Sunday, January 20, 2008

Basketball Team Supplants Zach Johnson as Drake’s Leading Sports Story

2007 Masters Champ: “What the Hell?!?”

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Zach Johnson thought he had a good thing going.

The Drake University graduate worked his way up through golf’s minor leagues to earn a spot on the PGA Tour. And in 2007 he acquired one of sport’s classic emblems of success: the green jacket for winning the Masters Tournament.

But even better, he was guaranteed years of adulation from his athletics-poor alma mater.

That’s because Johnson went to Drake, a school mostly known for hosting a track and field meet and being mistaken for Duke University. With a reputation like that, Johnson figured he would be the toast of the school for years to come.

"This should get me some love from my college, right, Phil?"
"Well, yeah, what else do they have there besides Coach K?"

But that was before the amazing resurgence of the men’s basketball team, which has replaced the golfer as Drake’s pre-eminent example of athletics success to the nation.

“What the hell, man?” Johnson, 31, said recently from a Tour stop in Calilfornia. “Drake’s never been known for anything in sports. They had that one team make the Final Four back in the 60’s. That was it! There was that chick who didn’t touch home plate in the Olympics, but they went on to win the gold medal, so it didn’t really matter.

“Then I come along, win the Masters. Jim Nantz says ‘Drake University’ about 100 times…my mom taped it and has watched it about that many times, so I know.

“It’s not like we have football, or anything. I figured I would be THE Drake story. This isn’t Texas or UCLA or whatever, where a new sports hero comes along every few months. Or so I thought!”

The basketball team plodded to decades of mediocrity under the likes of Rudy Washington, Kurt Kanaskie and Dr. Tom Davis, the winningest coach in University of Iowa history before an unceremonious firing by then-AD Bob Bowlsby. But something must have been happening at the Knapp Center, because in the first year under Dr. Tom’s son and handpicked successor Keno Davis, Drake has a 16-1 record, 7-0 in whichever minor conference they play in. The Bulldogs’ win over Illinois State last night puts them on the precipice of the Top 25—nationally!—for the first time since before Johnson was born.

Drake Head Coach Keno Davis: "That's right, Zach, you're Number Two around here now."

“It’s just not fair,” said Johnson, whose official PGA biography describes him as a “huge Iowa Hawkeye football and basketball fan.” * “I really thought the afterglow would last a bit longer than ten months. I’m not rooting against them … I wish them all the best, really.

“But just for the record, do you know how damn hard it is to win the Masters? And a Drake guy did it. That should be a big deal, you know, for a while.”

Drake University plays Creighton in men’s basketball on Tuesday in Omaha.

* Editor’s Note: I’m going to back Zach on this one. When you grow up 25 minutes away from a Big Ten university, in a state with no pro sports, it becomes a lifelong devotion, a part of your identity. Don’t blame the guy for not being a "huge Drake sports fan." There is no such thing.

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