Life is beautiful with Davidson's generosity

DETROIT -- Davidson center Thomas Sander was halfway through his senior economics seminar Wednesday afternoon when a fellow student excitedly raised his hand.

"I've got a pretty cool announcement," the guy said to the class. And then he read the e-mail that had just dropped from college president Tom Ross, containing the coolest invitation in the history of March Madness:

If you're a Davidson student, the Sweet 16 is on us. And you're all invited.

"Everyone was going crazy, saying 'I'm going to Detroit!'" Sander recalled.

I think the whole community recognizes the level of commitment and effort by the basketball team to be able to reach this level while still maintaining their academic standing. This is a gesture of appreciation.

--John McCartney, member of the board of trustees

College kids love free stuff. But a free trip -- tickets, hotel and a bus ride included -- to see your Cinderella school play Big Ten champion Wisconsin in a once-a-generation NCAA tournament game? This was better than Ed McMahon showing up at your door with a Publishers Clearing House check.

"It's unbelievably generous of the trustees," said Davidson freshman Kevin Hubbard, who talked to me by phone from campus Thursday. "They really did not have to do this."

That's the key point here: They did not have to do this, but they did it anyway. No other school still playing in this tournament would.

This was a spectacular act of pure goodwill in a sport that has become so coldly mercenary it threatens to lose some of its abundant charm. Just about everything in College Sports Inc. is sponsored, logo'd, seat-licensed, underwritten or overpriced -- and the first casualty of the money grab has been the peers of the athletes themselves.

In gymnasiums and football stadiums across the country, students are herded into the cheap seats while the prime locations go to boosters and donors who can be gouged for tens of thousands of dollars. Or students get hit with athletic fees as part of their tuition to help pay for the latest phat facility or colossal contract extension for the coach.

Here in Detroit, they've rejiggered the standard basketball-in-a-dome seating plan to sell more tickets. About 57,000 seats have been sold as of 5 p.m. Thursday at Ford Field for the games Friday night. The good news is that more fans will be in the building than ever before at a regional semifinal. The bad news is that there are more bad seats than ever before.

Among the school allotments, many universities take care of the fat cats first. Students? Hey, if some of you can make it, great. You'll get a few tickets. But don't expect the school to do anything for you along the way.

Then along came No. 10 seed Davidson, basking in the glow of a surprising run and willing to share some of the reflected glory. Members of the school's board of trustees are digging into their own pockets for about $100,000 to provide at least five buses, 250 tickets and 125 hotel rooms for the student body to see their Wildcats.

Because it's the right thing to do.

What a beautiful counterconcept.

"The sense of intimacy that exists on our campus is unparalleled in NCAA Division I basketball," coach Bob McKillop said. "You hear all about the free laundry [a laundry service is offered to all Davidson students]. But when the board of trustees votes in a meeting on Tuesday to go into their personal pockets and put out the money so that every student can go to this game … that reaches a level that's unprecedented.

"I'm stunned by it. Thrilled by it."

So was everyone else on the campus. The news crackled like sheet lightning across the small liberal arts enclave of 1,700 students located 30 miles outside Charlotte.

Athletic director Jim Murphy heard a student say, "The library is going crazy." So was the student union. And the dorms.

The only catch was that the school needed an RSVP from each student by 4 p.m. Wednesday. That put some urgency into the student body.

"Everyone ran to their computers," said Hubbard, a freshman from Queens, N.Y.

Brenda Fuentes, a sophomore from Long Island, got the e-mail on her phone at 2:23 p.m. on Wednesday. She and two of her friends dashed to the computer lab, sending in their RSVP at 2:42.

Whether or not we have gotten to the Sweet 16 or won 28 games, we have won because we've lived up to our belief.

--Bob McKillop

But a lot of students didn't hear about the offer until after 4. By 6 p.m. at the president's office, staffers had received 450 requests and still had about 700 unread e-mails.

"I'm surprised the wireless didn't crash on campus," Murphy said.

The only downside of this story is that the offer became too much of a good thing. Davidson couldn't come up with nearly enough buses in 24 hours to accommodate demand. Buses will roll from campus at 6 Friday morning and return sometime early Monday morning -- why not think you're playing two, right? -- but the school won't be able to transport two-thirds of the student body after all.

"The response is overwhelming," said Davidson trustees chairman John McCartney. "More overwhelming than the logistics of getting the kids up there. It's too bad the suggestion [from a fellow trustee] didn't come until Tuesday. I wish I had thought of it on my own, and I wish I had thought of it earlier."

Having thought of it at all is part of what sets Davidson apart from the Sweet 16 crowd. Athletics and academics are so well-entwined at the school that there is no disconnect between the athletes and those who cheer them on.

Brenda Fuentes describes herself as a good friend of star guard Stephen Curry. They have classes together. See each other on campus all the time.

She said she ran into Curry on campus Tuesday, after he'd become the face of Madness by scoring 70 points in upsets of Gonzaga and Georgetown. Curry told her that over the weekend he got 1,800 new friend requests on his Facebook page.

"You're a big shot," Fuentes teased. "Can you still hang out with us little people?"

At Davidson, they're all little people. That's the charm.

They offer 21 intercollegiate sports at Davidson, so a good number of students are participating in something. They also offer zero jock majors at a school known for its academic rigor.

"Davidson is a place where nearly a quarter of our kids participate in intercollegiate athletics, and they're in a very, very demanding academic environment," McCartney said. "I think the whole community recognizes the level of commitment and effort by the basketball team to be able to reach this level while still maintaining their academic standing. This is a gesture of appreciation."

The players deserve the appreciation, but do not overlook their coach. McKillop, a longtime New York high school coach who is now in his 19th season at Davidson, was producing chills Thursday while talking about this breakthrough season.

"I don't know that I could ever imagine the feeling that this would generate on our campus, in our community and within me personally," McKillop said, eyes glistening for a moment. "I am at ease now in my life. I have never been more at ease, more comfortable, more grounded than where I am right now.

"I think it's a response to the pursuit of something and seeing it happening right in front of your eyes, knowing the investment and realizing how many people were part of this investment, and now are sharing in this investment."

Later, in a hallway outside the Davidson locker room, McKillop invoked the final scene of the movie "Life Is Beautiful" ("La Vita e Bella," in the original Italian), a heartbreaking World War II concentration camp story. A father sacrifices his life so that his son can endure the horrors of internment and ultimately escape, and the boy rides away joyfully atop an American tank in the closing scene, thinking he has won a game.

The father prevailed. That's what McKillop loved.

"Whether or not we have gotten to the Sweet 16 or won 28 games, we have won because we've lived up to our belief," McKillop said of Davidson's improbable rise to this position. "We did not surrender. Our world today is full of surrender at the first sign of a challenge to people's hopes and dreams. We did not surrender."

There will be no surrender from Davidson Friday night. Be sure of that. And no surrender from the hundreds of Davidson students who are at Ford Field thanks to the largesse of a school that gets it, money be damned.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.