SALT LAKE CITY — “Act like you’ve been there before.”
Vince Lombardi famously spoke those words to his Green Bay Packers, and Paul “Bear” Bryant to his Alabama Crimson Tide. Which legendary coach got it from the other remains something of a mystery, not that it matters. Maybe it was just a coincidental case of great minds thinking alike.
Former Northwestern football coach Gary Barnett invoked the timeless maxim in a speech to his players before the 1995 season opener at Notre Dame. The Wildcats shocked the Irish that afternoon, remained calm and businesslike when it was over and went on to their only Rose Bowl appearance in the last 68 seasons.
It really is a great message: Act like you’ve been there, even if you haven’t. Act like you belong, because you do.
Northwestern’s basketball team, as everyone well knows by now, has never been here before. Thursday’s NCAA Tournament game against Vanderbilt will be the first ever for the Wildcats, but they belong — more so than the 15-loss Commodores do, to be sure.
“We all came here to be a part of a different Northwestern and be a part of history,” fifth-year senior forward Sanjay Lumpkin said. “And we achieved that goal. And now that we are here, we want to do everything we can to stay here.”
That is, of course, what anyone who gets a first-hand taste of such a singularly great event as the Big Dance wants — to savor it, to stay in it forever. For it can be over almost before it started, as it was for Wildcats coach Chris Collins’ last team as a player at Duke. The Blue Devils team he captained as a senior was bounced from the first round by Eastern Michigan in 1996.
Thus, Collins sat at an NCAA Tournament press-conference podium for the first time in 20 years Wednesday. It felt good. It took him back to his days as a college star and even further than that, to when he was just a boy out on the driveway living in his imagination.
“Every year whenever the tournament came, I would write up the brackets and I would go outside by myself and play the whole game,” he said. “I would announce all the teams. I knew every player. Every game came down to a buzzer shot. I would play the whole tournament for hours.
“My dream in life was to be a part of this. I always wanted to be on ‘One Shining Moment.’ When I was a player, that was one of my biggest dreams — maybe I could be in that video one day.”
Junior point guard Bryant McIntosh had NCAA tourney dreams of his own. In his mind’s eye, he was the player with the ball in his hands in the critical moments, making fearless decisions, sinking game-clinching free throws. Point guard always is the most glorified position at this time of the college basketball year, and McIntosh wants the responsibility that comes with it.
“I can’t emphasize enough that this isn’t the end goal,” he said. “It was one of our goals to make the tournament, but we’re not just satisfied to be here.”
That was evident as the Wildcats practiced on the Vivint Smart Home Arena court, a nonstop blaze of running, cutting, passing, shooting. Station to station, no breaks, no slowing down. Not every team goes so hard the day before its opening game. Some try to stay loose and relaxed. Others are a bit distracted despite their better intentions.
The Wildcats went at it like a team with serious intentions. To win. To stick around. To show everyone they damn well belong.
Act like you’ve been here before? Sure. But it might be even more important to act like you might never be here again.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.