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The first student in the door at FGCU has never seen the basketball team play a game, not even on television. She will Friday.
“I didn’t even know this was going on until my mother and sister called,” Mariana Coto James said over the phone from Orlando about her alma mater’s trip to the Sweet 16 to play Florida. “I feel obligated. I’d better watch that game. I’d better tune in quickly.”
In an NCAA tournament underdog story that glows with charm, this is one of the wonderful oddities — FGCU is so new, opening in August 1997, it is possible to talk to the first student ever admitted there. Think you can do that at Harvard?
“It’s something I’m proud to talk about, because it can only happen once in lifetime, and not to too many people,” she said. “It doesn’t happen that often that a university is built from the ground up.”
In the beginning, there was Mariana Coto. She sent an application into this newfangled school and was accepted in January 1997 and — well, let her tell it:
“I don’t know if it was my prayers being answered. I had a son at an early age and I was very determined to go to a university and it just happened that Florida Gulf Coast University was being built a couple of miles down the street from where my mother lived.”
We’re talking built from scratch, too; 760 acres of Southwest Florida wild land. Susan Evans, FGCU vice president and chief of staff, has been there from the first planning days in 1993.
“The only way we could see the site was to be brought out — the entire five-employee staff — by four-wheel drive,” she said, “and then our campus master planner and environmental consultant would walk ahead of us and take a machete and cut the path so we could have a way to walk through campus.”
What’d they find? “Wild boar, alligators, a coyote,” Evans said. Plus the Eastern indigo snake, which is endangered and had to be carefully removed by federal law when found. One snake could, and did, bring construction to a halt.
And 20 years later, the basketball team is in the Sweet 16?
There was no wild boar when Coto arrived in 1997. But nothing fancy, either.
“It’s hard to imagine where I began,” she said. “I don’t remember more than four buildings. I remember our cafeteria basically consisted of two vending machines. It’s unimaginable what it’s grown into today.
“Sports, I don’t think was even a topic of discussion then. No way.”
According to Evans, Coto was one of 2,548 students. Now there are 13,488, and still the occasional Eastern indigo snake.
Now Mariana Coto — prominently named on the university web site as the student who started it all — is a nurse educator at an Orlando hospital, with a husband and two kids. Somewhere in the house, she said, is “a whole box of mementos from being the first student there. I still have the letter of admission. I still have the scissors from when we cut the ribbon.”
She’s a basketball fan, but that means the Orlando Magic. “College basketball,” she said, “is something I really never followed.”
Until this week, as she sees the nation go gaga over her school.
“This is something I would never have imagined,” she said. “People would ask me where I graduated. I’d tell them, and they’d say where? Where’s that? If they ask me now, I think they’ll quickly recognize the name.
“If sports is what puts us on the map, then hey, we’ll go for it.”
The First Student of Florida Gulf Coast has one plan this week. She’ll be wearing Eagles blue and green every day, even if she barely knows the team.
“I owe it to my university.”