Feb. 10, 2009

By Greg Johnson

This is a story about plane trips, bus rides, police escorts, cheering crowds, convention center renovations, thread count, one harrowing trip in an elevator and making good decisions.

All of that became the life of 20 members of the NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Basketball Committees for several days this past fall when they were entrusted with determining the cities that would host the Men's and Women's Final Fours from 2012 through 2016.

The stakes are high for the Association, but they are also high for each city. A study estimated that the 2008 Men's Final Four in San Antonio generated more than $47 million in revenue for the city. The Women's Final Four in Tampa, Florida, generated more than $19 million.

Suffice it to say that the competition for future sites is fierce.

The 10 sites vying for the right to host the Men's Final Four were Atlanta, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New Orleans, North Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth), Phoenix/Glendale, St. Louis and San Antonio. The women's committee visited Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Denver; Indianapolis; Nashville, Tennessee; New Orleans; San Antonio; and Tampa, Florida.

While NCAA Champion magazine didn't make all the trips, this is a story about what went down (including the elevator) on those it did.

September 30

Dallas

5 p.m.

Two committee members are assigned to each visit. UCLA Athletics Director Dan Guerrero and Ohio State AD Gene Smith are representing the committee on this one. They are joined by NCAA staff members Tom Jernstedt, Greg Shaheen and L.J. Wright.

Dallas hosted the 1986 Men's Final Four but hasn't been a player for the event since the final three games of the tournament started being held regularly in domed stadiums.

The downtown Dallas hotel at which the group is staying is also hosting a Kabbalah gathering of 1,900 people, and today marks the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Rumor has it that Madonna is here, too, but nobody has seen her.

The first order of business is to tour the Dallas Convention Center; then it's a ride on the Dallas Cowboys version of the Madden Cruiser to the city's arts district. The vehicle has five televisions, all with DirecTV, leather seats, a picture of 2008 champion Kansas with the NCAA trophy, and a shot of Barry Switzer and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones holding the Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XXX.

6 p.m.

Charlotte Jones Anderson, Jerry Jones' daughter and the executive vice president of brand management for the Cowboys, is the primary guide. The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts is impressive, to say the least. Eight years ago, the performing arts center board had a plan to create a world-class cultural center. Through fund-raising and bond elections, the project has received $325 million. By the time the Final Four would be hosted there, the entire plan should be finished.

Basketball fans who enjoy the arts would have abundant entertainment in this 68-acre complex that could host an event such as The Big Dance concert. It will have an opera house, a symphony center, a vertical theater, art galleries and an amphitheater. The complex will rival the Lincoln Center in New York, according to Dallas Center for the Performing Arts CEO Bill Lively, who leads this portion of the tour.

The complex also contains the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, whose alumni include singers Nora Jones, Erykah Badu and baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. It's an example of education and athletics interacting in a campus setting.

9:15 p.m.

After a dinner of steak and chicken-fried lobster, the bus drops the committee members and staff at Victory Plaza, adjacent to American Airlines Center. It has the feel of a mini Times Square, and the night sky is brilliantly lit.

The evening ends at the Ghost Bar, a trendy night spot at the top of the W Hotel, where the dessert trays included a flame in which to roast marshmallows.

October 1

North Texas

7:45 a.m.

The bus departs for breakfast and then takes the group to Arlington, a community between Dallas and Fort Worth. It's where the new $1.1 billion Cowboys football stadium is being built and where the Final Four games would take place.

The stadium is a construction zone, so hard hats and vests are required. When it opens in August 2009, the stadium will accommodate more than 100,000 spectators. The facility, which has a retractable roof and large windows that can be opened in the end zone plazas, is already slated to host the 2011 Super Bowl and the 2010 NBA All-Star Game.

Jerry Jones wants to add the Men's Final Four to the list. He is waiting for the group, hard hat and all, on the plaza level. His presentation is strictly from a collegiate perspective.

