As they prepare for a first-round game against Boise State on Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio, the most obvious question raised by their return isn't why the 21-9 Explorers were absent so long but rather how a small urban school with such outdated facilities managed the feat in the first place.
This will be the first NCAA appearance for La Salle since, after 43 years playing at the Palestra, Convention Hall and the Spectrum, the team returned in 1998 to the new campus arena - actually a refurbished Hayman Center.
With no NCAA bids since then - the drought actually dated from 1992 - La Salle has, in a very real sense, paid the price for its scaled-down ambitions. Though there are other reasons for its long tournament absence - a 2004 rape scandal, coaching changes, and recruiting difficulties among them - the school's lack of a first-class facility has been a primary impediment.
"It's a challenge for schools like ours," Brennan said. "In our conference, Xavier, Richmond, Butler, they're not that big either, but they all have big facilities. That helps drive revenue. That's attractive to recruits. We try to do the best we can. But schools that have smaller facilities are challenged."
Brennan and La Salle officials hope this renewed prominence will lead to consistent success. ("I've always believed we can be a middle-upper in the Atlantic Ten," he said.) That, in turn, will aid recruiting, attendance, and fund-raising. And maybe, though all admit this won't happen anytime soon, an up-to-date basketball arena with new weight and training facilities.
"Ultimately, maybe not in the short term, La Salle University would like to see a new facility for basketball," Brennan said during a recent interview. "We have other priorities on campus now. The school of business is a real big one. But the ambition is to have a new venue."
Without a larger, amenities-laden building to attract bigger crowds, bigger contributions, and bigger-named recruits, La Salle basketball, to a large extent, has had to compete on the cheap.
'Find a sugar daddy'
According to the annual financial reports mandated by the U.S. Department of Education, the Explorers spent just more than $2 million on men's basketball in 2011-12.
That's a third of Big Five rival Villanova's expenditures, and half of Temple's. It's even a million less than St. Joseph's, the local school whose profile is most like La Salle's.
By way of comparison with other small Catholic schools nationally, fellow Atlantic Ten members Xavier and Fordham spent $4.7 million and $3.3 million, respectively. Elsewhere, the Mountain West's Gonzaga put out $6.1 million, a total made possible by a larger on-campus arena it opened in 2004.
Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed in the West Regional, spent $25 million on its 6,000-seat, state-of-the-art McCarthey Athletic Center.
"Gonzaga really was a nobody until 15 years ago," said Andrew Fellingham, an official with New York-based Inter-Collegiate Athletic Consulting. "That's when they said, 'We like winning, and we want to continue to win. So we're going to pay the price.' If you're going to win, you can't go to a gunfight with a knife.
"Of course, they didn't have much competition in Spokane. If La Salle were to do that, they'd have to consider the competition from the professional teams and all the other colleges in Philadelphia. Then there's the question of how they would finance it. They'd probably have to find a sugar daddy."
As consultant to a number of mid-majors such as La Salle, Fellingham has seen schools facing this dilemma before. They want to compete consistently in their conferences and appear in the NCAA regularly. But they aren't always able to make the necessary financial commitment.
"You have to decide what you want to do. You have to define the success level for your institution and the program," Fellingham said. "Then you can come up with how much it will cost to get to that level. In most cases when we do that, and we tell schools how much it will cost, they all spit their coffee onto the conference-room table. It's pretty expensive."
La Salle has been taking small steps in that direction. In 2011, Jim Gulick was hired as the director of a new, four-person athletic-development staff.
"Starting with last year, as the basketball team began to rack up the wins, 20 wins and an NIT berth, things were trending up," Gulick said. "We saw growth in fund-raising. It absolutely has carried over this year as the team has carried over the momentum. We're right on track, and we're looking forward to a bump from the NCAA tournament."
The school reported its average home attendance this season as 2,910. It was 2,209 last season, 2,213 in 2010-11, and 2,171 in 2009-10.
Also, in 2010, coach John Giannini was awarded a multiyear contract extension. Though details were not revealed, the website Coaches Hot Seat lists his annual salary at $275,000. A 2011 USA Today survey found that the average salary of coaches in that year's NCAA tournament was $1.4 million.
"Our salaries are competitive," Brennan said. "We kicked it up for the head coach, and we're very competitive for the assistant coaches."
One financial break La Salle gets is its recruiting budget. Because Giannini scouts heavily in Philadelphia and its suburbs (eight of the roster's 13 players are from within 150 miles of its campus), the athletic department's total recruiting budget for its 18 men's and women's sports was $159,023. St. Joseph's, by contrast, spent more than $280,000.
"I used to work at New Mexico," Brennan said, "and whenever a coach wanted to go somewhere, he had to fly. This is a real advantage for us."
In the late 1990s, when the move to a campus arena was being planned, La Salle contemplated making Tom Gola's capacity 8,000 before ultimately settling on a smaller version.
Until a video board was added two years ago - thanks to a gift from 1962 graduate John Glaser - the amenities at the modest building near 20th and Olney remained basically unchanged.
"Our immediate goal now is to make Gola Arena the best home-court advantage we can," said Brennan. "If we keep that going, if people get excited, we'll work our way through our priorities. Our focus right now is not really to talk about a new venue, but to keep [the on-court success] going. Because once you get down, it's hard to get up."
Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz.