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Associated Press
Florida Gulf Coast teammates celebrate their win over San Diego State in the NCAA tournament.

Fast track to collegiate credibility

If you’re wondering how Florida Gulf Coast University became the first 15th seed in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to advance to the Sweet 16, look no further than the ur-text of the school’s economics department: “Atlas Shrugged.”

Embedded in this long, ponderous novel – required reading for all undergraduate economics and finance majors at FGCU – is the formula for transforming your college from a bunch of trailers on a swamp into the most talked-about school in the country. It’s simple, really. All you need to do is practice what Ayn Rand called “rational self-interest.”

Don’t waste your time wooing Nobel laureates to your faculty or trying to recruit National Merit Scholars to a college they’ve never heard of. Do what any self-respecting entrepreneur would do: Devote your resources to building a first-class Division I basketball program.

It’s not going to happen overnight, but FGCU pulled it off pretty quickly. It might have happened sooner, were it not for that great bane of Rand and her acolytes: regulators. The Eagles basketball program started in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and had to apply more than once before being accepted into the National Collegiate Athletic Association – at the Division II level. Even after being granted permission to move up to Division I, the team had to wait three years before becoming eligible for postseason play.

Florida Gulf Coast University won its first NCAA tournament game in the school’s second year of eligibility, a mere 16 years after graduating its first student. Harvard won its first tournament game this year, too – 371 years after its first commencement. (They may be a little slow in Cambridge, Mass., but Harvard finally seems to have figured out the allocative efficiency of college basketball: This year, the Crimson managed to lure away one of the nation’s most coveted high-school prospects from the likes of Wake Forest, UCLA and Texas.)

Just how valuable is a strong showing in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament? As it happens, Butler, whose improbable run to the 2010 Final Four is still the stuff of legend, has studied this very question. Its near-championship run – it lost in the finals to Duke – generated precisely $639,273,881.82 in publicity for the university. That’s to say nothing of the increases in merchandise sales and charitable giving, or the 41 percent surge in applications.

FGCU didn’t need to commission any studies. It understands implicitly the crass commercial calculations that the NCAA promotes, against its own stated goals. FGCU recognized that nothing would raise the young school’s profile like sports – men’s basketball in particular.

“I knew that the university would grow, and it will, as a result of the athletic program,” William Merwin, then the school’s president, said in 2001, after the chief executive officer of a local agribusiness company donated $5 million for FGCU’s sports programs.

A chunk went toward finishing construction on the basketball team’s $14 million arena. (Randians might not approve, but the state agreed to underwrite the bulk of the arena’s cost because it includes classroom space.) The balance was reserved for athletic scholarships and coaches’ salaries.

Everybody’s favorite underdog of this year’s tournament is less a Cinderella story than a college-basketball powerhouse in its infancy. FGCU’s athletic director, Ken Kavanagh, came from Bradley, a school with a storied hoops tradition. Its 43-year-old head coach, Andy Enfield, was a well-known assistant coach at Florida State, where he developed a reputation as an aggressive recruiter.

Enfield hasn’t exactly had to scrounge for talent. His team’s point guard, Brett Comer, grew up playing youth basketball with Austin Rivers, a current starter for the New Orleans Hornets and the son of former NBA star Doc Rivers. The father of one of Enfield’s bench players, Filip Cvjeticanin, played alongside Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic on the Yugoslavian national team that won a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics.

Rand wasn’t much of a sports fan, but she would have loved Enfield. To begin with, he’s a proud capitalist: Before becoming a basketball coach, he made a fortune with a health care startup. (Rand: “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction.”) Enfield’s wife is a model, validating Rand’s belief that in order for a man to be truly satisfied, he needs “the highest type of woman ... the hardest to conquer.” Rand would also have found a lot to like in the Eagles’ style of play: unconstrained, creative and utterly self-confident. “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.”