IN THE DOME
The SEC men’s basketball tournament has been played 11 times in the Georgia Dome. The champions:
2002: Mississippi State
* - The 2008 tournament was moved to Georgia Tech after a tornado struck the Georgia Dome during the quarterfinals. Georgia won the championship game at Tech.
From Kentucky’s dramatic victory over defending national champion Arkansas in 1995 to the tornado-tossed event in 2008, from Arkansas’ four-wins-in-four-days run in 2000 to Florida’s domination in 2007, the SEC basketball tournament has made its mark on the short-lived Georgia Dome.
“The Dome will always go down in the history of SEC tournament basketball as a place full of a lot of memories,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.
The tournament has been played in the building 11 times in the past 20 years, but this is the final time. When Sunday’s championship game ends, the tournament leaves the Georgia Dome for good.
Having decided it prefers a cozy arena to a massive multi-purpose stadium, the SEC is moving the tournament to Nashville, Tenn., next year on a semi-permanent basis. And besides, the Georgia Dome is scheduled to be demolished in three years and turned into a parking lot for the new Falcons stadium.
“Sunday will be a tough one,” Georgia Dome general manager Carl Adkins said during second-round play Thursday night. “It’ll be tough to see it come to a close. But at the end of the day, it’s been a great run.”
Mike Anderson was an Arkansas assistant coach when the Razorbacks lost to Kentucky in the championship game of the Dome’s first SEC tournament in 1995 and when they won the event at the Dome in 2000. Now Arkansas’ head coach, he made a point a few days ago to take a final walk around the not-so-old building.
“Oh, a lot of great memories,” Anderson said. “It has been a great venue to play in. A lot of great games, a lot of great players, a lot of great coaches. And to see all that not happen here any more, it’s kind of a bitter note.”
Not only will Sunday’s game mark the end of the final SEC tournament in the Dome, it also could mark the last basketball game played there, period.
Although the Dome will remain open until the new stadium is completed in 2017, no more basketball events are currently booked in a building that has hosted 11 SEC tournaments, two ACC tournaments, six NCAA Regionals, three men’s Final Fours and one women’s Final Four, as well as Olympic basketball in 1996 and Hawks games while Philips Arena was being built in 1997-99.
The Dome, which opened in 1992, hosted the SEC tournament in nine of 14 seasons from 1995 through 2008. The event has returned twice since then: 2011 and this year. It has been played more times in the Dome than in any other venue since the league revived it in 1979.
Last year, the SEC decided to make Nashville’s 20,000-seat Bridgestone Arena the tournament’s “primary” site, committing the event there for nine of 11 seasons from 2015 through 2025. Only the 2018 and 2022 tournaments will go elsewhere, with St. Louis and Tampa, Fla., considered the leading candidates for those. In any case, the Georgia Dome is scheduled to be demolished by then.
“I don’t know that it was ever (officially) known as the ‘primary’ site of our tournament, but it certainly was that, whether it was formally acknowledged as such or not,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said of the Dome.
“I think our tournament has had a great run in Atlanta,” he added, although he’s an advocate of planting it in Vanderbilt’s hometown.
The best SEC tournament — at least the best championship game — in the Dome probably was the first one in 1995. It culminated with Kentucky coming from nine points behind in the final 1:39 of overtime to defeat Arkansas 95-93 before a crowd of 30,057, still the largest ever for an SEC tournament game.
But the Dome’s most memorable SEC tourney was the one that couldn’t be completed there.
On March 14, 2008, a Friday night, with Mississippi State and Alabama in overtime of the third quarterfinal game, a tornado struck downtown Atlanta, ripping a hole in part of the Dome’s roof. Fans seated behind the teams’ benches suddenly could look across the massive building “and see the stars in the sky,” Adkins recalled.
The tournament resumed the next day at Georgia Tech’s coliseum, starting with what was to have been the late game that stormy Friday night between Georgia and Kentucky. Georgia, which was 4-12 in league play during the regular season, won three games in two days on their rival’s home court for a wildly improbable championship.
“The tornado was kind of the exclamation point on (the Dome’s SEC tournament history),” said Adkins, Dome general manager since 2002 and assistant GM for seven years before that. “It really showed (the strength of) relationships and just how well everybody worked together and what we were able to do as a team when the pressure was on, working together with the conference and our friends at Tech. That’s something very special.”
As he made his rounds the past few days, Adkins encountered folks nostalgic about the end of the tournament’s Dome run.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “I think it’s kind of on everybody’s mind.”
“I’ve always liked playing in the Georgia Dome,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose Gators never trailed while winning the 2007 SEC tournament there and a few weeks later returned to the building to win the NCAA title.
Other than the tornado, Adkins’ biggest memory from all the SEC tournaments might be the blue-clad throngs of Kentucky fans who always showed up. “That’s one of the neatest things to me,” he said. “It’s phenomenal to see the support they have.”
This weekend’s wave of nostalgia doesn’t imply opposition to settling the tournament in Nashville, which hosted it to rave reviews in 2006, 2010 and 2013.
“Making Nashville the site, I’m sure that was a business decision,” Ole Miss’ Kennedy said. “And I’ve got the utmost respect for the people who make those decisions.”
“Nashville has been a great host,” said Georgia coach Mark Fox, adding: “I think Atlanta does equally as well.”
Even the Georgia Dome boss understands the SEC decision.
“At the end of the day, this is a big room,” said Adkins, peering across 71,000 seats. “And I get it.
“There’s something about that smaller, intimate feel. I think this building has served the conference well over the years, and I think they saw it was time to take it in a new direction.”
Adkins speaks highly of SEC officials, as they do of him and his staff. “The conference — hands down, best folks in the country to work with,” Adkins said.
The SEC football championship game will continue to be played in the Dome the next three seasons, and the league plans to move it into the new Falcons stadium. The Dome will have other farewell moments like this weekend’s until its date with demolition arrives.
“Really, this is one of the first of the lasts,”Adkins said.