Crowds packed the gym, a pep band played to liven up the festivities, and head coach Harry Kinnan was a showman extraordinaire.
This was junior college basketball in Manatee County not long ago.
It was a happening fans didn't want to miss.
The game was played at Manatee Community College, previously known as Manatee Junior College and now State College of Florida.
The name change is the least of what is different.
Crowds are sparse, and victories are few.
Since Kinnan retired in 1996 after a highly successful run of 19 years, the program has fallen on hard times and turned into a coaching carousel.
The basketball team will have its fifth head coach since the turn of the century next season. Brock Erickson, the latest coach to assume that role, will have an enormous chore trying to get water out of what once was a basketball oasis.
There is a lot of speculation over whether the program can return to its hey day or get remotely close.
The consensus opinion in the local basketball community is that it'll be a tough job.
'Moment in time'
Nothing stays the same, and the popular opinion is Kinnan can't be replaced.
"It was a great moment in time, and moments in time cannot always be duplicated or replicated," said local attorney Jack Hawkins, the former president of MCC's Sixth Man Club, a basketball booster organization that poured money and enthusiasm into the program.
"In those days you had to get to the game early if you wanted a seat," Hawkins recalled. "Harry was great. At halftime of games, the booster club had a special area upstairs from the gym where we would have drinks and food. Harry would come in for a few minutes and tell us what the game plan was for the second half.
"He was one of a kind. Harry knew his X's and O's, but he could also sell the program. He could go into the home of a recruit and sell himself and the program. He sold basketball to the community."
Kinnan's record at SCF was 368-163. Things fell off sharply after he left. His successor and longtime assistant, Chip Sines, was 49-39 before resigning after the 1999 season.
The next head coach, Brac Brady, went 61-116, suffered through an 0-31 season and was eventually fired after six seasons. The next two coaches, Reggie Bellamy and Joe Whelton, were 61-76 and 7-19, respectively.
Under Kinnan, MCC went to the state tournament 10 times, won the state title in 1984-85 and in 1992-93 finished 27-3 and was ranked sixth in the country.
Kinnan coached two first-team All-Americans, a second-team All-American and two state players of the year. A lot of the top players were local products, including Floyd McPherson, who was a first-team all-state choice on the '84-85 team and is the father of heralded Southeast product Adrian McPherson.
There were fewer options in those days for the elite male athletes around these parts. Most of them played football or basketball or both.
Today, football and baseball are the popular sports among most elite athletes, and many don't like to mix sports as they become more specialized.
'Sell the program'
Kinnan said he believes the program can be revived if it's done the right way. He said a coach has to sell the program to the community and know how to spot kids who are playing out of position in high school.
He also said it's up to the SCF coach to improve basketball in the area through camps and youth leagues for the young players, similar to what existing programs have done for baseball in Manatee County. He emphasized the importance of long-term commitment.
"We did a lot of converting forwards in high school to guards in college, so the coach has to be resourceful. The junior college basketball coach has the hardest job of judging talent," he says.
Keeping players academically eligible always has been a chore at this level. The reason the really talented players are usually in junior college ball is grades.
Erickson is from New York's Monroe Community College. He was hired over several local candidates who have strong ties to the community.
"They need someone who is going to commit to staying a long time to build the program," Kinnan says. "More important than having a local guy is getting a coach to go out into the community and cultivate interest in the program. He needs to sell the program to the community and really be a salesperson for basketball."
Erickson will be paid a $10,500 stipend as the head coach. He earned $50,000 as an assistant at Monroe College (N.Y.), where he was a full-time employee.
Donald Bowman, SCF vice president of educational and student services, who took part in the final phase of the Erickson hiring, said he is not worried about what some might see as a potential problem.
"I am not concerned at all about that because of the discussions we had with him and Matt Ennis (SCF athletic director) and the excitement he showed about the position," Bowman said. "From my vantage point, if he is that excited about coming from a nationally acclaimed program I can only assume that kind of enthusiasm is going to carry over to him having other opportunities in the area."
Erickson was one of three final candidates recommended by an SCF search committee out of 52 applicants. The other two on the list were Randy Lee, former head coach at Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, and Brendan Foley, current assistant coach at Santa Fe College in Florida.