The stadium has more than 300 suites in eight locations, most of which are in the center prime viewing area. A 600-ton high-definition digital video board that stretches 60 yards will hang 110 feet over the stadium floor. Two four-acre plazas that can hold 12,000 people apiece would certainly add to the atmosphere of the Final Four.

"We envision this as a place for the students of the schools to be before and after their team is playing," says Jones about the facility that encompasses more than three million square feet. "It can also be a place for corporate or private tents. But we envision a lot of fun going on. There will be music and a collegiate atmosphere where the fans will remember the experience."

San Antonio

5:45 p.m.

No rest as the group boards a bus to tour the Alamodome. San Antonio has hosted the 1998, 2004 and 2008 Men's Final Fours, as well as the 2002 Women's Final Four. At those events, the court was set up in one of the corners and a curtain blocked off the far reaches of the dome.

For this visit, the city's local organizing committee uses its imagination to spice things up.

As the group enters the bowl of the dome, a court is laid out at the 50-yard line, which is the new configuration for the Men's Final Four that can accommodate up to about 70,000 fans in domed stadiums.

San Antonio stages the atmosphere, using the band and cheerleaders from Texas-San Antonio and having students cheer wildly as if a game is going on. And when the travel party enters the area where postgame interviews would be held, a student is pretending to be Kansas coach Bill Self answering questions after the title game. Shaheen thanks the participants for their spirit and congratulates the would-be Self on his championship. The mock media students cheer with approval.

When it's time to look over the locker rooms, another surprise is waiting. Sean Elliott, who played in the 1988 Final Four as a student-athlete at Arizona, is there to give the student-athlete perspective. Elliott won an NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999, and the Alamodome was the team's home venue that season.

"This place can get loud, and it can rock," Elliott says. "It is also good for the fans. You don't have to bus thousands of people across town. With all the hotels and restaurants downtown, you can just walk to the games."

7:15 p.m.

A reception and tour of the upper bowl of the Alamodome takes place. Again, there are Texas-San Antonio students sitting in the seats and cheering wildly as if the Final Four games are being played.

October 2

San Antonio

7:45 a.m.

Breakfast is served at the top of the Tower of the Americas. The view from the rotating restaurant allows all to see the entire city wake up.

A presentation on expansion of the famed River Walk and new hotels scheduled to open soon begins.

10:15 a.m.

The group rides golf carts to the convention center, where the 2008 Hoop City took place.

"I like the fact they didn't try to rest on their laurels," Smith said later. "Everything was about looking toward the future."

Around noon, the group heads to the airport and back to their day jobs.

Finding the right fit for the future of Final Fours

While there is a "wow" factor to these visits, the men's and women's committees make their decisions based on the best interests of the student-athletes, the NCAA membership and fans - not on the meals served during the tour.

Cities must have ample hotel space for all the visitors and areas to hold events such as The Big Dance concert series, NCAA Hoop City, community engagements, and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association and the National Basketball Coaches Association conventions. A limited number of cities can pull it off well, and because there is so much at stake, the competition among those venues is intense.

Shaheen, NCAA senior vice president of basketball and business strategies, and Sue Donohoe, vice president for Division I women's basketball, tell the communities bidding on the future Final Fours to focus on their strengths and not worry about what other cities are doing with their proposals.

But as with any bid process for a major sporting event, each community spends a tremendous amount of time and financial commitment in making their pitch.

"We are blessed that we have 10 bid cities that are truly able to host the Men's Final Four," Shaheen said.

Donahoe said it was encouraging to see the list of new cities that bid for the Women's Final Four, too. "That is a healthy sign for the women's tournament," she said.

Nashville, which will host the Women's Final Four in 2014, has hosted both men's and women's first- and second-round NCAA tournament games in the past. That whetted the city's appetite to host a marquee event.

"This will be the largest intercollegiate athletics event that we could hope to host," said Ohio Valley Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. "It is a magnificent national platform for this community."

