By Andrew Simonson

Photos by Ethan Lowe, Meg Robinson, Samford University Athletics & Contributed

In a sold-out Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, the home of the NBA’s Utah Jazz, and in front of a national television audience, the Samford Bulldogs men’s basketball team rallied back against the Kansas Jayhawks and nearly toppled one of the perennial powerhouses in the NCAA Tournament.

In the midst of their improbable run, a simple chant broke out: “Let’s go Samford.” It started small, then it rose to fill the arena, and it returned multiple times throughout the second half as the Bulldogs, nearly 1,800 miles from many of their fans in Homewood, became the crowd favorite.

Soon enough, Samford University would be the talk of the country.

But, it wasn’t always that way.

In just four years, coach Bucky McMillan, the players, staff and supporters at Samford have transformed the men’s basketball program from one of the worst teams in the Southern Conference into the hottest ticket in town and a perennial championship contender, winning the school’s first SoCon Tournament title to play in March Madness for the first time since 2000.

That journey from barren gyms to packed NBA arenas took twists and turns along the way, but in the eyes of McMillan and the Bulldogs, it’s a journey that’s not finished yet.

Samford MBB Media Day

Mountains and Valleys

In March 2020, Samford searched for a spark after a 10-23 campaign, where it lost in the first round of the SoCon Tournament for the second time in three seasons.

That led them to a coaching search where an unlikely front-runner emerged: Bucky McMillan.

Bucky had already etched his name into local lore as a Birmingham-Southern graduate, who returned to his hometown of Mountain Brook to coach Mountain Brook High School to five boys basketball state championships.

After Bucky established the Spartans as one of the top programs in the country, Samford athletic director Martin Newton reached out to him, and the two of them knew they had the resources and planning to turn the Bulldogs around.

“I knew that with the connections in our hometown and in Alabama that I have, that Martin has, that we could rally this place together, and I knew we could get to the top of the league,” Bucky says.

Samford announced Bucky as the new head coach in April of that year, and the hire was not without its detractors. High school coaches typically don’t make the leap to become college head coaches, especially at an NCAA Division I program in a tough conference such as the SoCon.

Bucky used his plan and experience from Mountain Brook to recruit players such as Jermaine Marshall—a Hueytown High School graduate, who transferred to Samford in 2021 to help prove the doubters wrong.

“To come here and to win here at Samford and to change the whole culture like he has done is a truly amazing thing,” Jermaine says. “I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Doubters into Believers

Changing the culture was one of the team’s biggest challenges in the early years of Bucky’s  tenure as they hoped to turn around their fortunes on the court.

To him, “Bucky Ball” wasn’t just a high-tempo, high-pressure playstyle on the court, but it was also a mentality that carried into every aspect of life.

It looked like being on-time for everything, not just showing up for class and study hall, but sitting in the first two rows in class and remaining dedicated to both schoolwork and every other aspect of their lives.

“Coach Bucky likes to do things to a standard, and he doesn’t care what type of player you are or what type of person you are—it’s a championship standard,” Jermaine says. “That’s how he changed things.”

MBB vs ETSU Socon Championship 03-11-2024

Over time as the culture changed, the wins followed, and as the wins came, Bucky and the players got involved in the Samford community. Word spread about “Bucky Ball,” and students came to support.

By Bucky’s third season in 2022-23, Samford filled up the lower bowl of its arena on national television, and many games featured a raucous atmosphere, which was contagious for the players.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t reach their destination of the NCAA Tournament in 2022-23 as late season injuries and other factors dropped them into a tie for the SoCon regular season title with new rival Furman and a quarterfinal exit to a tough Chattanooga team in the SoCon Tournament.

That motivated the players to band together and finish the job in 2023-24, as Jermaine and Bucky both agreed that playing united and for each other made the difference a year later.

