students a chance,” Alvatroni said, “often when they didn’t even know if college was right for them. And kind of transform them along the way and give them the opportunity to, in some cases, perform these very miraculous feats .”

But a large majority of the students there are students in the state and attend part-time. The university’s Metropolitan Campus is located on the border of Teaneck and Hackensack, middle-class towns across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Seventy percent of students at the Metropolitan Campus commute, Avaltroni said. The other campus is in Madison, a small suburb further west.

The Metropolitan Campus’s utilitarian brick buildings include the Rothman Center, a building with a tent-like roof that is home to the school’s men’s basketball team, the Knights. But the morning after the big game, the party was muted, with students away on spring break and the campus almost deserted.

A thin banner spans Teaneck’s main street, Cedar Lane. “Congratulations FDU Men’s Basketball team. Welcome to the NCAA March Madness Tournament,” it read.

Student athletes who stuck to practices over spring break watched the game together on campus Friday. Liam Deep, who runs for FDU, watched along with softball players.

Mr. Deep is from Toronto, but “I wasn’t from Toronto last night,” he said.

Mr. Avaltroni, the interim president, said both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have done well this year. “There’s been an enthusiasm on campus that I haven’t seen,” he said, adding, “I’ve been at the university for 20 years.”

The women’s team finished the season as regular season champions, but lost in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament on Friday night to Columbia University. Mia Andrews, a guard on the women’s team, said her team “had mixed feelings because obviously we had just finished the season.”

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But after the players learned that the men’s team had won, they broke out in shouts in the dressing room. “It was a funny moment,” she said.

Anete Adul was returning to Teaneck from Florida with the university’s golf team during the game. “We were in Orlando at the airport and everyone was watching it and it was so cool,” she said.

Locals are hoping it could be another good basketball year for New Jersey. Last year, the state became the centerpiece of March Madness when another obscure institution, St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, made it all the way to the eighth round as a No. 15 seed.

Side parties for FDU’s next game are planned for the Rothman Center as well as the Hackensack Brewing Company, a craft brewery near the Metropolitan Campus. This week, Princeton University also scored an upset as the Tigers, a No. 15 seed, beat No. 2 Arizona, 59-55.

When Mr. Wolfe was a student, after FDU won the NEC championship and made the NCAA tournament, “we and a bunch of other students and fans got on a bus and drove 15 hours to Indiana,” he said. (The game was held on the University of Notre Dame campus.)

Mr. Wolfe lived on campus. He said that led to opportunities such as working on the student newspaper and cemented his bond with the school.

“I thought if you commute to a school, it’s not the same as living there,” he said.

This year, the FDU fans who had traveled to see the team’s first-round game — which was played at a stadium in Columbus, Ohio — were drowned out by the crowd that had turned out for Purdue. But Purdue’s team was gracious after the loss.

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Matt Painter, Purdue’s coach, put it simply: “They were amazing.”

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