City should follow up UMBC's big-time shot

March 14, 1995|By BILL TANTON

Athletic director Charley Brown and his staff at UMBC deserve a lot of credit for working a small miracle.

They have succeeded in bringing one of the nation's premier sports events to a second-rate building in a struggling downtown.

That, of course, would be the NCAA basketball Eastern (sub) Regionals, for which UMBC is serving as the host school. The first two rounds will be played at the Arena Thursday and Saturday.

With college basketball as big as it is today, and with cities and colleges all over the country having opened newer and larger arenas, Brown and his marketing director, Marty Schwartz, pulled a coup by hustling this event for Baltimore.

Hey, the Baltimore Arena is fine for the indoor soccer Spirit. It's fine for the indoor lacrosse Thunder.

But the NCAA hoops tournament is about as big time as sports get. The Arena is undersized with a capacity of close to 13,000. It's also a little shopworn, though it's not even 35 years old.

Oh, the place was spruced up and looked fine for the nationally televised Maryland-UMass game that was played there in December. It has been gussied up once again for the NCAAs.

But the doddering old girl on Baltimore Street really is not suited for big-time anything anymore.

Even when it was born as the Civic Center in 1962 it had more than its share of critics.

When Baltimore applied for a franchise in the National Hockey League in the '60s, commissioner Clarence Campbell toured the Civic Center one summer day and, afterward, asked:

"Who designed this place -- Frank Lloyd Wrong?"

We didn't get the franchise, although to this day many believe Baltimore would have been a successful NHL city. The Civic Center killed it.

This is why it's clear that Brown and Schwartz did a real selling job on the NCAA. As a result, our city -- which has only one major-league sport, with that one now on strike -- will enjoy a rare treat this week.

If we had a modern building that befits a city and market like ours, we could host more of such events.

"The NCAA has told us," Brown said yesterday, "that if we had a dome, we could get the Final Four here."

Now you're talking, Charley Brown. Now you're saying something that should really get our juices flowing.

This Eastern Regional stuff is very nice, but in a way it merely whets the appetite.

For years the big sports push in Baltimore has been to get back in the National Football League. The debate now, after having been rejected by the NFL, concerns whether to preserve the funding mechanism to finance a new football-only stadium.

One objection to such a place is that, with football only, it would be used only 10 or 12 times a year.

A domed stadium obviously would accommodate football as well as providing a home for indoor sports, including the NCAA Final Four. Even Super Bowls have been played under domes.

Baltimoreans have had a defeatist attitude about these things for years. The Bullets left for Washington, they say, and we'll never get an NHL team here with Abe Pollin owning one in D.C. Even minor-league hockey has split from Baltimore.

The NFL come back here? Please! How many times does the NFL have to smack us in the face?

This is probably why Charley Brown had the nerve to begin pursuing these Eastern Regionals back in 1990.

Brown is not from Baltimore. He's a New Yorker who came to UMBC six years ago. He's not beaten down from quite so many years of negative experiences.

"In the position UMBC was in," he was saying at the Arena yesterday as he attended to last-minute details, "we had to be risk-takers. We wanted to make a statement for Division I athletics. UMBC has proved itself academically."

Brown says the limited seating capacity of the Arena was a concern to the NCAA site committee, which looked at nearly 40 sites, but obviously it was not an overriding one.

"When they weighed all the positives here," Brown said, "the Inner Harbor, the convenience of the hotels and restaurants within walking distance, the fact that this city had never hosted the NCAA tournament, they settled on Baltimore."

With play starting at 12:30 Thursday as Wake Forest meets North Carolina A&T, Charley Brown is happy with the way things are going.

"We were hoping we'd land a Maryland-based team in our field," Brown said, "but we're delighted with what we have. Wake Forest is the ACC champion. They're probably the most interesting team in the country.

"We have two Philadelphia schools -- Penn and Drexel -- and Philly is just a short run up the road. The people there are thrilled about coming to Baltimore."

And the people here are thrilled, too. Thanks, Charley Brown, for taking this on.

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