The Final Four changed forever the weekend it showed up to New Orleans in 1982
NEW ORLEANS – The world was changing that night even if the crowd that surged up Poydras Street toward the gleaming dome had no idea how. This was 1982 and the weekend of an experiment many didn’t want with the NCAA’s championship basketball game about to be played in a football stadium.
The hint of money was everywhere. Television trucks from a network new to college basketball hummed outside. In three hours, a North Carolina freshman whom many still called Mike Jordan would hit one of the game’s most glorious jump shots, and the NCAA tournament was about to go to places it had never been before.
Hate the $5-million coach? Hear Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun growl he won’t give back one dime to a crumbling state economy and shake your head in disgust?
Look back to those three days in 1982 and realize the roots of big-money college basketball started here inside the Superdome’s great, metallic husk.
But realize, too, this is when March first went mad, turning it into one of the most anticipated months of the year. It happened not because of Jordan’s jumper or Dean Smith or the vanquished Patrick Ewing, but because a CBS executive named Neal Pilson took a chance on a game not yet marketed on a mass scale. For 1982 was the year CBS snatched the tournament’s broadcast rights from NBC, the year the network wondered if people would watch a show announcing the tournament’s field, and just like that, something bigger than any of them ever could have imagined was born.
Maybe this all would have happened without CBS or the Superdome. Eventually, someone would have paid a lot of money to buy the NCAA tournament, or the NCAA would have realized it wanted to sell more tickets than a 17,000-seat arena could provide. Yet the game that college basketball has become might never have blossomed as fast as it did were it not for 1982.
[Related: As Superdome goes, so does New Orleans]
As far back as the late 1970s, the NCAA was intrigued by the possibility of playing a Final Four in a big, domed stadium. Still, it took a leap of imagination. The greatest of all finals at the time, the 1979 game with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, was played at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center – a quaint, round building with plenty of intimacy but only 15,000 seats.
It was obvious to a five-member team hoping to bring the championship to New Orleans in 1982 that the NCAA’s site-selection committee wanted to see if a Final Four could work in a domed stadium. Would 40,000 people buy tickets? 50,000? Would it be worth it? Would a big stadium ruin the charm of the smaller buildings built for basketball?
In their bid, the team from New Orleans suggested selling 45,000 tickets. The attendance for the Georgetown-North Carolina final was 61,612. There were 75,421 tickets sold for last season’s national semifinals in Houston’s Reliant Stadium.
But changing a culture is never easy. The National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) opposed the move, citing a lack of atmosphere. And when the Superdome was selected over 24,000-seat Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., the NCAA was taking a risk it wasn’t sure it was ready to make.
Around the same time the NCAA was pondering the idea of giving its Final Four to New Orleans, the bosses at CBS were looking to bet heavy on sports. Under Pilson, the network’s new sports head, CBS bought the Daytona 500, spent more on college football and began looking for other programming possibilities. Someone suggested the NCAA tournament. Calls were made, bids put out and suddenly CBS had that, too.
But what to do with it?
“We decided to link everything together and kind of tell a story,” Pilson said last week by phone.
The network stunned the NCAA by asking if it could announce the tournament brackets with a half-hour show. Then it worked to build a storyline that stretched through two weekends of a tournament, culminating with the Final Four. Eventually it started calling the tournament “The Road to the Final Four,” writing the name on the side of its production trucks and marketing the concept endlessly during its regular-season game telecasts.
The idea stuck. Some of this was luck. It’s not hard selling a Jordan jumper to win one championship and Jim Valvano racing circles around the court in Albuquerque the next.
Viewers bought into the storyline CBS was selling, and when the network came back to negotiate the next deal, the NCAA asked for an extra year, which pumped the contract’s total value to $1 billion, making it the first entity to sell its rights for such a massive sum.
“Now, aside from the Super Bowl, this is the biggest sports event of the year,” Pilson said. “This has eclipsed the World Series and is bigger than the NBA, probably. It’s a David vs. Goliath event. All of those things create interest.”
The summer after that first Final Four in the Superdome, Jud Heathcote presented the NABC’s report on the event to the NCAA. At the time, Heathcote was the head coach at Michigan State, just three years removed from winning the Magic-Bird game. He also was one of the most influential coaching voices and a powerful member of the NABC. In his report, he talked about walking down Bourbon Street one night during the Final Four, where he encountered a group of University of Minnesota fans walking arm-in-arm singing their team’s fight song. When he asked why they were there when the Gophers weren’t, they told him they’d been trying to get Final Four tickets for years but never could because there weren’t any available.
Which it turns out was the point. Putting the Final Four inside a dome 30 years ago wasn’t an experiment. It had been ready for this all along. Now at times it’s easy to hate what college basketball has become. It’s easy to hate the NCAA and its relentless pursuit of money. It’s easy to hate the coaches who chase multimillion-dollar deals, abandoning players because the money is better someplace else.
But what’s not to love about a tournament now twice as big as it was that night? What’s not to love about filled bracket sheets covered with Xs and circles and tacked to refrigerators? What’s not to love about George Mason and Butler and VCU?
Yes the game changed that March night now 30 years gone, but who can’t say it’s better than it’s ever been?
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