ATLANTA — Hoopla beyond the norm surrounds this Final Four on its 75th birthday.
By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
Players, coaches and the unforgettable moments that shaped one of the world’s premier sporting events will be on stage throughout the weekend party.
Kansas City can relate.
The same thing happened here 25 years ago in a celebration of the NCAA Tournament’s 50th birthday.
The 1988 Final Four remains one of the city’s greatest sporting achievements, and not just because three NCAA games were played at Kemper Arena. Kansas supplied the exclamation point that week by winning the national title. Kansas City knew for only a few days that a local team, Midwest Region finalists Kansas or Kansas State, would be arriving to put an additional charge into the week.
A quarter-century ago, Kansas City did what Atlanta is trying to accomplish this weekend — really, all anybody wants when the birthday hats are passed out: It presented a memorable event.
“We wanted to make it a great vehicle for community pride,” said Bill Hancock, who was co-chairman of the Kansas City Organizing Committee. “I remember thinking our goal was to present to the country a solid community that loved college basketball, but not in a glitzy way. We’ve never been a Hollywood lights-type of place.”
Kansas City played to its strength — a long-standing relationship with the sport — and next to the outcome of the games, the college basketball community remembers the reunion feel that permeated the event.
The 50th NCAA Tournament was part of the Final Four logo that year, with the NCAA emblem serving as the “0.” The Final Four had grown into a celebration of the sport, but on that weekend, for the first time, a gala was created to honor the past.
The NCAA invited former champions and standouts, and those not in the NBA flooded Kansas City. Bob Kurland, Bill Russell, Hank Iba, John Wooden, Dean Smith, Oscar Robertson, Bob Knight, Jerry West — many of the same luminaries who will be showcased this weekend — participated in an event known as “A Golden Salute to the Final Four.”
The occasion brought tears to the eyes of former Marquette coach Al McGuire.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like this again,” he said.
One of the evening’s highlights involved Howard Hobson, the coach of the original NCAA champion, Oregon, in 1939. When the Ducks returned to Eugene, hometowns of the players had collected enough money to buy them each a gold watch. Hobson helped arrange some of the gifts. On that night in Kansas City in 1988, each honoree was given a commemorative gold watch. At 84, Hobson finally received his, too.
Support without tickets
A primary objective of the 1988 Final Four was to sell the idea to Kansas Citians.
Sounds crazy, considering nine NCAA championships already had been decided in this city, starting with the second tournament in 1940.
But the most recent one had occurred in 1964, and 24 years later, the college basketball world had become a different place. The game’s profile surged in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s; Final Fours were becoming some of the nation’s highest-rated sporting events.
Still, for ultimate success, the Kansas City Organizing Committee determined that the city and the region had to feel invested in being host to the city’s biggest national showcase since the 1976 Republican National Convention.
“We needed to make sure people would be excited about it,” said Don Pfannenstiel, who led marketing and public relations efforts for the committee. “We knew the average fan wouldn’t be able to get tickets, but we wanted everybody to be enthusiastic about it being here.”
For the 1988 Final Four, the NCAA fielded ticket requests from 91,000 people and the total number of tickets sought was 325,000. The number of seats available to the public in 16,000-seat Kemper was 3,500.
Events around the games that were open to the public, like the open practice session at packed Kemper and the NABC all-star game that filled Municipal Auditorium, played an important role.
So did banners than went up downtown and throughout the Country Club Plaza. Exterior walls of buildings in downtown and the West Bottoms were painted with basketball images. Kansas City looked the part.
During the tournament games throughout March, the song “Kansas City,” recorded by Wilbert Harrison in 1959, provided the soundtrack. It was played at regional championship games and even in taxis that ferried fans around town.
The point person for many of the city’s touches was Jay Donohue, hired as the committee’s executive director for a two-year run at age 26. Among his early duties, Donohue remembers making sure the city realized the benefits of what was about to happen.
“The city was dealing with the budget issues, and sometimes it was like pulling teeth to get them to agree to things,” said Donohue, who today runs the Kansas City-based International Association of Administrative Professionals. “We had to get people to understand the public-relations impact of this, and how many eyeballs would be on Kansas City. But it all worked.”
Of course, there were concerns about Kansas City as a host.
Back then, there was no Power & Light District, or much going on in the city’s central business district. The entertainment was largely confined to Crown Center and the Plaza.
Kemper Arena wasn’t located within walking distance of the hotels. Visitors would have to be transported to the West Bottoms and around the city.
