The man in perhaps the coolest celebration photo in the history of the NCAA tournament is chuckling at the other end of the phone line.
"This time of year, it seems to always come up," says Steve Merfeld, now a 49-year-old assistant coach at Creighton, then the young-and-upcoming men’s basketball coach at Hampton.
When you look at the picture from the 2001 tournament, it’s easy to see why.
Merfeld not only led Hampton, a No. 15 seed, to a monumental 58-57 upset of No. 2 seed Iowa State, he celebrated in unique fashion -- getting carried around the court by one of his players, David Johnson.
In the famous photo, Merfeld is lifted high into the air. His arms and legs are outstretched in four different directions, like a starfish. A look of pure joy -- and triumph -- explodes off his face.
If you don’t recall the moment, just wait a few days. You’ll see it early and often during the coverage of the tournament.
After all, it’s the 10th anniversary of the game. Hampton is back in the tournament this year. And no 15th seed in the past decade has been able to repeat the school’s feat.
Then there’s this: The celebration is better than any basket from the game. It’s one of the images that helps creates the aura of March Madness.
Merfeld, who helped Creighton get ready for its appearance in the College Basketball Invitational tournament this week, never minds looking back, talking about the magical moment. By Monday afternoon, he already had a half dozen or so media inquiries.
And while his coaching career hasn’t followed the one he dreamed of 10 years ago, he’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s happy where he’s at in life: coaching basketball and raising a family -- not necessarily in that order.
The man in perhaps the coolest celebration photo in the history of the NCAA tournament doesn’t feel his team’s victory in that game was a surprise. He doesn’t feel Hampton was a one-win wonder.
Sure, the win was one of only four all-time for a No. 15 seed. And sure it always comes up when a list of the greatest tournament upsets is made. Merfeld just doesn’t see it that way.
Merfeld insists his team -- led by Tommy Adams, Tarvis Williams, Marseilles Brown, Issac Jefferson and others -- thought it was going to win all along when it took the court that Thursday night in Boise, Idaho.
"The group that I had was very, very talented," he says. "There were a number of good players. They believed that they were going to win, that’s more than half the battle. The kids have to know how to win and believe they can win."
That group, he says, was so confident that it came away from the tournament disappointed after falling to Georgetown, 76-57, in the second round. Forget about any happy-to-wear-Cinderella’s-slipper-for-one-day stuff.
"They were devastated," he says. "They truly believed that were going to win (again)."
In fact, Merfeld believes his team’s performance the following season, even though it lost a lot of its top players, shows just how much talent the team that beat Iowa State had.
Hampton -- unlike the other teams who won as No. 15 seeds (Richmond in 1991, Santa Clara in 1993 and Coppin State in 1997) -- returned to the NCAA tournament the following season.
In 2002, as a No. 16 seed, the Pirates put a scare into UConn -- a team that had future NBA players Caron Butler, Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor -- before losing, 78-67.
Looking back, Merfeld says that was the team he’s most proud of.
"I think that team actually achieved more," he says.
The man in perhaps the coolest celebration photo in the history of the NCAA tournament gets calls from more than just media members this time of year. He’s on the speed dial of NCAA coaches -- especially those who get a No. 15 seed.
"They ask for a copy of the game," he says. "The first thing they want to do is show their team that it can be done.
"Then they ask for advice. I tell them you have to have players who believe they can win. If your kids don’t believe, you have no shot. Then it’s a matter of how you are playing and how they are playing. And how you match up."
Coaching plays a small part, too.
Hampton trailed Iowa State by as much as 11 late in the game. It closed the gap with a 10-0 run in the final seven minutes, mainly because of a key defensive decision. Merfeld had Hampton go to the rarely-used triangle-and-two.
"We had practiced it," he says. "It was just one of those gut feelings that coaches have to make. It obviously worked, but you’re risking that somebody else is going to get a rebound or do something that is going to make you regret your decision."
It didn’t happen in that game.
Williams scored with 6.9 seconds left to take the lead. And when Iowa State couldn’t convert a last-second coast-to-coast run, it was time for the now-famous image.
Because the game was the final contest played on the opening day of the tournament -- ending around midnight on the East Coast -- many didn’t see the ending. The next day, the celebration photo got more attention than the game.
Merfeld is stunned no other team has repeated the feat since, mentioning how Robert Morris nearly did it a year ago before falling to Villanova in overtime.
"Robert Morris should have won," he says. "There’s going to come a year when a No. 16 is going to win."
The man in perhaps the coolest celebration photo in the history of the NCAA tournament hasn’t coached in the NCAA tournament in nine years. He hasn’t been a head coach in four. And he’s okay with that.
Merfeld left Hampton for Evansville after the 2002 tournament and stayed five years.
And though he says he’s proud of the job he did -- "we won a lot of games, beat a lot of good teams" -- it ultimately wasn’t enough. He spent a few years as an assistant at Bradley before joining the staff at Creighton this season.
It’s not the career path predicted for him after the big win. And not the path other mid-level coaches in that 2001 tournament have taken (Thad Motta of No. 1 overall seed Ohio State this year was at Xavier then). But the lifelong Midwesterner insists he’s happy.
"I have a great job," he says. "I’m sure there are a lot of other assistant coaching jobs that pay more money, but the quality of life I have here and the chance to develop players and the support we get makes it a great job.
"Would I treasure the opportunity to be a head coach again? Certainly," he says. "But it would have to be something that was a good fit for myself and my family. "
Family is as important as anything to Merfeld these days.
His daughter Lauren, just a 2-year-old toddler then, is 12 now. His son, Andrew, is 9. Time with them and his wife, Mary Jo, is valued.
Ironically, he thinks he’s a better coach now.
"I’m 10 years wiser … 10 years smarter … 10 years a better coach," he says. "But things change. Your goals change."
The man in perhaps the coolest celebration photo in the history of the NCAA tournament has a copy of the photo.
He just doesn’t know where it is.
It’s not on the walls in the basketball offices at Creighton. Not above the fireplace at home. It’s not, he said, really etched in his mind.
"The (sports information director) at Hampton got the original photo for me," he says. "But to be honest with you, I couldn’t tell you where it is."
It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the moment. It’s just that the moment is gone.
"That’s 10 years ago," he says. "We’re trying to make history here (at Creighton), not live in the past."
That being said, he’s hoping his old school can have another magical moment.
He says he only knows a few people back at Hampton now -- and says he hasn’t heard from anyone there yet this week. The school, however, will have his support when it takes on Duke on Friday. As a No. 16 seed.
"I’m just happy for them," he says. "Happy that they’ve got the program back to that level.
"Obviously, it’s a tough draw, but at the same time, you never know."
No one knows that better than Steve Merfeld.