At Oakland University, Students and Alumni Bask in the N.C.A.A. Spotlight


Before Thursday night, if you were not familiar with Oakland University, you were not alone. Not far from the campus, even locals at a Detroit bar, who were watching the team shock No. 3 seed Kentucky in the first round of the N.C.A.A. Tournament, were asking if “that Oakland was in California” or the Michigan suburb of Rochester. (It’s the latter.)

On Friday, after Oakland’s 80-76 upset victory as a No. 14 seed, students and graduates reveled in the university’s moment in the March Madness sun. They include John Hendley, class of 2005, who watched the game from Florida with his wife, Melissa, also a graduate.

“If people didn’t know who the Oakland University Golden Grizzlies were before last night, they surely know now,” Mr. Hendley said.

For all but perhaps close followers of the university, a brief introduction may be in order: It was created in 1957 through a donation to establish a satellite location for Michigan State University. At first, the campus was known as Michigan State University-Oakland, but in 1970, Oakland became an independent university.

In 1997, Oakland University moved its athletic program from N.C.A.A. Division II to Division I. A year later, it changed its mascot from the Pioneers to Golden Grizzlies, according to the university’s website.

The campus of Oakland University feels more like a sprawling corporate park, which makes sense. There are a lot of them nearby, like the world headquarters for Stellantis (formerly known as Chrysler) and other automotive suppliers.

The university is surrounded by strip malls with fast food chains and a golf course. Of the about 16,000 currently enrolled students, only 2,500 live on campus. And that is by design. There are few if any public transit options in the area, reflecting the mind-set of a Motor City built for cars first and pedestrians second.

Even the Golden Grizzlies’ coach, Greg Kampe, commutes from his home in Detroit proper.

The university is a smaller option compared with the two major public institutions in the state — the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, which are both about an hour from Oakland. But for Oakland supporters on Friday, the campus felt a little bigger.

The university’s president, Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, who boasted on Friday that she had filled in her N.C.A.A. bracket correctly on the Oakland-Kentucky matchup, said she was “over the moon.”

“It’s really exciting for us,” she said, adding that the national attention was great “for the athletics and for our university and for universities like ours.”

James Wissbrun, a 21-year-old computer science major at Oakland who grew up nearby and has been going to Golden Grizzlies games since he was a child, traveled to the game in Pittsburgh on a charter bus that the university rented for students. He returned at 4 a.m. on Friday and got only a couple of hours’ sleep before working at his 7 a.m. job with the grounds crew for the city of Rochester Hills.

“It was worth it,” he said. “I’ve been coming here forever, and now to actually be a student here and see how far we’re getting, it’s just incredible.”

Mr. Wissbrun said he planned to take the bus the university was providing to see the team take on No. 11 North Carolina State on Saturday, again in Pittsburgh.

Giovanni Moceri, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering major, will be on the bus, too. He has hosted watch parties for Golden Grizzlies games, trying to create a sense of community on campus. Sometimes it can be a challenge.

“A lot of students here don’t even know we have sports here,” Mr. Moceri said.

That was not the case the previous night at RJ’s Pub in Rochester Hills, one of the local bars, where the atmosphere was “rocking” during the game, said Russell Luxton Jr., who operates the bar and is an Oakland graduate.

Lights and sirens went off every time that Jack Gohlke, one of the team’s stars, hit a 3-pointer, Mr. Luxton said, adding that for each 3-pointer Gohlke made, “the crowd got louder.”

Who knows what will happen in Saturday’s game? But until then, Golden Grizzlies fandom is reaching a fever pitch.

“We’re thriving,” Mr. Kampe, the coach, said after the win, adding that “everything is in place for this program to take off, and maybe this is the ignition for it.”

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