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Twenty Years Later, Phil Hopkins Doesn't Dwell on His Cinderella Near-Miss

In 1996, Phil Hopkins and the Western Carolina Catamounts came within inches of making NCAA tournament history. Today, Hopkins coaches middle school basketball, and he couldn't be happier about it.
John Marcus Kenyon/YouTube

The first look, with the clock winding down, was a dead-on three-point shot from the top of the key, and the second frenetic look was a 15-foot follow-up by one of the finest long-range shooters in the country that season. When I tell Phil Hopkins I can't seem to find a clip of this 20-year-old sequence on YouTube, he tells me that's not a problem, because he can still describe it in minute detail.


March 14, 1996: It's the opening round of the NCAA tournament, and top-seeded Purdue leads 16th-seeded Western Carolina, 73-71. The Catamounts have the ball with under 10 seconds to play, and point guard Joel Flemming advances it to the frontcourt. Hopkins, their head coach, chooses not to use a time-out, to let the play flow, thinking that will give him a better chance to get the ball into hands of his best scorer, Anquell McCollum. But McCollum is covered, and Flemming eyes up the rim for a three to win the game. "I'd hit a similar shot like that in our conference tournament," Flemming told VICE Sports this week. "I felt confident I could make it."

Read More: The VICE Sports Viewer's Guide to the 2016 NCAA Tournament

And why not? The Catamounts had all the elements of an epic Cinderella: they'd upset Davidson to win the Southern Conference tournament and secure a tournament bid; after they'd won the conference title, Hopkins, flush with excitement, proposed marriage to his girlfriend on the arena's loudspeaker. Western Carolina, a small public school in Cullowhee, North Carolina, had never been to the tournament (and hasn't been back since). It was one of those uplifting March Madness stories that seemed poised to get even better if Western Carolina could do what Princeton and scores of other teams had failed to do, and pull off an unprecedented win as a 16-seed in the tournament. As soon as his team drew Purdue, Hopkins thought they had a chance: the Boilermakers weren't as overwhelmingly athletic as the other No. 1 seeds that year, and Hopkins felt the Catamounts could at least keep pace.


And they did, right up to the end, when, with the clock winding down, Flemming took his potential game-winner, and missed. And after pulling in the rebound, Joe Stafford, who led the nation in three-point field-goal percentage that season, took a frenetic 15-foot follow-up to tie the game. Both shots, Hopkins recalls, seemed to carom off exactly the same spot on the rim. One of them, Hopkins thought, had to go in.

"But things happen for a reason, and I ended up here," Hopkins said the other day from his home in the Walhalla, South Carolina, where he has been coaching middle-school basketball for the past 16 years. "I don't want to get on too big a soapbox, but God has a place for us, and this turned out to be mine."

Would Hopkins have wound up in Walhalla if one of those shots had gone in, and Western Carolina had won the game? Probably not. Maybe a larger school would have snapped him up, and maybe he would have stayed in college coaching. It certainly would have been far more difficult for Western Carolina to fire him after a 14-14 season, as the school's new athletic director did in 2000. That period proved to be one of the most difficult stretches of Hopkins' life. His second marriage, to the woman he'd proposed to publicly, fell apart in the years after the loss to Purdue. "I should have known better," Hopkins said. "I was 48 and she was 26. But it was part of that moment, and the attention."


Hopkins left the college game understandably cynical. He often wondered what might have been had one of those shots gone in. He took a job in Walhalla coaching the middle school boys team—and eventually the girls, too—to be close to his grandmother and his children. And then something happened: he began to truly enjoy it, to relish the simplicity, the way the kids actually heeded his advice. His dad had been a recreation director in a small mill town in South Carolina, and he wondered if this was his calling. He missed the recruiting aspect of college basketball, but he didn't miss the ethical compromises that went with it. He found it easier to avoid straying off his own personal religious path in Walhalla, and after about three years there, he stopped searching for another college job. When friends would call to inquire about his state of mind, he'd say, "I kind of like it here."

He remembers his daughter visiting from college not long after he'd come to this epiphany. She arrived full of skepticism, convinced that her father was wasting his life away in a small town. She left him by saying, "You're really doing what you're supposed to be doing."

Hopkins is 66 now, and he has grandkids who are starting to get into basketball, too. He figures maybe he'll coach a couple more years, and then retire, maybe keep running some summer camps here and there. He still has friends in the coaching business—most notably Ohio State's Thad Matta, who was a low-paid assistant coach on that Western Carolina team—but he doesn't stay in close touch with most of them, largely because he doesn't like to be a bother. The college game has changed so much that he's not sure he could get back into it even if he wanted to.


But that's the thing: he hasn't wanted to for a long time.

Former Catamounts assistant coach Thad Matta, now at Ohio State. Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

"I know that game really taught me a valuable lesson," said Flemming, who now works as a pharmaceutical sales rep in Asheville, N.C. "When things don't go your way, what are you going to do? You have to keep going. And I do think in Coach Hopkins' case, he's probably impacting a lot of people he never would have otherwise."

Hopkins has got a reserve of entertaining coaching stories, and he'll tell them on occasion, in trusted company; he keeps one collage of photos from that 1996 season on the wall of his office. He likes that "the kids" on that Western Carolina team (who are now grown men, and have mostly moved on from basketball) still banter about the game on social media when an anniversary like this one arises. A few years ago, a friend's wife was watching an Ohio State game on television, and he told her the story about how Matta used to coach under Hopkins. They really went in opposite directions, she said.

"But that's the thing," Hopkins said. "We really didn't. I hate to say I'm at peace, because then it sounds like I wasn't before. But he went where he was supposed to, and I went where I was supposed to."