And there was the clock error during the 1986 Midwest Regional semifinal, when Kansas’ victory over Michigan State lasted about 15 seconds longer than it should have. There always seemed to be a malfunction with the Kemper operations.
But a new $1.5 million scoreboard was installed, and Kemper — inside and out — got the works: new locker rooms, carpeting and tile on the inside and a new coat of paint and some landscaping around the exterior.
After all, visitors — about 20,000 were expected at the area, including those without tickets — were not only seeing how the NCAA conducted a championship, but they were witnessing a championship in the NCAA’s hometown. In 1988, the organization’s national headquarters were still at Nall and Shawnee Mission Parkway.
“Every city took great pride in hosting the Final Four,” said Tom Jernstedt, who ran the NCAA Tournament for nearly four decades. “But this was in our backyard, where we lived. Our friends and relatives were going to be there.”
Behind the scenes, fires had to be put out. Dawson vividly remembers two.
“The cab drivers were angry initially,” Dawson said. “The first-day visitors started to arrive, they were mostly VIP types, and we had arranged transportation for them. But the fares picked up after that.”
Another problem tested Dawson’s mediation skills.
The NCAA did not allow signs in the arena and still doesn’t. Budweiser had a deal with Kemper to have its sign in the building for every event, and wanted it there for the Final Four. Dawson proposed a solution. He contacted The Star and worked out a deal where the newspaper would run a full-page Bud advertisement at a reduced cost.
“We were able to demonstrate to Bud that the company got more exposure from that than the signage that weekend,” Dawson said.
One of the tournament’s great triumphs was the volunteer network involved in putting it on.
Other cities had volunteers for previous NCAA Tournaments, and Kansas City had started using volunteers as early as the 1983 Midwest Regional at Kemper.
But volunteerism became a full-fledged enterprise for the 1988 Final Four, and in many ways was the glue that kept everything together, or at least kept complaints to a minimum.
From greeting visitors when they landed at the airport to those who helped organize and run the social events, a volunteer army — about 350 decked out in blue, white and gold colors — kept everything running smoothly. And the city received high marks for the volunteers’ hospitality and willingness to go the extra mile.
“We asked for 100 hours of volunteer time, and in return there would be no tickets,” Donohue said. “And we had more people sign up than we could use. They did it for the love of the city and wanting to be a part of the whole thing.”
And they were kept busy. On Sunday — Easter Sunday — volunteers shuttled VIPs to church services. Some wanted to visit the Truman Library, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Kansas campus. Volunteers loaded up the vans and got behind the wheel.
Some visitors wanted to attend the Royals’ home opener on Monday. Volunteers scurried to come up with tickets. Volunteers even delivered a Gates & Sons meal to broadcaster Bob Costas at his hotel room.
About the only thing the volunteers couldn’t provide was a ticket to the NCAA games themselves — Duke vs. Kansas and Oklahoma vs. Arizona in Saturday’s semifinals, and the Jayhawks-Sooners in Monday’s title game. Most volunteers couldn’t attend. But they were feted with an appreciation celebration about two weeks later at Municipal Auditorium.
“When Kansas made the Final Four, we felt like we had already done our job, but that took it to a different level,” Pfannenstiel said.
The Kansas-Oklahoma finale burst the buttons of the organization playing host to the event, and Hancock’s employer at the time, the Big Eight Conference.
“We were viewed as a football conference, and a lot of people thought this was the desert for college basketball,” Hancock said. “To get three in the final eight and two playing for the championship? That was absolutely phenomenal.”
Kansas captured its second NCAA title that Monday night in a game that, on the 50th birthday of the Tournament, was tied 50-50 at halftime. But Kansas City also had plenty to cheer.
The city and region had shined during the event and kept any glitches out of the public eye. The NCAA was so impressed with Hancock that a year later he was hired as the NCAA Tournament’s director. Today, Hancock is executive director of the Bowl Championship Series.
Dawson, executive director of Truman Medical Centers Charitable Foundation, continued to attend Final Fours until 1995, when he turned his attention to another project: helping Kansas City land the women’s Final Four for 1998.
In appreciation for his efforts, Donohue was given two airplane tickets and a two-week stay in Hawaii. He used it for his honeymoon, and now has two children in college.
“Has it been that long since we did this?” he asked.
It has, and since then the Final Four has grown to a point where it will be played only in domes and football stadiums. The NCAA and host cities work together on fan experiences, concerts and happenings outside the games.
On a smaller scale, Kansas City did the same thing in 1988.
Pulled it off with flying colors, too.
“What I remember,” Jernstedt said, “is people took a lot of pride in what happened that week. And they should have.”
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.