Apparently Salem’s ‘facilities’ are to blame

Salem Civic Center prior to the 2017 men’s basketball semifinals. Courtesy:

The NCAA, or more particularly the particular sports committees, are going to regret the decision to leave Salem, Virginia.

I will admit, that may be pretty blunt and may come from a bias point of view. I have traveled to the Roanoke Valley for NCAA championships since March of 2001. I was introduced to the Salem Civic Center the first season we to put Hoopsville on the air. Pat Coleman invited Jared Rosenbaum and me to what had become the mecca of Division III basketball. Pat’s alma mater which happened to be my alma mater’s biggest rival, Catholic, won the national title that year. It didn’t take anything away from my experience.

I haven’t missed a trip to Salem for basketball since. I have also added a few other trips as well and have now been to over 25 Division III championships in the Roanoke Valley. 17 men’s basketball, 7 football, and 2 soccer. By the time Salem “loses” the football and men’s basketball championships, that total may be 28 or more.

In all those events, not once did I ever think, “I wish the championships had a better place to be. I wish the facilities were better. D-III deserves a better place.”

Not once.

UW-Oshkosh football teams runs out of the tunnel and shower of fireworks onto the field at Salem Stadium in Stagg Bowl 44 last Decemeber. Courtesy: Larry Radloff,

But the men’s basketball and football committees has apparently decided that there are better “facilities” to visit with the championships then Salem. At least, that is what I have been told. “Facilities” was the reason for the decision to leave Salem with football and men’s basketball after 25 and 23 years (following next season) respectively.

Fine. There are flashy new stadiums and arenas to visit. There are apparently members on the men’s basketball committee, at least, who seem to want newer and maybe bigger facilities among other arguments.

Are Salem’s facilities old? Sure. Are they bad? Not in the least. I fear members of the men’s basketball committee have lost focus of the bigger picture while wishing for “better” facilities.

The reason Salem is so well regarded and loved had nothing to do with the facilities. It was because of the experience, especially for the student-athletes, was the best of the best.

As my broadcast partner the last two seasons in Salem for the men’s basketball championships, Lincoln Rose, said during halftime of this year’s men’s title game, Salem “create(s) a national stage, a spotlight for student-athletes who put in put in just as much hours and sweat-equity as well as balance that with academics and you really reward them for all of their hard work and give them a memory they can take with them.”

I couldn’t say it better myself. Salem has provided one of the most amazing championship experiences not only in Division III but in Division II as well. I’d even argue they beat out some of the D-I experiences that I have been part of as well.

Babson men’s basketball practicing at Salem Civic Center (Courtesy: Babson Athletics)

Salem has made sure the student-athletes feel special. Salem has put in place things that are now standard for all Division III championships: mementos for the student-athletes, community service events, host families for each team, and more. What Salem has started and created is now standard for all Division III championships and even other events throughout the NCAA. And Salem is never satisfied with the status quo.

By the way, “Salem” is an easy catch-all for a lot of individuals. Carey Harveycutter, the director of tourism for the City of Salem, is a huge advocate of student-athletes, highly respected in the NCAA. John Saunders was Harveycutter’s right-hand man until he recently retired and has made sure things run smoothly behind the scenes. Brad Bankston is one of the most respected individuals in Division III as the long time commissioner of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference and works to put out any fires. J.J. Nekeloff does more than his assistant commissioner and SID role for the ODAC would imply, running media operations like a well oiled machine. And there are more from the ODAC (including member institutions) and the Salem Civic Center event staff who help in small and large ways. I haven’t even mentioned the countless numbers of volunteers who are everywhere and always with a smile on their faces.

I never hear anyone complain. I never see someone roll their eyes. I see ridiculously long hours and incredible pride.

And while “facilities” is the reasoning, Salem has always worked to improve their facilities and experience. Every single seat in the Salem Civic Center has been replaced, the signage and accents around the walls have all been changed and upgraded, they have replaced the arena’s lighting system, brought in spotlights, even toyed with specialty, show lighting in past years. This is the second or third basketball floor in 23 years, there are tunnels for the teams to run through, video screens to add to the crowd atmosphere, and this year we saw video score tables at center court.

Roanoke College’s Kerr Stadium, site of the Division III men’s and women’s soccer championships in 2016. Courtesy:

Did you know Salem has been using whistle timing systems for more than 15 years? They have finally made their way into the D-I basketball tournaments in the last few years, but Salem made sure the refs whistle stopped the clock for a long time. It is that kind of forward thinking that has made Salem special and made them a championship city.

The city’s respect in the NCAA is so high they were chosen to host the soccer championships with about two months warning when the event was pulled out of Greensboro, N.C. due to the state’s infamous “bathroom bill.” What is significant is Roanoke College’s field is turf. The soccer championships had never been held on anything but natural grass. There were other sites in consideration that had natural grass. The NCAA chose Salem because they knew the experience for the student-athletes wouldn’t be affected.

