An Eastern Shore link to the NCAA men’s basketball tourney

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COURTESY PHOTO Pictured from left are Larry Lee Rowley, a 1987 Nandua High School graduate; his son, Lawrence Rowley, an assistant basketball coach at Princeton University; his wife, Stephanie Johnson Rowley, dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Education, and his mother-in-law, Gloria Webster Johnson.

BY TED SHOCKLEY, Eastern Shore Post —

A 1987 Nandua High School graduate will be in the grandstand in Louisville on Friday, March 24, to watch his son help coach the most surprising team in this year’s NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. 

Lawrence Rowley is an assistant coach for Princeton University’s basketball team, which didn’t figure to make a deep run in the spectacle known as March Madness. 

But Princeton won its first two games and is one of only 16 teams remaining in the 68-team tournament — and by far its biggest surprise.

The team has overcome obstacles — just like Lawrence Rowley’s father did, growing up on the Eastern Shore.

Today, Accomack County native Larry Lee Rowley is director of strategic initiatives at the University of Virginia, where he earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. 

His mother died the summer before he began kindergarten. His father died when Rowley was in third grade. 

He went to live with an uncle who died a year later. He had a difficult time with his aunt, now deceased.

“It is not a happy story,” said Rowley. “It was not pleasant growing up in her house.”

He said, “Education was my ticket out, to build a better life for myself.”

After receiving his undergraduate degree from Old Dominion University, he embarked on a career in higher education. 

He met his wife, Stephanie Johnson Rowley, while in graduate school at U.Va. Today she is dean of U.Va.’s School of Education.

“The power of education and faith have just been really important to us,” Larry Lee Rowley said.

But Rowley, typical of many Eastern Shore natives, doesn’t want the spotlight. It is his son’s moment.

Lawrence Rowley grew up in Michigan, where his parents were professors at the University of Michigan. He remembers childhood trips back to the Eastern Shore. Most of his relatives here since have died or moved away.

Lawrence Rowley was a standout basketball player at Emory University, which he picked as much for the academics as athletics. 

“We played at a high level, we competed for championships, but we also valued our education,” he said. 

He fit right in as a coach at Princeton, the Ivy League school where athletics are important — but don’t define the school or its students. 

Last week, Princeton defeated the heavily favored University of Arizona — one of the tournament’s all-time upsets — before defeating the University of Missouri. 

Next it will play Creighton University. The game has been a primary focus to sports fans across the nation — but for the Princeton players, school work comes first.

“They made it to the Sweet 16 but when we came back, they were in class on Monday,” said Lawrence Rowley of the team’s players.

“This week, some guys have been coming in for individual workouts, but they’re still in class.”

That’s a refreshing difference from the money-fueled landscape of college sports we often hear about. 

Today, big-time college athletes can earn money off their names and likenesses. Big-name schools earn tens of millions of dollars annually from television contracts. Student-athletes transfer between universities — and some are more serious about their sports than their classes.

At Princeton, things are different. One of the basketball players speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and plays Spanish classical guitar. 

“It’s unique,” said Lawrence Rowley of the environment.

But that doesn’t mean Princeton is cowed by the bigger-name basketball programs. 

“We’ve been confident,” Lawrence Rowley said. “Dreams are coming true for us, in a way.”

The father and son always have been fans of the NCAA basketball tournament and remember watching the games and filling out their brackets.

“We always had that father-son bonding time, sitting on the couch for hours” while watching the nonstop flow of tournament games. Now they get to experience it firsthand, as a participant and spectator. 

Years ago, Larry Lee Rowley wrote a note to then-Accomack County Superintendent Rick Bull, thanking him for the school system that raised him. The elder Rowley was invited back to speak to teachers and personnel.

“That whole group in Accomack County schools made a huge difference in my life,” he said.

One generation later, his son carries on the family tradition of education and hard work — on the biggest stage in sports. 

“My parents have been my biggest supports my entire life,” said Lawrence Rowley. “It’s something I’m grateful for.”

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