Iona can find March Madness inspiration in 1980 team

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Every major college coach wanted the 6-foot-10, 240-pound kid from Sachem High School on Long Island, but it was the late Jim Valvano who won the prize and put Iona College on the map.

Jeff Ruland recalled Valvano’s siren-call pitch: “Come to New York. Come to Iona. Picture the night. It’s MSG, sold out, come with a bunch of guys from Long Island and let’s kick the s–t out of the No. 1 team in the country in front of 19,000 New Yorkers.”

“It was Dare to Dream,” Ruland said. “That’s part of the reason why I went.”

That dream was realized when Ruland and fellow Long Islanders Glenn Vickers and Kevin Hamilton trounced Darrell Griffith and Louisville, No. 2 at the time and the eventual national champion, 77-60, on Feb. 21, 1980. It was the greatest victory in Iona basketball history.

“It’s one of the few regrets I have in my life,” Ruland told The Post, “that at the end of that game, I ran into the locker room instead of just standing at half-court and taking it all in.”

Rick Pitino is the Iona coach now, and he and his Gaels dare to dream on Saturday against No. 2-seed Alabama.

Asked what kind of chance the Cinderella MAAC champs have, Ruland said, “That’s why they play the game!”

Ruland went on to an eight-year NBA career, and coached Iona for nine seasons — a 139-135 record with three conference championships and three NCAA Tournament losses.

“I didn’t realize they’ve only had three Top 25 victories — one of them I played in and the other two I coached,” Ruland said.

Valvano never stopped daring to dream, and the images of him running joyously around The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., after his North Carolina State team shocked top-seeded Houston for the 1983 national championship are etched in memories.

There was never a dull moment with Valvano, rollicking occasions when Dare to Scream might have seemed appropriate.

“We’re playing Split Rock Golf Course,” Ruland began. “It’s the summer before I enroll … drank maybe a few beers, and he hits the ball up into the woods. So five minutes go by, and it’s closing in on 10, and here he comes roaring down the hill in the cart — and he’s got no clothes on [laugh].”

Yes, naked.

“I almost decommitted after that,” Ruland said, and chuckled.

Then there was a flight either to or from the Great Alaskan Shootout.

“I went to sleep and I woke up to music and watching a conga line go around the plane, it’s led by James V. Valvano, the stewardesses and the pilots and part of the passengers,” Ruland recalled. “A conga line at 20,000 feet.”

Before a game against LIU, Valvano tried a Win One For the Gipper ploy.

“He did that once with the Knute Rockne speech. It didn’t go over well, the guys didn’t know who the f–k Knute Rockne was,” Ruland said. “He had one of those old recorders, and he was playing the speech from the movie. And he turns around, there’s no reaction. He walks out and then all the guys look at me and they go: ‘Who the f–k is Knute Rockne?’ I go, ‘Don’t worry about it, I got it.’ ”

Why would he trot out The Gipper before an LIU game?

“That was Jim, man,” Ruland said. “He stopped practice once, we just ran out, we had a team snowball fight.”

Ruland went back and got his degree in communications in 1991. He just wishes his coaching tenure hadn’t ended badly.

“It’s very difficult recruiting when they fire your assistants a couple of years prior, which violated my contract about 25 different ways,” Ruland said.

He will be watching the Gaels from Stamford, Conn., rooting for the upset, and for Pitino assistant Tom Abatemarco.

“For two-and-a-half years I either saw him in person, got a handwritten note or talked to him on the phone,” Ruland said. “There was no limit with contacts back then. He could literally sleep out in front of my house for like a week in his car.”

Ruland saw the Gaels play in person in Atlantic City.

“Very good defensively,” he said. “Turn the ball over a little too much sometimes, and shot selection, the better they do in those two areas, the better chance they have to win. Coach does a great job with the tempo and everything.”

Dare to Dream.

“As corny as his s–t could be sometimes,” Ruland said of his old coach, “he could get you believing, man.”

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