Outside the Salem Civic Center in 2017.

The student-athlete experience is more important than anything else. In 2013, the men’s championship game was taken to Atlanta, along with D-II, to be part of the 75th anniversary of men’s basketball in the NCAA. Salem was getting the short end of the stick since they had been awarded the bid to host the championship that year. But Salem was asked to do something else: host the quarterfinals and semifinals and do it a week later than scheduled. Anyone who understands how facilities are used and rented knows moving an event by a week is hard to do. Most facilities like the Salem Civic Center have their dates (especially weekends) locked in years in advance. But Salem moved the weekend and easily hosted the elite eight. It was so well done and such a tremendous experience there has been serious conversations of making the elite eight an annual thing in the future. Well… until now.

But the story doesn’t end there. Harveycutter, Bankston, Nekeloff, and others headed to Atlanta to help put the championship game on in ATL. And they brought some ideas back to southwest Virginia with them.

The next December Harveycutter mentioned had an idea for the men’s basketball championship banquet and wondered if I might be available. He had seen the celebration event Division I did featuring Jim Nantz chatting with the coaches and then the student-athletes from each team in a low-key, conversational setting. Harveycutter wanted to do that in Salem, replacing speeches from a player and coach from each team. That made its debut the next year in Salem and lasted for several years, then was replaced with yet another change to the banquet to allow it to be fun and low-key for the student-athletes.

One of the mementos given to the teams who made it to the 2013 quarterfinals in Salem, Virginia.

There are about 500 teams who have been on the “Road to Salem” and not returned with a championship. Do you think those teams have anything bad to say about the experience outside of not coming home with the Walnut and Bronze? I’m confident no one complained about facilities. No one looks around the Salem Civic Center and thinks we are in a crappy situation. No one looks around Salem Stadium and worries the stands aren’t big enough or they are going to collapse. No one. Never. But apparently “facilities” is more important to the Division III committees (and maybe in some part the NCAA) then the overall experience these championships have created over decades.

In the meantime, the “Road to Salem” will lose its luster. The “Road to Somewhere” will mean less especially to the student-athletes who know nothing else.  The student-athletes playing today weren’t even born the last time Salem didn’t host the semifinals. This means something to them. This means something to Division III and because “facilities” aren’t up to someone’s par the experience will take at least a four-year hiatus – if not more.

Colton Hunt, left, awarded the Jostens Trophy in 2013 in Salem, Virginia. He is accompanied by then Randolph coach Clay Nunley. Courtesy: Randolph Athletics

In addition, I have to wonder what the NABC does to run their All-Star Game. Salem had a pivotal role in that game every year. And the Jostens Trophy is handed out each year in Salem, but more importantly it is given out by the Salem Rotary Club and administrated by Bankston, Nekeloff, and others.

Starting in December 2018, football and then men’s basketball will have new hosts for at least four years. Good luck to them. They are going to have to replace the hospitality, community experience, and more that Salem has made the standard. I guess they will have some incredible facilities, but I won’t be looking at that. When I watch games, I look at the court and the student-athletes on that court. When I am in a community, I look at what is going on around the game and the experience those teams are having. As Pat Coleman points out, these new sites will have to live up to a pretty high bar, but I guess their new facilities will have them one step ahead in the eyes of some on the committees.

I won’t use the words I am really thinking about this decision. Instead I will say this. I’m disappointed.

Amherst alum: D3 should stay with D1 on championship weekend

Ben Kaplan played basketball at Amherst when the Lord Jeffs reached the 2008 national championship game in Salem. The next season he gave us an inside look at the Lord Jeffs’ 2009 NCAA tournament run. Four years later, Ben went to Atlanta to watch his alma mater play for the national championship. He describes how the Atlanta experience compared to Salem and gives his take on whether the Division III men’s title game should be regularly played at the Division I Final Four site.

Of all the possible confrontations at Saturday’s Final Four in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, I couldn’t have anticipated the first and only one I would witness. A fifty-ish man in maize, who made the trip with his twenty-ish son from New York, stuck a stubby finger in the face of a sixty-year-old man in purple who sat with his purple-clad daughter one row behind him. A vein pulsed in the man in maize’s forehead and spit flew with each obscenity. Some surrounding fans stepped in and the man in purple quietly stood and summoned security. Hey, you know what they say about Michigan and Amherst fans, right?

For the first time in its history, the NCAA celebrated 75 years of March Madness by crowning the Division II and III champions on the same weekend and in the same city as the D1 Final Four. If public sentiment has any say, it’s a change that the NCAA will make permanent. The D1 and D3 worlds pretend to exist on parallel planes when in fact they collide more often than you might expect. Bringing them together in one event is a fitting and well-deserved honor for the little guys.

