Coach Symbolizes Basketball's True Meaning

Delayed in Miami, stuck in Minnesota and bags somewhere in Chicago added to an already stressful weekend for Florida International. For head coach Sergio Ruoco and his kids, the travel problems take a distant back seat to the real important things in life.

MADISON, Wis. - Their plane was rerouted due to snow. They lost their luggage in Chicago, spent 18 hours in the airport, had difficulty chartering a bus to Wisconsin and didn't arrive until 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning.

It's a horror story that all travelers never want to encounter, especially a college basketball team. It happened, however, to Sergio Ruoco and his Florida International Golden Panthers as they attempted to make their journey to Madison to play the No.12 Wisconsin Badgers.

With their flight scheduled to leave Miami International Airport at 10 a.m. and heavy snow in Chicago, Ruoco was unable to get clarification about the status of his team's flight before leaving for the airport.

"We called the airport and asked them if the flight was going to be cancelled, because we knew flights were being cancelled in Chicago," Ruoco said. "We're 30 minutes from the airport and we wanted to keep our kids on campus. We were told to come to the airport and we believed them, like a bunch of idiot tourist."

When they got to the airport and were informed their flight had indeed been cancelled, FIU was sent scrambling to try to find arrangements for their players and staff, numbering over 20 people.

"We have an obligation, responsibility and a contract to get [to Madison]," Ruoco said. "We told our kids we would get there and we found a direct flight to Minneapolis.

"We talked to the beautiful airline people, because I am not going to get sued and name names, I'm old enough now to know," Ruoco added. "They told us that we couldn't get our bags from the counter. Once we changed flights, [the airline] told us that they were responsible, in a 10 hour span, to get those bags to Minneapolis. We get to Minneapolis and no bags."

Knowing full well that the game against the Badgers couldn't be delayed or postponed because of financial commitments, scheduling reasons and television coverage, FIU had no choice but to try and find a bus company to get them to Madison.

The only problem, in addition to the team not having uniforms, shoes or shorts, was that most of the bus companies were already tied up for a convention in the twin cities.

"Who could have a convention in Minneapolis in December," Ruoco asked. "It must be for the Eskimo Pie [company] or something."

Nevertheless, the Golden Panthers made it, albeit at 5:30 in the morning on game day with nothing to wear.

Enter Top Promotions and the Wisconsin's athletic department. According to sources, UW assistant coach Greg Gard rounded up practice jerseys and the shorts while Top Promotions, a Middleton apparel company, supplied the shoes. While the situation would bother most coaches and athletic programs, Ruoco said that today's day and age of spoiled basketball players is a joke and that all kids need to play is something to wear and a basketball.

"We had shoes on because coach got us some shoes and some practice gear and that's all we need," Ruoco said. "That's the way it should be in life. A lot of kids get pampered for AAU basketball because they need the elite shoes, their hair perfect and their tattoo showing. I don't give a rat's ass if your tattoo does show or not. [Our kids] go to class, bust their tale in class, we leave it on the court and if it's good enough to win, so be it."

With just four hours of sleep, International did just that, challenging the Badgers from the perimeter. Led by Johwen Villegas seven three pointers, FIU shot 43.5 percent from three-point range, out-scoring the Badgers from that distance.

"That didn't look like a team that wasn't rested," Bo Ryan said. "They were contesting passes, using their hands and being physical. They looked like a team that came to play and maybe used that adversity to make them play better."

Florida International also frustrated Wisconsin's big men in the paint. International scored 20 points in the paint and limited the Badger big men to only 24 of the Badgers' 79 points. Shutting down Wisconsin's bigs was no surprise to Ruoco, as he had a master plan when his team arrived at the Kohl Center.

"Our plan on boxing out was for the guys who haven't showered, to put your armpit right around the big guy's chin to suffocate them," Ruoco said. "I think we did a good job on the free throw line boxing them out because we haven't showered in a day. It came to our advantage when it came to body odor."

Even with all the trouble and hassle it took for FIU to come to Madison and receive a 16-point loss, Ruoco refused to blame the loss on the travel glitches or ask for sympathy because of them. Simply put, with five international players on their roster, the Golden Panther players have had to overcome much tougher hardships.

"I'm proud of my kids because we came in here with mindset to play ball without any excuses," Ruoco said. "Life is not fair and it never will be fair. I got a bunch of kids from different countries that come from hard situations. Being in the airport for 18 hours for them isn't a hard situation. A dramatic situation is when you don't have any money to eat.

"We had money to eat and that's the most important," he added.

It was a heartwarming story of a coach not concerned with records, tournaments or championships - but rather a coach trying to make his players better students and people first, and better athletes a distant second.

Still, Ruoco wasn't hesitant to ask the Wisconsin staff for a little compensation should the Badgers have a successful run in the post-season.

"I'm not going to come back here for a long time," Ruoco joked. "If Wisconsin gets to the final four, I expect someone to remember me for some tickets."

Don't worry coach. It would be a pleasure to treat you.

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