October 13

Nashville

1:30 p.m.

Nine of the 10 committee members make this trip, along with the eight-member NCAA Division I women's basketball staff.

Like four of the eight finalists, Nashville is vying to host the event for the first time. The city is building a new convention center and wanted to sync its host consideration with the project's completion in 2012.

"That is a credit to women's basketball, because there are communities that believe this is an event they should pursue," says committee member Darlene Bailey, associate commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference. "People recognize the value of hosting a big event."

6 p.m.

After hotel and convention center tours throughout the afternoon, a reception on the patio of the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall is followed by dinner at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

During dinner, the group is entertained by an "MTV Unplugged" type of performance from Vince Gill and Amy Grant. Gill begins the evening by apologizing to the committee, saying, "I'm sorry, but we're the best you could get on such short notice."

Gill, a huge sports fan, says he has season tickets to everything in town. He attended Belmont's near upset of Duke in the first round of the 2008 men's tournament, then flew to Tampa to watch Vanderbilt's first-round game.

He has some good-natured trash talk for committee Chair and Duke Associate AD Jacki Silar, but to make amends, he asks Grant to play the Duke fight song on her guitar. He also gives Silar a hug at the end of the evening for being a good sport.

9:05 p.m.

"The Honky Tonk Romp" begins as the local organizing committee shows off some of the best night spots along Broadway. Several committee members kick their heels up and try some country line dancing.

October 14

Nashville

7:30 a.m.

This day begins with a walk to the historic Ryman Auditorium, which has stood since 1892 and is the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. New Sony recording artist Crystal Shawanda, whose name means "Dawn of a New Day" in her Native American language, sings songs from her debut CD while the committee has breakfast.

8:45 a.m.

The traveling party begins several hotel tours, and the morning ends with a look at the Sommet Center, which is home to the Nashville Predators and where NCAA men's first- and second-round games have been played in the past.

Columbus

8:40 p.m.

The committee and NCAA staff are welcomed at the Columbus airport. The local organizing committee presents a pep-rally atmosphere wherever the committee goes.

October 15

Columbus

7:30 a.m.

After breakfast, the group tours the hotels, convention center, Nationwide Arena (where the games would be played) and the Ohio State campus. At each stop, people greet the committee with thunderous applause. The committee members, who traveled by bus with a police escort, do their best high school prom queen and king waves as the enthusiasm from the city builds.

Highlights include being marched down the middle of the football field at Ohio Stadium while the Buckeyes' band and cheerleaders are performing. People line both hash marks and applaud.

Ohio State AD Smith, who has switched from receiving the pitch to making it, greets everyone at the 50-yard line. A taped message from Buckeyes' football coach Jim Tressel encourages the committee to strongly consider the city for a future Women's Final Four.

12:30 p.m.

The committee has lunch at Lindy's Restaurant. Many of the Columbus community leaders are there.

The highlight is a speech by Cindy Lazarus, a former judge and the current president of the YWCA. Lazarus tells the committee how a group of influential women in Columbus teamed to make this bid possible. Her message of empowerment is forceful and inspirational, and the audience is clearly moved.

8 p.m.

Dinner is at a well-known Columbus steakhouse, with dessert served at a nearby art gallery.

When the travel party arrives back at the hotel, everyone rushes to catch the end of the final presidential debate. Vice presidential candidate Joe Biden is also staying at the hotel, as evidenced by the uniformed policemen and bomb dogs in the lobby.

October 16

Columbus, Indianapolis

8:30 a.m.

After breakfast, the travel party boards a bus to Indianapolis, which is the third and final site visit of the week.

On the bus, the wear and tear of all the walking is starting to show. Committee member Judy Southard, senior associate athletics director at LSU, is icing her left knee.

The Southland Conference's Tina Cheatham suggests Dr. Scholl's become a sponsor of the committee.

The bus arrives at the committee's Indianapolis hotel a little before noon.

