By Patrick Engel
The monstrous ring encircles Tracy Dildy’s fourth finger on his right hand. It’s shiny and silver, with the letters “CSU” intertwined using evergreen gems. His name is on it, as are 2013 and “CIT.”
Yes, it really is a ring honoring an appearance in the Collegeinsider.com Postseason Tournament, a pay-to-play tourney designed for mid-major programs.
Dildy and Chicago State reached the CIT in 2013 by winning the Great West Conference tournament. It took two wins in March 2013 to earn a championship in a conference that no longer exists, and when it did, gave its winner a free bid to the CIT and not March Madness.
It may seem trite, unnecessary, or just downright silly. Dildy, Chicago State’s eighth-year head coach, has his reasons.
“I wear it every day to remind them and let them know that we have been champions,” Dildy said. “We’re just trying to get back to that level.”
A return starts from the bottom rung of the ladder.
Dildy grinned. The first step has been taken.
Chicago State snapped a 40-game losing streak against Division I opponents with a 96-82 dusting of UMKC at home Saturday afternoon.
This wasn’t a fluke. The Cougars led for nearly 36 minutes. They shot 49 percent from the field. They made 11 3-pointers and 25 free throws. They had five players score in double figures. It all produced their first victory over a Division I team in 415 days.
“This is bigger than just games,” Dildy said, sweat dripping down his forehead. “It’s about bringing more positivity and giving people good things to talk about with our university.”
Chicago State sure needs it. Perception is an exponentially tougher opponent than anyone it faces on the court.
Roughly two years prior to Saturday’s breakthrough victory, Chicago State’s future was in doubt because of a state budget impasse that dried up government funding, a critical source of money for the university. The school declared a state of financial emergency, canceled spring break and issued layoff notices to all its employees just in case the stalemate forced the school to close.
A new budget passed in July 2016, and the university survived. Its enrollment, though, has decreased by 33 percent in the last two years to its fall 2017 total of 3,171.
Athletics, even with a tighter budget, have remained intact. But why? What could have compelled the university to keep a Division I athletic program that struggles to compete? Like Dildy’s ring, there’s more to the story.
Provost Dr. Angela Henderson gives three objectives: student engagement, diversity on campus, and exposure in the greater Chicago area. She later circles back to athletics creating engagement.
“It really allows us to appreciate the students and build some camaraderie on campus,” Henderson said. “This allows us to get together, celebrate together.”
Chicago State was built as, and still is, a commuter school. Its tree-lined campus located in the South Side’s Roseland neighborhood is tucked between East 95th Street, South King Drive and I-94. It has one residence hall on campus, housing about 300 students. The rest commute.
A non-traditional student body creates the need for campus life as well. Illinois Board of Higher Education stats from fall 2016 show the average age of Chicago State students is about 28. Two-thirds are women. Nearly half are parents. For many, Chicago State is their last shot at a four-year college degree.
Most Chicago State students are either from the Chicago area or transfer from junior colleges. That’s also the case with the basketball team, because the athletic budget doesn’t allow for national recruiting. Six of the seven players Dildy recruited out of high school are from Chicago. Five others came from junior college.
“We get the ones nobody else wanted,” Dildy said. “We’re like Last Chance University. For them to go and have some success, that builds their confidence, builds their esteem and helps bring somebody in that someone else might not want or might not think was good enough. And we give the opportunity to live their dream.”
Chicago State’s home arena is the 5,500-seat Jones Convocation Center, a 10-year-old brick, chrome and glass venue built with former Illinois State Senator Emil Jones’ fundraising help. It’s plopped right in the middle of campus.
The plentifully lit interior still feels fresh. The hum of the lights is heard in the main entrance and, at times, on the arena floor during a quiet moment in the game. It has a homey, relaxed vibe, aided by the PA announcer’s lighthearted calls.
“From King Drive … Buckets!” he calls when leading scorer Fred Sims Jr. makes the first of his trio of 3-pointers.
“We have traveling … without a ticket,” he says when a UMKC player walks.
“Duh nuh nuh, duh nuh nuh!” He bellows the SportsCenter jingle when senior forward Deionte Simmons dunks after grabbing an offensive rebound.
The crowd of 553 erupts with 16 seconds left when Simmons grabs his 11th rebound of the game, sealing the win. The bench players spill onto the court. Dildy raises his fists. He hugs his players, takes a microphone and thanks the fans.
“A lot of people came out for the first time,” Dildy said. “That’s contagious. That’s going to spread around this campus.”
One first-timer is former Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges. Michael Jordan’s former teammate and Chicago State’s coach from 1994-96 sits courtside and watches intently. Standing on the court after the game, Hodges fulfills a slew of photo requests before offering his view of the program’s outlook.
“It’s going to happen eventually,” he said, “but it’s one of those things where we have to keep being patient and keep being supportive.”
Hodges points to a few elementary school children dribbling around the court.
“We have to do whatever we can to impact that generation.”