THE 52ND Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament was the first without Marvin "Skeeter" Francis, its longtime publicist who died last summer at age 82.
Skeeter delivered a thousand stories in a Piedmont drawl, and one of his last lines may have been his best. A year ago, Skeeter remarked, "I've seen a lot of teams shoot themselves in the foot, but I've never seen anyone shoot themselves in the ass."
The joke came at the expense of the off-duty Baltimore police officer whose handgun accidentally discharged at the Greensboro Coliseum while Maryland was beginning its surprise run to the 2004 championship. Darren Sanders, now the director of security for the Ravens, was accompanying the Terps' most recognizable fan, which leads to a rhetorical question:
If Steve Bisciotti had been an NFL owner when M&T Bank Stadium was built, would Baltimore be a regular Final Four site?
The Severna Park native gets more face time off his front-row, center-court seat at Comcast Center than he does in the Ravens owner's box. Bisciotti the NFL owner may prefer an open-air stadium, but Bisciotti the college basketball fan has been to Final Fours with Maryland and seen what one of America's premier sporting events does for a town.
The what-if was raised by the juxtaposition of this year's Final Four site against a wistful anniversary.
Ten years ago today, Baltimore was blessed with weather that was more summer than winter. Shirt-sleeved tourists included David Hobbs and his family. Hobbs is an assistant coach at Kentucky. Then, he was the head coach at Alabama, and his team was getting ready for the first round of the NCAA tournament the next day.
That's right, the Baltimore Arena, aka the Baltimore Street Ruins, was an East subregional site in the NCAA tournament.
Before the NBA, Wake Forest's Tim Duncan, Oklahoma State's Bryant Reeves, Alabama's Antonio McDyess and Drexel's Malik Rose played here. Pennsylvania gave the Crimson Tide fits. Saint Louis and Minnesota also went into overtime, a captivating set of games as opening days go.
Then, as now, Bill Hancock was the director of the NCAA tournament. He praised Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the number of hotel rooms and the scene at the Inner Harbor, but lamented the obvious shortcomings of an arena - once the Civic Center, now called 1st Mariner Arena - that was obsolete when it opened in 1962. With a domed stadium, Hancock said, Baltimore would be a natural for the Final Four.
Later in 1995, Art Modell's frustration in Cleveland peaked, and he announced plans to move his Browns here. With hundreds of millions of dollars committed to stadium construction during Baltimore's failed bid for an expansion team, the Maryland Stadium Authority proceeded with plans for what some, oblivious to defunct dot-coms and out-of-town banks, have always called Ravens Stadium.
Aesthetics and a stadium that is dormant most of the year won out over a domed facility that could be used 365 days a year and deliver greater economic impact.
The reasons against domed NFL stadiums include these two: Real grass, not the artificial stuff, is healthier for players, and domed teams stink in the playoffs (see Peyton Manning). Well, the Ravens had to install fake grass in 2003, and the St. Louis Rams preceded them as Super Bowl champions.
Where do the Rams play? The Edward Jones Dome, where in 20 days the NCAA will crown its men's basketball champion. It was built before St. Louis lured the Rams from Los Angeles. St. Louis followed the lead of Indianapolis, which built the Hoosier Dome (now RCA Dome) to get the Colts away from you know who.
Indianapolis, which will host in 2006 and 2010, has become the Final Four's favorite site. With a minimum seating requirement of 40,000, domed stadiums in Atlanta and Indianapolis are as close as the event gets to the Northeast. St. Louis was awarded this Final Four in 1998, the year the Ravens' new home debuted.
Like Modell, from whom he completed his purchase of the Ravens last year, Bisciotti is a traditionalist. He's also a pretty smart businessman, and with the Ravens profiting on anything that's held at the stadium, it might have been domed had he been influencing the process.
The appeal of football on a crisp autumn day is undeniable, but there is nothing like the Final Four. This year, the Gateway Arch and the Mississippi River will serve as the backdrop for that spectacle.
It could have been in Baltimore.