If you – like an estimated 40 million others – filled out an NCAA Tournament bracket this week you may have noticed an unfamiliar name. In the Midwest Region of the bracket facing 4th seeded Auburn is the relatively unknown and 13th seeded College of Charleston. The reason the Cougars aren't a household name? It's their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999. It's a long-awaited return to the Big Dance for the Cougars and it's in thanks, in large part, to a former Bobcat.
Charleston Head Coach Earl Grant began his coaching career in 2001 as a graduate assistant at Georgia College under legendary Bobcat head coach Terry Sellers. After two years as a GA he moved on to become an assistant coach at Winthrop, then Wichita State, then Clemson before being named Head Coach of the Cougars in 2014.
The first year they won nine games. The next year they won 17. The next year they won 25. This year they've won 26 games, their first Colonial Athletic Association regular-season championship and, most importantly, their first NCAA Tournament-birth-clenching CAA Tournament championship.
Before his coaching career began, Grant spent two years playing at Spartanburg-Methodist, a junior college. With eligibility remaining after his two years in Spartanburg were up, Grant was receiving offers from Division I programs like Winthrop and Tennessee Tech, but an offer of a free ride brought him to Milledgeville.
"Me and my buddy Mike Jones were shooting around and this guy pops in the gym and says 'Hey, I'm Pete Strayhorn from Georgia College and State University. We'd love to get you guys on campus. I'll be in the area the next couple of days would y'all like to ride back and take a look? It's a beautiful place in Georgia. About 45 minutes away from Atlanta.'" Grant said. "That's when he's got us now. Neither one of us had ever been to Atlanta. Obviously, we found out later that it was more like an hour and forty-five but that's good recruiting. You have to tell the truth now but sometimes you've got to bend it a little bit."
Grant and Jones agreed to travel with Strayhorn, and a white lie wasn't the only thing about Georgia College that impressed the pair. The campus and its potential proximity to Atlanta was certainly a selling point, but the biggest draw was a nucleus of players that would soon become the best team in Georgia College history.
"We got down to Milledgeville, what we found out was, wow. This is a big-time facility. Nice little country town. Beautiful dormitories," Grant said. "But the players...we were playing pick-up with the guys and realized they had some players. These guys were good and it was like, 'Man these guys are Division II?' It was kind of shocking. On top of that though they were good guys."
After an impressive weekend, Grant and Jones were more than prepared to come to Milledgeville.
"Me and Mike Jones were talking before we got back to Spartanburg Methodist and said 'Man that's a nice place. Do you want to go ahead and sign?' We signed the papers and sent them back Monday morning." Grant said.
Grant and Jones joined a team that would go on to win 49 games and two straight Peach Belt Conference titles over the next two years. The 1999-00 edition of the Bobcats won 25 games with Grant averaging 13.3 points per game – the second-best on the team – leading the team in assists, finishing second in steals and shooting a team-high 40% from beyond the arc. Grant, along with Bobcat Hall of Famer Julius Joseph and other Bobcat legends like Jones and current GC Women's Head Coach Maurice Smith pushed the Bobcats to the first and only NCAA DII Elite Eight appearance in school history.
"That was the only time we had ever traveled on an airplane. For a few of us that was the first time flying on an airplane ever," Grant said. "We went out there to try and win a national championship. We lost but we had a great time."
After Grant's senior season came to a close, Coach Sellers invited him back to Georgia College to act as a graduate assistant with the team. Grant agreed and spent two more years in Milledgeville. In that time, he took what he could from the Bobcats' Hall of Fame coach.
"I took a lot from Coach Sellers, from the standpoint of I thought he did a great job of 'getting' the players. He did a great job of forging teamwork and unity. He had balance. He and his wife Cathy had balance. We spent life together. We spent time at their house. We went to church with them. He got us to be great teammates and win a lot of games. He was tough but he never demeaned a player in terms of the way he treated him. I don't remember ever seeing too many cuss words which as a coach can be hard. He forged a team in unity and unselfishness. I learned a lot from them," Grant said. "We won 49 games in two years, two conference championships. I took a lot from that because I learned that you can do coaching that way. You can have balance. You can take the kids to church you can bring the kids to your house. You don't have to cuss at them. That was a beautiful thing to see as a young coach."
Grant has used those lessons to create one of the most upstart programs in college basketball today. The Cougars will travel 2,438 miles to San Diego to face Auburn at 7:30 on Friday night in one of the biggest games in program history in front of millions of viewers nationwide. They might just bust your bracket. And it might all be thanks to a coaching career that began in the Centennial Center. Now if we can just get Coach Grant his Master's.
"Tell somebody to tell me whatever I need to do to get my two courses done. I never got my Master's Degree. I never got it after all that work as a grad assistant." Grant said. "Besides that, I did four years in Millyvegas and I really enjoyed it."