NEW ORLEANS — Jay Dardenne is in hoops heaven.
The Louisiana Lt. Governor is an LSU season-ticket holder and, when younger, was quite proud of his exploits in an annual game played by state legislators.
And now he’s one of the hosts of basketball’s biggest party, the 2012 NCAA Final Four that begins with events starting March 29 in the Crescent City. The national semifinals are March 30, and the championship game is April 2.
“I’m a sports fan and a basketball fan who happens to be the lieutenant governor, not the other way around,” Dardenne said Tuesday at a news conference inside the recently renamed Mercedes-Benz Superdome, site of the games.
“As a fan, I wish LSU was a bit more competitive at this high level this year, but I guess I’ll root for an SEC team to get here.”
True, local fans have been spoiled the past three times the BCS national championship football games have been played here, with LSU winning in 2004 and 2008 and losing just two weeks ago to Alabama.
But the Superdome, where Michael Jordan’s game-winner as a freshman lifted North Carolina to the 1982 NCAA title, where Keith Smart of nearby Baton Rouge hit the winner for Indiana in 1987, where Chris Webber infamously called for a timeout Michigan didn’t have as North Carolina won again in 1993, and where Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to its only crown in 2003, is preparing for another memorable gathering of the college basketball world that attracts fans from all over.
“We can’t wait to see what unfolds in the next couple of months,” said Jeff Hathaway, the former UConn athletic director who is now a consultant to the Big East and chairman of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee.
Tuesday’s event, marked 67 days until the Final Four and included speeches by Dardenne; Tulane’s Rick Dickson, athletic director for the host school; Hathaway; and the NCAA’s Jacqueline Carpenter, director of the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.
“This is the start of the most celebrated championship within the NCAA. We’re very very fortunate and excited to be the host of this,” Dickson said. “We know how to do this, as you well know.”
The Final Four will mark the end of a remarkable stretch of sporting events here.
Or, as Dardenne said, “the eyes of the sports world are focused on Louisiana.”
It started with the New Orleans Bowl, won by Louisiana-Lafayette on a walk-off 50-yard field goal on Dec. 17. On Jan. 3, Michigan went to overtime to beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, on Jan. 9, Alabama beat LSU for college football’s biggest prize, and on March 8, the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament begins in the New Orleans Arena, the building next to the Superdome.
But this Final Four is a bit different logistically than the ones in years past. Because the NCAA has changed the configuration of seating and gone to football-stadium setups, the Superdome has a lot of work on its hands, considering how different is in shape and structure from, for example, Detroit three years ago, Indianapolis in 2010 and Houston 2011. For the first time in New Orleans, the basketball court will be located exactly in the center of the building instead of off to one side.
“We’ve been working on the Final Four for about a year and half,” said Doug Thornton, the senior vice-president of SMG, the company the runs the Superdome and the New Orleans Arena. “We’ve been working deeply with the NCAA staff, all of their sub-contractors, not only planning the spaces inside the Dome in terms of the operational movements, but planning with the city, because there are a lot of other operational things that have to take place, including security, public safety, fan engagement and that kind of thing.”
The fans will hit a hoops bonanza that will include Bracket Town fanfest, a concert series and the Friday practices that are open to the public for free.
And some of those fans will be sitting on about 18,000 seats the Superdome has to construct for the games, which will take about 10 days to build. The total attendance will be about 74,000.
“There will be a lot more better seats,” SMG’s Randy Philipson said.
The dignitaries on hand Tuesday unveiled a likeness of a billboard that showed a countdown to the Final Four and said, “Let’s Show Them How to Celebrate.” Which, of course, few cities can like New Orleans, provided all the work gets done first.
“The event continues to grow,” said Dr. Jeanne Boyd, managing director of the Final Four who has run the event since 2004. The last time it was here, she was an assistant commissioner at the New Orleans-based Sun Belt Conference.
“And we’re going to different buildings every single year. It’s not like going to the College World Series in Omaha every year where you make adjustments,” Boyd said. “So one of our challenges is to retrofit our plans to meet the existing infrastructure, the city’s infrastructure, the hotels that are available, the transportation system and all that. And the event has gotten bigger ever year.”
Accordingly, Boyd and staff and consultant Khalil Johnson and the planning group Populous have already made plenty of visits to Atlanta in advance of the 2013 Final Four and to Dallas, site of the 2014 Final Four.
It’s also worth noting that Dardenne estimated the Final Four will have an economic impact of $134 million on the state of Louisiana and that in 2013 New Orleans is also the site of the Super Bowl and the Women’s Final Four.
“The Mercedes-Benz Superdome has become an iconic symbol of championships,” Dardenne said, “and that’s the way we like it.”