Then, like Mighty Mouse, UD and its fans rode in to save the day.
Call it karma, but on Thursday night I sat next to Mark Epstein, an affable, friendly guy and former assistant tournament director. He told me the story and said emphatically over and over, “The Dayton Flyers saved this tournament.”
Said Epstein, “I was the assistant tournament director for the first six or seven years. We were having a hard time drawing fans. Even though we had South Carolina and Clemson in it, hometown teams, they were finishing their football seasons, and their fans weren’t traveling.
“And we were in trouble,” he added. “ESPN literally told me and tournament director Bobby Cremins they were going to shut it down. Bobby and I asked for one more year and ESPN said, ‘OK, one more year and that’s it.’ They didn’t really want to give us another year.”
Epstein said the tournament had a weak field that year ... South Carolina Upstate, Coastal Carolina.
“We knew they weren’t going to draw,” said Epstein. “So the evening sessions come along and the first game Dayton is playing and they had 3,500 people (in the 5,500-seat TD Arena). We knew right then and there we were home free. And I will say it until the day I die ... Dayton saved the tournament. That’s why they keep getting invited back. Dayton saved the tournament.”
And Dayton keeps bringing The Flyer Faithful.
If you haven’t experienced The Flyer Faithful on the road, especially at tournaments, well, it’s like red ants invading a family reunion picnic.
It starts with pre-game. Hotels, bars, restaurants and the streets of Charleston are dominated by fans wearing red and blue.
At ‘Toast,’ a popular breakfast nook, Flyer fans gather and you hear, “Scrambled eggs, but hold the grits.” The grit is for the fans to show at the game.
On Thursday, the Flyers came from 15 down to LSU with nine minutes left to win, 70-67, on a Nate Santos three-point shot with 3.5 seconds left.
During a 19-2 run that got the Flyers back into the game, the Flyer Faithful went stark, raving bonkers. Big deal, they always do.
The uninitiated thought it was something special, so many fans making so much noise. Uh, no. Routine for UD fans.
On Friday morning, a Towson player was on a hotel elevator and spotted two UD fans.
“Does everybody in Dayton travel with the team?” he asked. “I heard that Dayton has the best fans in America. And we heard all that cheering in Thursday’s game. It was incredible.”