By Ben Smith, Manchester University Marketing Writer
One year out, here came the folks from northeast Indiana, trekking east to a quiet suburb in the Shenandoah Valley few had likely ever spared a thought.
The town was Salem Va., population around 25,000, part of the Roanoke metroplex located two hours west of the University of Virginia and four hours east of the University of Tennessee. It was the middle of March when college basketball takes over the American sporting landscape. And the folks from northeast Indiana were there because, one year from now, college basketball will take over their landscape.
That's when the NCAA Div. III basketball Final Four relocates from Salem to the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, which has played host to these sorts of events before. And so Coliseum people and Visit Fort Wayne people came to Salem to check out the event – and so did a contingent from Manchester, which was chosen as the host school for the event.
Fort Wayne will be the site, and MU the host school, for the 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 Final Fours. Next March will be the first time in 24 years the basketball Final Four will be played somewhere other than Salem.
"We went to Salem just to analyze the team tournament to see where we could make improvements, see what the functionality was, how they treated the student-athletes, how the building performed," says Dan O'Connell, president, and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne. "We came back very excited about it. This is gonna be a no-brainer. It's a good fit for our community; it's gonna be a feeling of the Final Four that we wanted."
To that end, a local organizing committee, or LOC, already has been formed. It's co-chaired by Manchester Athletic Director Rick Espeset and Nathan Dennison, the Coliseum's point man for the event. Among others on the committee are Manchester Sports Information Director Mark Adkins; and Coliseum General Manager Randy Brown and Bryan Christie, also from the Coliseum; Emily Stuck, Crystal Cully, Stephanie Coleman and Jessica Campbell from Visit Fort Wayne.
"We're trying to put together a dynamic mobile organizing committee to kind of share the wealth, I guess," Dennison says.
Facilitating that process is the fact the Coliseum and Manchester have collaborated before, as hosts of a Division III wrestling regional in 2017. The Coliseum has also hosted three NCAA men's volleyball Final Fours and an NCAA Division I hockey regional.
"It's invaluable," Dennison says of all that. "I've drawn on a lot of memories and notes from those events to help us prepare for what we need to do going forward for the basketball event. And working with (MU wrestling coach) Kevin Lake and Tami (Hoagland) and Rick and Mark and everybody at Manchester was really outstanding for the wrestling event. This is just another step in that relationship building between Manchester and the Coliseum and Visit Fort Wayne."
"Hosting the wrestling, the biggest benefit from that for us was I have extreme confidence in Visit Fort Wayne and the Coliseum," Espeset says. "The relationship was built here. It's just a confidence that they're gonna do whatever they say they're gonna do."
The two events, Espeset says, are different. The wrestling regional comprised 17 teams and one night, with one NCAA representative present. For the Final Four, there will be four teams and eight NCAA representatives, and the event will run over two nights.
"We'll have involvement, but they'll kind of be the ones managing the event from an oversight standpoint," Espeset says. "And if they notice something they want to be changed, then we change it for them. We're there to help."
So what's next?
Espeset's met with alumni and local individuals to see who has an interest in helping. And Dennison and the Coliseum staff are planning to meet soon with their IT staff to make sure internet requirements for the tournament are met.
Otherwise, it's all about putting on the best show possible.
"We are really interested, and so is the NCAA, in making this a community event, where the community celebrates this championship as well as the schools that are involved," O'Connell says. "And that's what we're gonna be trying to do."