He's danced with cheerleaders. He's marched over to press row and doled out handshakes to Reggie Miller, Kevin Harlan and Len Elmore like it's no big thing. And perhaps most importantly, he's racked up 41 points and 17 rebounds in two games to lead Florida Gulf Coast University to its first Sweet Sixteen appearance. Over the last two weeks, FGCU senior guard Sherwood Brown and his Cinderella story team have danced their ways into the hearts of college basketball enthusiasts, winning fans nationwide. However, FGCU almost missed its chance of signing Brown as a member of its squad.
Brown, a 2009 Olympia High School (Orlando) graduate, is making one of the biggest splashes in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament. Yet, during his high school senior season, he was one of the least recruited players on Olympia's squad. That year, Olympia's varsity basketball program featured a lineup of impressive talent, including four seniors who initially signed NCAA letters of intent with Division I programs. While Brown was a skilled high school player, the talent of those surrounding him largely overshadowed him in recruiters' eyes. That is until FGCU's basketball program came knocking.
In his second year as an assistant coach for FGCU, Nick Bennett's job duties required him to hit the road searching for recruits. The recruiting trail can be one of the most frustrating, yet rewarding, aspects of a college basketball coach's career. The time spent scouting and then courting recruits is long and arduous. Coaches spend time recruiting against the promises of other coaches and programs. Oftentimes, the program with the most glamorous promises -- and subsequently, the greatest amount of money to spend on recruiting -- wins out.
The recruiting trail likely proved to be something of an uphill battle for Bennett in 2008-09. At the time, FGCU had existed as a university for a meager ten years. Its athletics program was born in 2002 and entered Division I competition in 2006. The basketball program wouldn't be eligible for post-season play until 2012. In an age when programs like Notre Dame and Marquette spend over a million dollars annually on recruiting for all of their men's sports teams, FGCU had a recruiting budget of $67,187 in 2008-09. Bennett didn't have history, records or money to use to sell recruits on FGCU.
Rather, Bennett relied upon promises of what FGCU's basketball program could become to attract talent to the squad. Using the school's limited recruiting budget, Bennett and his colleagues spent significant amounts of time at AAU tournaments in Florida scouting talent. Not only did this prove to be a cost-effective measure, but it allowed the coaches to scout local Florida talent who participated heavily in the tournaments.
At an AAU tournament in Orlando, a player with the strength and stature of a football player caught Bennett's eye. "We were there for ten days watching game after game after game. And then we saw Sherwood. We noticed that he was a really good athlete. However, the unwritten thing about Sherwood, is that he's really strong. He's football player strong. He can bench press over 300-pounds and almost looks like a football player," Bennett noted. While Brown's unique size and stature caught Bennett's attention, his skills held it. "For his position, he could really rebound and he had really good toughness," Bennett said.
After leaving the Orlando AAU tournament, FGCU's consensus was reached: they "really liked" Brown. However, FGCU faced a serious issue when it came to actually signing Brown. "We didn't have a scholarship to offer him at that point. We liked him though and wanted him on the team," Bennett said.
Without a scholarship available for him at FGCU, Brown verbally committed to play basketball at Tampa University. Thinking Brown's fate was sealed, FGCU backed off from recruiting him. Surprisingly, though, the tables would turn in FGCU's favor. "A month-and-a-half later, Sherwood's high school coach called me and asked if we'd be interested in him. We told him we were, but that we didn't have a scholarship for him. He said Sherwood would be interested in walking on to our team," Bennett explained.
With that simple phone call, both FGCU and Brown's fate would be written. FGCU brought Brown on as a walk-on for the 2009-10 season. It was understood that if he made grades and stayed out of trouble, he would earn a scholarship the following season. Brown has been a scholarship athlete since his sophomore season. "We really felt that we were getting a really good lock on a kid who was a scholarship player. We didn't think we were getting the conference player of the year, though. It is his confidence and work ethic which took him over the top," Bennett said.
While the world hasn't always known who Sherwood Brown is, Bennett and those who know him say that Sherwood Brown hasn't changed since being introduced to the world. "The interesting thing about him, is people see him dancing with cheerleaders and sticking his tongue out and think it's an act. That's the way he's always been, though. He's really confident. He believes he's as good as the big boys. He doesn't mean it disrespectfully, but he's a really confident kid. He's always had the belief that he deserved to be on the big stage."
In his first dance on the big stage, it's safe to say that Brown has earned a standing ovation.