Saying bon voyage for now Greensboro: The ACC won't be coming back until 2003, but this town still believes it will always be the place the tournament calls home.

March Madness

March 09, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Sun staff writer Don Markus completes the March Madness Tour that took him to eight conference tournaments in eight days. GREENSBORO, N.C. -- They held a going-away party yesterday at the Greensboro Coliseum. The guests of honor were not North Carolina and Duke, which played each other again in the championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, but the city fathers. And mothers.

And everyone else to whom this town and this tournament are seemingly forever entwined.

If the ACC tournament is, at age 45, "the granddaddy of all college basketball tournaments," then the building is certainly its favorite venue, as comfortable as a rocking chair. After the first 13 tournaments were held at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, it moved here in 1967 and has been back 17 times.

"There's the feeling that the whole city revolves around the tournament," political commentator Robert Novak, a veteran of 28 ACC tournaments, said an hour before tip-off. "Charlotte is a little more impersonal. And nobody likes Atlanta."

But it wasn't so long ago that this relationship was being threatened by the folks over in Charlotte.

Back in 1990, Charlotte boasted a spanking-new, 23,000-seat building called the Coliseum. It wasn't built as much for the NBA's Hornets, as some have come to believe, as it was for the ACC tournament. And its existence jeopardized the tournament's future here significantly.

"You can't go from a 23,000-seat building back to a 16,000-seat building," ACC associate commissioner Fred Barakat said recently. "Too many people would be left out."

More significantly, too much revenue would be lost. By the schools to whom most tournament ticket-holders contribute -- sometimes in six-figure donations -- for access to the best seats. And by the ACC, which generates up to $6 million a year from the annual four-day event. (Conversely, the Ohio Valley Conference turned a $170,000 profit last year for its tournament.)

So the ACC whispered in Greensboro's collective ear: Build more seats and we shall return.

"That was the only reason for expansion," said Greensboro city manager Ed Kitchen, who has been involved in local government here for the past 21 years.

The final expansion to 23,000 of what was originally a 9,000-seat barn and was increased to 16,000 in the early 1970s to compete with Charlotte's old Coliseum took 3 1/2 years and $60 million to complete.

Despite being 18 months behind schedule and a reported $20 million over budget -- a figure Kitchen said includes the building of new roads -- it was ready when the ACC returned in 1995 after a five-year absence.

When the final buzzer sounded yesterday, it marked the beginning of another period when the tournament moves away, first for two years to Charlotte and then for another two to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. It will return for two years starting in 2003, the tournament's golden anniversary.

While other sporting events are held here each year, including this year's Southern Conference tournament and next week's NCAA East Regional, one of the tournament's regional semifinal and final sites, there is a special feeling for what is still considered the premier college basketball tournament in the country.

"It means a lot to us," said Kitchen, a North Carolina graduate. "We'd like to have it all the time. It puts us in a spotlight nationally and makes people aware of the city who otherwise wouldn't know about us."

It also contributes an estimated $14 million to the city, generated mostly through hotel and restaurant revenues. It might not approach what a Super Bowl or Final Four does for a city financially -- events such as those could mean five times that figure, or more, depending on the city -- but it certainly helps Kitchen balance the books.

Irwin Smallwood, who worked for 42 years in stints as both sports editor and managing editor of the Greensboro News & Record, said that the tournament has long-reaching influence on other aspects of daily life. He said that it has helped attract businesses, as well as big names from the worlds of politics and entertainment.

"Everyone from Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter to Elvis Presley and Judy Garland have come to Greensboro," Smallwood said. "It's become an entertainment center in the state. Elvis played here five times."

The Greensboro Coliseum was also the site of Maryland's most memorable defeat -- a game many called the best college game ever played. It was the 103-100 overtime loss to eventual national champion North Carolina State in the 1974 championship game.

It was the memories of the ACC games he watched growing up in upstate New York that was one of the attractions for Matt Brown when he took the job as the Coliseum's manager. Brown, who was brought in by former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan to oversee the building expansion, said that being involved in the tournament has been the highlight of his career.

"Obviously it's the most prestigious event we host," Brown said. "To host a tournament with a 23,000-seat arena is pretty unique for a city our size."

Getting a hotel room here is tough, but getting a dinner reservation might actually be tougher.

After Saturday's semifinals, former ACC information director Marvin "Skeeter" Francis tried one of his favorite local restaurants and was told there would be a two-hour wait for dinner. He then drove 18 miles to Burlington.

"I was seated in 10 minutes," he said. "By the time I finished eating and drove back, I still would have had another half-hour to wait."

Now everyone here will have a much longer wait.

They'll have to wait until the next millennium.

Pub Date: 3/09/98

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