2:30 p.m.

The committee tours the convention center and hears about plans to expand the building toward Lucas Oil Stadium, the new home of the Indianapolis Colts and site of the 2010 Men's Final Four.

The 1.8 million square-foot stadium has ample room to accommodate staging. It's impressive on all levels, and while it is a football arena, it also was built with basketball in mind. The seating structure is flexible. The operations crew can easily transform the building into a 20,000- to 35,000-seat arena for the Women's Final Four.

October 17

Indianapolis

Noon

The last day of this site visit is going as planned until the final hotel stop. That's when committee members Silar, Bailey, Cheatham, Jane Meyer, Rich Ensor and NCAA staff members Rick Nixon, Denee Barracato and Jackie Campbell enter an elevator on the 19th floor. There is a hotel employee and another unidentified guest of the hotel in the car, who probably wished they had waited for the next one.

Just as the car begins to descend, it sounds like one of the cables falls on the roof, which sprinkles dust inside the car. The car begins lurching downward - seemingly almost in a free fall - and then jerks upward. The elevator shakes against a backdrop of loud bangs. Some of those on board think they might not live to select a Final Four site. There are audible gasps, a muffled scream and some tense looks.

Somebody uses the emergency box to call for help, but there is no answer. Somebody else suggests calling the hotel directly. Several BlackBerries appear from purses and pockets.

With the temperature rising rapidly in the car, a voice finally comes from the elevator's emergency speakerphone saying help is on the way. Meanwhile, the lurching and jerking continue. Meyer keeps everyone calm by saying it's good to hear the grinding, because it means the brakes are taking hold.

It is impossible to tell what floor the car is on - or near - since the instrument panel is blinking like an out-of-control video game.

About 10 minutes into the ordeal, maintenance people arrive to pry the doors open. The car has come to rest between the 19th and 20th floors, so as it turns out, the elevator was being yanked up more than pulled down - and the freefall everyone was sure had happened was but a terrifying perception.

"The elevator experience is something I've never had before," Silar said. "It got to be a little frightening. When I get nervous, I get quiet. Because our group is close and cares so much about one another, I looked around and thought, `This could be the last time I see everyone.' "

Nixon and Campbell decide to walk down to the first floor, while the rest buck the odds of becoming stuck in an elevator twice in one day. Everyone arrives safely.

All in all, it is an up and down trip.

The business road ends here ...

After all the site visits, the committees in mid-November announced that Denver, Indianapolis, Nashville, New Orleans and Tampa will host the Women's Final Fours in 2012-16, and that North Texas, Houston, Phoenix, Indianapolis and New Orleans will stage the Men's Final Fours the same years.

The committee members relished the opportunity to select the sites. Even though most of them will not even be on their respective committees when the games they've selected are played, they say repeatedly that service on these boards is among their most satisfying professional duties.

"We were like a recruit on campus and the school is putting its best foot forward, trying to wow you," said Silar. "The enthusiasm came through in all the cities."

And it wasn't easy quelling that energy after the decision was made, either.

"We make these kinds of decisions in our individual jobs," said Smith. "Emotions can't enter into this. We have to stay at an objective level relative to our mission."

That is to make decisions that best suit the student-athletes and the growth of the two championships.

The process reflects the more publicly known procedure in March when committee members fill out their respective brackets.

"This is very similar to that," said Meyer. "We all bring our personal experiences of what we've observed throughout the visits. We take that in and say, `Can they accommodate the teams, do they have the hotels, the airport, the amenities?' We all weigh these things differently."

Guerrero said, "We have been entrusted with the responsibility of making decisions that are in the best interests of the membership, in addition to providing a great experience for the student-athletes, coaches and fans."

That goes not only for who plays on basketball's grandest stage, but for where that stage is.

Oh, and by the way - thread count? That's a term the hotel industry uses to describe the quality of the sheet. The thicker the weave, the higher the thread count.

It gave the committees something to sleep on.