Merfeld guided Hampton to its only NCAA tournament appearnces in 2001 and 2002.

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March 2001. No. 2 seed Iowa State can’t find the basket in the final minutes of its opening round contest with Hampton. The Pirates go on a 14-run, capped by Tarvis Williams’ four-footer in the lane. And when Jamaal Tinsley’s lay-up bounced off the rim, Steve Merfeld’s MEAC champions had pulled off one of the NCAA tournaments more improbable upsets, 58-57.

Merfeld can recount the big shots, the defensive stops and seemingly every key sequence of the game, minus ten seconds. From the final buzzer to his landing in the arms of Pirates’ David Johnson, Merfeld remembers nothing.

“Wow,” says Merfeld of that upset win over ISU. “Those ten seconds once the game was over are lost. Every time I see that replay I try to imagine what must have been going through my mind. It was a great win, but I don’t remember the dance.”

Anyone who knows Merfeld well will agrree that it was a bit out of character for the usually reserved Wisconsin native. But it’s not everyday that a No. 15 beats a No. 2 (fourth time since seeding in 1985).

Merfeld could never have imagined his celebratory victory dance, but it was a moment thirty-two years in the making.

“I knew when I was in the third grade that I wanted to be a head basketball coach one day,” says Merfeld. “From first through eighth grade I was the team manager for the high school team and I was taken by the commitment that players had to one another and the way that they functioned as one.”

Through high school and his first year at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Merfeld never wavered on his future plans, but following his sophomore year the lure of business and living the so-called good life began to way on his chosen career path.

“I wrestled with it,” says Merfeld. “The idea of going into business for myself was very enticing. But my dad gave me some great advice. He said, ‘you don’t need a business degree to go into business, but you do need a degree in education to be an educator.’ After that, I never gave it a second thought.”

Merfeld’s career began with a brief stint at St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin from 1984-86, which was followed by a ten-year run with Jim Larranaga at Bowling Green.

At Bowling Green, Merfeld established himself as a highly regarded recruiter. He was credited with the signing of Antonio Daniels, the fourth pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. Merfeld recruited three Mid-American Conference Rookies of the Year in a five-year span. Two went on to earn MAC Player of the Year honors–Daniels, and Anthony Stacey in 2000. While at BGSU, the Falcons compiled a 148-124 record and played in the NIT in 1990 and 1991.

Still intent on becoming a head coach, Merfeld decided it was time to move on to a different situation and Hampton, VA would prove to be ideal.

“I learned so much working with Jim [Larranaga],” says Merfeld. “I was also fortunate enough to grow up close to [University of] Stevens Point and [University of Wisconsin] Platteville so I absorbed a lot of the things that Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan were doing as coaches. And the opportunity to work with Byron [Samuels] was something that I was excited about.”

Hampton had just made the transition from the division II ranks, under Samuels, but with its resources and commitment it was clear that it would not take long for the school to compete for a MEAC title and an NCAA appearance. It was the type of environment that Merfeld viewed as being perfect to prepare him for a future head coaching position. Little did he know that opportunity would knock sooner than later.

Following Merfeld’s first season at Hampton, Samuels opted to take an assistant coaching position with Jerry Green at the University of Tennessee. Most thought that Hampton, a historically black college in a historically black conference, would simply follow suit and name an African-American to succeed Samuels.

But Hampton athletics director Dennis Thomas wasn’t looking for the right color, he was looking for the right coach. And almost immediately, Merfeld was elevated.

“Let me explain something,” Thomas said in an interview with USA Today. “We had a model that we followed. We were looking for a coach who had great leadership skills and integrity, a coach who could motivate kids, a coach who could discipline kids, graduate young men and represent the university in a first-class manner. If the person comes in white, black, yellow or green, so be it.”

And less than four years after to be named head man, Merfeld was leading the Hampton Pirates into the second round of the NCAA tournament against Georgetown. A year later Hampton was back again to face the University of Connecticut and while there was no 14-2 run or an encore performance by Merfeld on the dance floor, Hampton was the first school to win as a No. 15 seed and return to the big dance the following season.

In just seven seasons at the division I level, Hampton had earned two trips to the NCAAs, both under the guidance of Merfeld.

Now Merfeld hopes to do the same at Evansville, which has been a division I program for twenty-six years, with four NCAA appearances to its credit. But it’s a program that hasn’t had much to cheer about in the last few years.

“I do think we are turning the corner,” says Merfeld. “This program has history and tradition, but we knew it would be a challenge to reestablish that tradition in league [Missouri Valley Conference] with so many great teams and so many great coaches. Our sophomore class is very good and we are making steady improvement.”

Improvement cannot always been measured in wins and losses. While it hasn’t yet translated into a surge up the Valley standings, there are some notable highlights in two short years.

• 5 Victories Over Post-Season Teams (3 NCAA, 2 NIT)

• Highest MVC Finish Since 1999 (5th place, 2003)

• Increased Attendance By 800 Per Game

• UE’s First MVC Tournament Win Since 1999

• Academic All-America Clint Cuffle (2003, 2004)

• Three All-MVC Players

• Four MVC Scholar-Athletes

• One MVC All-Freshman Team Member

Evansville figures to be a bigger factor this season with a rotation that includes five sophomores, three seniors and three newcomers. The Purple Aces have more speed and quickness, attributes that Merfeld so eloquently displayed for ten seconds in 2001.


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