“I feel like everybody played for one another,” Jermaine says. “We’ve been down multiple times this year, but we always came back. We always kept fighting, and we never quit on one another. I feel like that’s what kind of makes us special.”

As a result, Samford set a school record for wins with a 29-6 record, which included a 17-game win streak. The Bulldogs claimed the SoCon regular season title outright and won three games in three days to win the program’s first SoCon Tournament championship in school history, which punched the ticket to the Bulldogs’ first NCAA Tournament in 24 years.

That gave it another stage to showcase Bucky Ball on as they faced the No. 3 seed, Kansas, in Salt Lake City. After a slow start, the Bulldogs’ energy and heart captivated the crowd, something that Jermaine says doesn’t surprise him.

“It was amazing,” Jermaine says of the experience. “The whole gym was screaming, ‘Let’s go Samford,’ on our comeback run, and I just feel like the way we play and how hard we play, you can tell we want it more than anybody on the court.”

Onward and Upward

The comeback would not end in a signature win as a controversial foul call on AJ Staton-McCray’s chase-down block on the Jayhawks’ Nicolas Timberlake was part of multiple moments in the final minutes of the game that tipped the result in Kansas’ favor.

However, the controversy created a viral moment on social media as fans across the country supported Samford and said the Bulldogs should have won.

While Bucky and the team took the high road, not blaming the official for being put in that position, they used that online buzz just like when they lined up 5-foot-8 Dallas Graziani for the tipoff against the 7-foot-4 reigning player of the year, Zach Edey, in the season opener against Purdue. They used it to gain fans and spread the word about Samford University—this time through the team’s new tagline, “All heart. All ball.”

“I think that the more notoriety, people can see Samford come across their screen or see it on their social media and say, ‘What is Samford?’” Jermaine says. “That’s one of my main goals—not just for us to be good at basketball. I know that this place is incredible, and I’ll vouch for it ‘til the day I die.”

Bucky takes a bird’s-eye approach to coaching at Samford. His belief is that his team’s success on the court will not only bring people to the university, but also raise the profile of Homewood and Birmingham as a whole.

He wants to make sure that everyone in the community, from businesses to boosters to students to fans, feels involved in the program because he knows that it will take an even greater level of support to keep the team moving forward.

“I’m so appreciative of those who have poured in, but I promise you, just as quickly as we went from one of the bottom teams in the league to the top, we can go right from the top to the bottom without that same support,” Bucky says.

Samford MBB Media Day

While Bucky was tabbed by media and fans as one of the top candidates in the coaching cycle, he doubled down on his commitment to the Bulldogs by signing a contract extension through 2032 less than a week after the season ended.

He says one of the reasons he signed on was because his plan wasn’t to just get to the NCAA Tournament, but to advance further and be in the mix for the Final Four while challenging for the top 25 rankings.

He believes that Samford has the support from the top-down to make it happen, and his belief in that makes him the right person to lead the program forward.

“If I didn’t think we could get to that second weekend, I wouldn’t be here—that’s just it,” Bucky says. “I’m here because I think we can win at a high level.”

That work so far has netted Bucky three straight SoCon Coach of the Year awards and his team multiple All-SoCon selections and awards during one of the most successful stretches in Samford history.

“He had three back-to-back, 20-plus-win seasons, and a lot of teams in the SoCon don’t get that, and for him to do it this fast, this quickly and to gather the whole support of Homewood, Birmingham and the Samford community around him and behind him, it’s incredible,” Jermaine says.

The impact on the community may be what Bucky is most proud of. In the years since he left Mountain Brook High School, he drives around his hometown, seeing kids dressed in Spartans neon yellow and green with basketballs in hand. Mountain Brook is firmly solidified as a basketball town, as evident by the continued success of MBHS, which reached the Class-6A boys basketball title game once again in 2024.

Now, he sees something similar at Samford University and the city of Homewood. Basketball is spreading, and because of it, a city has its champion, and the world is learning about Homewood and the people who call it home.