Marching to Atlanta

(2003-13)

Atlanta had to wait a quarter-century for its second Final Four, from the first in 1977 at the Omni until the event finally visited again in 2002 at the Georgia Dome. But then the city had to wait only five years for its third Final Four in 2007 and only six years after that for its fourth.

The 2002 and 2007 Final Fours, deemed successes by the NCAA, established Atlanta’s prime place in the rotation of one of sports’ mega-events.

“Three times in the last 11 years — that’s a pretty good run,” said Mike Bobinski, the outgoing chairman of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee and the incoming athletic director at Georgia Tech. “If you keep doing that, other cities are going to get jealous around the country.”

Since 2002, seven cities have hosted the men’s Final Four, four of them more than once. Counting this year’s event, no city has hosted the Final Four as often as Atlanta during that span.

Here in 2002, Maryland won its first national championship by defeating Kansas 97-88 in a semifinal and Indiana 64-52 in the final. The Terps brought to Atlanta a senior-laden team led by famously intense coach Gary Williams and All-American guard Juan Dixon, who scored 33 points in the semifinal and 18 points in the final to cap a tournament in which he scored 155 in six games.

And here in 2007, Florida won its second consecutive championship by defeating UCLA 76-66 in a semifinal and Ohio State 84-75 in the final. The Gators brought to Atlanta a juggernaut that had bucked the times by deferring NBA fortunes to remain together for a shot at back-to-back titles. They completed their goal against the same school that Florida defeated three months earlier for college football’s national championship.

As soon as Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah — all of whom would be among the top nine picks of the 2007 NBA draft — and the rest of the Gators left the Georgia Dome with their championship trophy, Atlanta organizers set their sights on luring the Final Four back as soon as 2012 or 2013.

Said Greg Shaheen, then the NCAA executive in charge of the event, on the morning after the Gators' celebration: "Just one request of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia … make sure you save all of your notes from this year's Final Four."

Privately, the local committee preferred a 2013 return over 2012 in order to be part of the tournament's 75th anniversary celebration. In November 2008, when awarding the 75th Final Four to Atlanta, the NCAA cited several reasons: the downtown hotel/hospitality infrastructure, the Georgia Dome staff and the handling of the '02 and '07 events here.

“In this business, you want to get repeat business, especially with big events like the Final Four,” said Gary Stokan, president of the Atlanta Sports Council from 1998 until 2010. “That was kind of the strategy: If we execute right, we’ll get it back because our city has the infrastructure to host major sporting events like that.”

Atlanta has had an up-close view of the Final Four’s recent growth spurt.

When local boosters made their winning bid for the 2002 Final Four — way back in July 1993, one year after the Georgia Dome opened — they showed the NCAA a computer generation of what the Dome would look like with the court in the middle of the building and 70,000-plus people watching basketball. The NCAA decided to go with a different configuration for 2002 and 2007 — placing the court on one end, seating about 53,500 and curtaining off the rest of the building. (Still, compare that to the 1977 Final Four at the Omni, Philips Arena’s predecessor, where Al McGuire-coached Marquette defeated North Carolina for the championship before 16,086 fans.)

Since 2009, the NCAA has required 70,000 seats for the Final Four. So this time the court will be in the middle of the stadium, and that 20-year-old computer generation will come to life, with about 74,000 fans in the stands.

Atlanta also has seen the Final Four grow outside the venue. During the ’07 Final Four, more than 150,000 people attended concerts and other events in Centennial Olympic Park, and more than 40,000 attended the interactive fan festival at the Georgia World Congress Center.

“One of the things we wanted to accomplish was to make that a Final Four where you could really experience the Final Four even if you didn’t have a ticket,” recalled William Pate, who was chairman of Atlanta’s 2007 local organizing committee.

“As you think about the progression of the Final Four from 2002 to ’07 to ’13, what we’ve definitely seen is an expansion of the ancillary events around the games,” said Pate, now president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It used to be that from the Saturday (semifinals) to Monday, that was a long wait. They’ve done a nice job of filling that in with a lot of great activities.”

Pate remembers being struck — and surprised — by the complexity of hosting the Final Four.

“You sort of go in thinking it’s (just) a basketball game,” he said. “… But every time you peel back another layer, there’s a series of things that need to get done.”

He confesses he learned a lot in the process, including this important lesson: “Wear a neutral tie” to meetings with representatives of multiple schools to avoid accidentally donning one team’s color and offending another.

Atlanta has been a beneficiary of the NCAA’s ever-increasing requirements for Final Four venues, including a minimum seating capacity that currently limits the event to domed or retractable-roof football stadiums. The event was last played in a traditional basketball arena in 1996. Only about 10 venues in the country appear to qualify under the NCAA’s current requirements.

The Final Four will be played in Arlington, Texas, Indianapolis and Houston the next three years, and the NCAA likely will choose additional sites within a year or so. Atlanta plans to bid again.