Almost famous: 27 years ago, Phil Hopkins fell short against No. 1 Purdue

Fairleigh Dickinson will now live forever in the NCAA Tournament, intertwined in flashy cutscenes and slow-motion montages that create eternal March backdrops.

The Knights chased and chased No. 1 Purdue to just the second No. 16 seed for men since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, leading to a first-round disappointment. The #16 seeds are now 2-150 against the #1 seeds after winning 63-58.

As the story of Tobin Anderson’s team unfolded Friday night, I couldn’t help but think of the coach of one of those forgotten 150 men. His funeral is Saturday morning.

I would like to write to former West Carolina coach Phil Hopkins on Friday night, a coach who will be remembered as almost famous. After Hopkins narrowly missed one of the greatest losses in NCAA Tournament history when he was the No. 16 seed against No. 1 Purdue in 1996, Hopkins’ history reminds us that history remembers no close disappointment.

Phil Hopkins died on March 2 at the age of 73. and his Saturday morning services in his hometown Pelzer SC Having met Hopkins years after his time in West Carolina became the March Grief archetype, it’s safe to say that his penchant for supporting the underdog will remain strong in the afterlife.

Friday night, with Purdue back on the brink of infamy, it was hard not to think about Hopkins. It was the Gene Keedy team in 1996 that was scared to death when a failed West Carolina bid shook The Pit in Albuquerque to unbeatable decibels. Hopkins’ plucky Southern Conference West Carolina team made two shots in the air in the closing seconds – one for a win and one for a tie – and it was over. Perdue survived and advanced, 73–71.

Butler coach Thad Matta, who was Hopkins’ top assistant on the 1996 West Carolina team, once told me, “I don’t know a day when I don’t think about missing those two shots at the end.”

Homemade Hopkins and Catamounts of Cullowhee, NC have been moved from tournament icons to footnotes with these latest caroms. Instead of being the flag bearer for NCAA disappointments, Hopkins and his team were forever attached to what could have been. “We deserved to win,” Hopkins said at a press conference that evening in 1996.

Hopkins took advantage of the NCAA Tournament moment. After upsetting Davidson in the Southern Conference title game, he proposed to his then-girlfriend from an arena loudspeaker. He got many miles off the line to quantify his excitement: “Well, I’ve been married before, but I’ve never been in the NCAA.”

Hopkins’ career is presented as a classic multi-directional high school drifter – Middle Tennessee, Radford, Wyoming, Indiana and finally getting a break when he was promoted in West Carolina. He made the NCAA in his first season as a head coach at Western Carolina but never got his magic back.

Once Hopkins’ moment slipped away, his college career soon followed. He coached in West Carolina for another four years before the new athletic director – current AD ECU Jeff Kompfer – did not renew his contract. The school has not returned to the NCAA Tournament since that night in 1996.

I stumbled upon the Hopkins story early in my career while researching a Georgetown star named Lee Scruggs, who once devoted himself to Western Carolina before going to college and graduating in Georgetown.

While trying to track down Hopkins to find out about Scruggs’ high school admissions, I accidentally intercepted his phone conversation in the common room of a junior high school in Valhalla, South Carolina. It was the unlikely beginning of a friendship. And the setting was the essence of a coach who found more enjoyment by exercising away from bright lights.

A few years later, when his former assistant Matta was on the cusp of taking Ohio State to the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 seed in 2007, I went out and spent some time with Hopkins in Valhalla. He took me to the city’s cafeteria-style fried chicken joint and gleefully told me what the practice equivalent of a country song was.

While in Western Carolina, after their early success, several colleges called him up and offered higher jobs. But he stayed here because of loyalty and fitness. But things soon went awry. He ended up divorcing the woman he proposed to over the intercom of the arena. Even the swoosh tattoo he got after he got the West Carolina job backfired as Nike ended his contract with Western shortly after he entered the NCAA.

Perhaps the most embarrassing professional thing that happened to Hopkins was that his athletic director didn’t realize he was on a goldmine roster. Hopkins was never brought back after playing 14-14 with star-studded freshman twins in 1999-00 – one was a MVP and the other a league freshman.

After Hopkins left, Jarvis and Jonas Hayes moved to Georgia, and Jarvis Hayes became the 10th overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft. By then, Hopkins was already coaching in high school and found the same question remained in Purdue’s game: What could have been?

While things have soured professionally for Hopkins in college basketball, one of the reasons our friendship lasted long after our 2007 fried chicken dinner was because he never let the moment define him.

He found his niche coaching juniors and even turned down a Division II job because he enjoyed coaching junior boys and girls. As he told stories over dinner at the Steak House that night, players and ex-players alike came up and greeted him like family. He ran for mayor of the city and lost the election, but it was hard to see how.

“He was one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met,” Eastern Illinois assistant head coach Doug Novsek said. “He was humble and loved his family.”

Hopkins bragged about his two children, Phil Jr. and Somer, and sent photos with his seven grandchildren. They knew him not as a near-famous college coach, but as a beloved grandfather whom everyone called Hoppa.

One of the enduring strengths of the NCAA Tournament is that it brings us all together. Every March, he reunites alumni, rekindles camaraderie through brackets, and fuels group messages from old friends. It’s a stream of games, all thickening as the years go by to pick moments that transcend and resonate.

Hopkins’ moment was circled, but it never shook his spirit. Every March, he would come with news of what he liked to call his 15 minutes of fame, detailing interview requests and the people who were celebrating. But most of our posts are photos of himself and his grandchildren, whom he coached with palpable pride after moving to Richmond in recent years.

The night that Hopkins’ relevance as near-famous gave way to UMBC’s Ryan Odom capturing the holy grail of frustration back in 2018, I texted Hopkins to see if he was watching. This exchange perfectly described his post-college basketball life when he answered the next day. Hopkins admitted that he overslept the famous UVA-UMBC game as he was tired after spending the morning with his seven grandchildren.

“I promise no one at UMBC,” he said in a post back in 2018, “had as much fun as I did this morning.”

Phil Hopkins will be remembered as the man who managed to avoid an epic upheaval. When he is buried on Saturday morning, I will remember my friend as someone who still found all the bright spots.


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