For the next 14 years, while UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana and Georgetown built up tradition, UM basketball lay dormant.
Then, in 1985, the program was reborn under coach Bill Foster. Open tryouts were held on the student union patio. Bob Schneckenberg, a 6-6 architecture student from Orlando, was one of the lucky few who made the cut. Games were played at the James L. Knight Center, a downtown theater with velvet seats. The court was literally on the stage.
“This program has come a long way and there’s no way I’d make the team now,’’ Schneckenberg said on Wednesday. “We were a rag-tag team of whoever Coach Foster could get, and I will always be grateful that I got a chance to play. The highlight for me was scoring on a finger roll over J.R. Reid at the Dean Dome. The fact that we won half our games the first year was truly amazing. Playing games at the Knight Center was surreal. Even the lighting was weird because it was stage lighting.’’
The UM program grew in tiny increments, and then coach Leonard Hamilton got the team back to national prominence with a Sweet 16 berth in 2000 — the only other time the Canes got this far in the NCAA Tournament. It was considered a minor miracle considering UM went 0-18 in the Big East in 1993-94.
Heat forward James Jones was on Hamilton’s Sweet 16 team, along with Johnny Hemsley, Mario Bland, Vernon Jennings, Elton Tyler and John Salmons, who plays for the Sacramento Kings. He said this UM team reminds him of that one. He sees Kenny Kadji as Tyler, Durand Scott as Hemsley, Julian Gamble as Bland, Rion Brown as Salmons and Shane Larkin as Jennings, whom he said was the team’s quarterback and “go-to’’ guy.
“Coach Ham fostered an unselfish mentality on the court, focused on fundamentals and truly cared for the well being of his players, which is what I see in Coach Larrañaga,’’ Jones said Wednesday. “Our team bonded on those half hour bus rides to Miami Arena. We would have loved an on-campus arena, but what really mattered was winning together. We felt a sense of responsibility to push the program forward for Coach Ham.’’
The former players all say they’re watching UM’s success this season with pride.
“They’ve had brushes with success over the years, but now I think with Coach Larrañaga, they’ll be able to build something long-lasting,’’ Barry said. “I hope this is the start of something big for years to come.’’ He appreciated that Larrañaga took the time to look into Barry’s youngest son, Canyon, who will be a college freshman next fall. UM didn’t have an athletic scholarship to offer, so the youngest Barry will play at College of Charleston.
Schneckenberg said he never really thought of his team’s historical significance at the time.
“I’m an architect now, and it’s kind of like when I lay a foundation for a building, I can’t really picture the penthouse party that will be thrown there years later. I never dreamed the program would get to this point, and it’s really fun to watch and realize I played a small part in it.’’