Coincidentally, Lee, who resigned at TTU to pursue other interests, has been replaced by Brady.
"I will be doing a lot of basketball camps and running some camps and doing some individual instruction, a bunch of different things," Erickson said about earning possibilities. "That (being a part-time position) did not deter me from this job. The biggest attraction for me coming here was the support from the athletic director and the president (Lars A.Hafner). They are really passionate about bringing the program to a national level."
'A different beast'
The last four SCF/MCC coaches struggled to keep their most talented players eligible academically, an issue that doesn't figure to go away.
"Junior college basketball is a different beast than a Division I or NAIA player," Bowman says. "Sometimes many of them they think it is the way out of some difficult problems and situations. The student-athletes we've had in basketball haven't necessarily brought back the quality of the program. We believe Brock can do that."
The program has limited financial resources, but Kinnan says that is not an insurmountable issue.
"I would say academically some of the players have to be nurtured," Kinnan says. "I did not have a recruiting budget. Community college is unique, and you really have to marshal your resources. I had some college coaches (from four-year programs) that I really knew well and we could work with them.
"I could raise money through our camps and things like that and fly one or two kids in. But most of my recruiting trips involved driving across the bridge to St. Petersburg. We tried to use a formula where 50 percent of our players were local. We had to raise our own money for just about everything we did."
Kinnan and Sines recruited North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama because they felt it was an area that had a plethora of talent and not many junior colleges.
Kinnan was a full-time employee at MCC when he coached there. It was reduced to a part-time position when Sines took over and has gone back and forth since. Whelton was a part-time coach and said he left because he didn't think the program could be successful under a part-time coach.
An engineering supervisor at Verizon, Sines resigned because he said he could no longer devote the time needed to make the program successful. He says the progam needs a fulltime coach to be successful.
Coaches still interested
Despite the program's struggles, there was no shortage of candidates seeking the job. Among the applicants were Southeast head coach Elliot Washington and former Bradenton Christian head coach Dave Magley.
Neither was invited for an on-campus interview. Both were eliminated in a phone interview of predesignated questions asked by members of a search committee devoid of anyone with college basketball coaching experience.
Sines did not criticize the hiring of Erickson, but said he was baffled by the process.
"You don't search for a basketball coach without basketball people on the committee. It doesn't make sense," Sines said. "Junior college basketball is a tough world. I don't think being local is as important as it was once.
"Magley has a good reputation and has contacts. Elliot coached for us one year and did a good job of recruiting. That either of them didn't make it to the next round (in the interview process) is surprising.
"Brac was my assistant for a year, but it was his first attempt at being a head coach and (he) was in over his head. Reggie was full time, but didn't have much free time."
Magley and Washington played major college basketball, Magley at Kansas and Washington at Alabama after he played two years at MCC. Both have full-time jobs in Manatee County, which would enable them to coach part-time without making a financial sacrifice. Washington is the dean of area basketball coaches and former basketball agent who has ties with college coaches throughout the country and in Europe and has deep roots in the community. He was the starting point guard for two years on an Alabama team that had five future NBA players including Robert Horry and Latrel Sprewell.
"He is a product of the program," Kinnan says.
Magley was the second-longest-tenured high school boys basketball coach in the area before resigning after last season. He has strong basketball connections in the Midwest, particularly in Kansas and basketball hotbed Indiana, states where he has gotten many of his former players into school. He is a former Mr. Indiana High School Player of the Year and was drafted by Cleveland.
Others who applied for the job include Jim Ward, former longtime head basketball coach at Riverview; Chris Kawcak, former BCS assistant and Lakewood Ranch head coach; Curt Allen, North Port High head coach; and Alan Hamm, assistant coach at Sarasota Christian.
Erickson says he is in the process of implementing a lot of things to bring a positive atmosphere to the program, but cannot talk about them now along with some recruits he is pursuing.
He said his relationship with Ennis and Hafner has been exceptional and people in the administration reiterate Erickson is the right person to return the program to prominence.
"I have had a better relationship and more support from the athletic director here than I have at any other school I worked at or played at," Erickson says.