The three most recent tournament coaching darlings, Butler’s Brad Stevens, VCU’s Shaka Smart, and Andy Enfield, formerly of Florida Gulf Coast, all played their college ball at Division III schools. Enfield made 92% of his free throws at Johns Hopkins to become the all-time Division III free-throw percentage leader, Smart set Kenyon’s career, season, and single-game assist records, and Stevens contributed for four years at DePauw.

The trio fit the popular D3 mold – scrappers who overcome size and athleticism deficiencies with intelligence, hard work, and often one special skill. D1 fans who dropped by the title game between Amherst College and University of Mary Hardin-Baylor probably expected the crisp passing and sharp shooting Amherst rode to the title, but they probably didn’t expect Amherst wing and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Allen Williamson to grab an offensive rebound on the block, take one dribble to gather himself, and rise up over a defender’s outstretched hand for a thunderous dunk. They probably didn’t expect Mary Hardin-Baylor star Thomas Orr, a lanky lefty who used a variety of crossovers and stepback moves en route to a team-high 24 points, to take off for a slam after a top of the key isolation move in the half court. And they definitely didn’t expect lumbering Amherst center Pete Kaasila to meet him at the rim and send the dunk attempt back. (OK so they called it a foul, but I not-so-objectively thought it was clean. Regardless, it was the second most impressive mid-air meeting in Atlanta called for a foul this weekend.)

Division III normally crowns its champion in Salem, Virginia, a town that hosts the D3 basketball and football championships. This year, the Elite Eight and Final Four were played in Salem two weeks prior to last Sunday’s title game. As a player at Amherst, I attended the 2008 Final Four. It was the school’s third trip to Salem in a row, and the previous year the team won their first national championship.

To get to Salem, we flew a chartered plane instead of our usual bus. A camera crew greeted us when we landed, instructing us to “act naturally” while they filmed. As we waited almost an hour for our coaches to pick up the rental cars, they interviewed a few players about the upcoming weekend. Instead of the usual motel or Howard Johnson, we stayed in a hotel with leather furniture and a fancy restaurant in the lobby. We dealt with never-ending TV timeouts for the first time all year, attended a banquet, and the starters spoke at official press conferences after the game. Little girls play “house,” and that weekend we played “D1 basketball.”

In Atlanta, this year’s Amherst team had a bus waiting for them at an airport and a police escort on each and every trip they made. When I ran into Amherst’s iconic coach, David Hixon, in the hotel lobby, he immediately told me about how thrilled the players were with the lengthy autograph sessions, media interviews, and TV footage shoots. The schedule was wonky, with a pair of two-week layoffs during the tournament, and the weekend was a minefield of distractions, but the players and coaches wouldn’t have had it any other way. For one weekend, they truly got their time on the big stage.

The weekend’s charms weren’t limited to the players. The Final Four hosts the National Association of Basketball Coaches clinics and conferences, which nearly every NCAA coach attends, so I had the pleasure of seeing and speaking to the Amherst graduate assistants from the past seven years who have now moved on to other schools. I sampled the Atlanta nightlife with alums who, myself included, probably wouldn’t have come had the game been in Salem. The D1 Final Four and accompanying activities, like the pop-a-shot games at Bracket Town or the free Ludacris concert at The Big Dance, provide more of an incentive for students and alums to make the trip to support their team. The academic toll of two long trips and a longer season may cause some educators to complain, but the two Amherst players I saw studying for an economics midterm next to the table of NCAA Merchandise in the hotel lobby seemed to manage the juggling act just fine. Half an hour of studying is a small price to pay for a weekend as a VIP at the Final Four.

The game itself took place at Phillips Arena instead of the Georgia Dome for the same reason that ping pong tournaments aren’t held on Centre Court at Wimbledon. National press stopped by to cover the game, and some wrote glowingly about the talent on the floor. They learned a well-kept secret, that the things like late growth spurts, injuries, and a desire for playing time that force bracket busters to attend mid-majors also contribute to low-D1 talents playing on the D3 level. One such talent, Amherst All-American Willy Workman, who had a hip injury in high school that kept him off the D1 radar, spoke at a reception honoring the players after their championship win. He said, “Playing at the D3 level, we don’t get a ton of support, so you guys are our everything. Thanks for being our parents, friends, fans, cooks, laundry-doers, and everything else we needed to get to this point.” Williamson, the Final Four MOP, talked to me about his desire to continue his playing career overseas, as more than a dozen alums in the past have done. “It’s getting a lot more competitive,” he told me, “so hopefully I’ll land somewhere.” To the media, a few Amherst players talked about how they always dreamed of playing in the NBA, and since that was out the window, winning a championship in an NBA arena was next-best thing.

Around 6,000 fans filed into the lower bowl of the Atlanta Hawks home while the upper bowl was curtained off, so the teams got the thrill of playing in a large arena without having it feel empty. At the Dome the previous night, screaming seas of maize, yellow, orange, and red dominated the stands, but at the D3 game the following afternoon, a few rowdy Amherst fans and a screaming Mary Hardin-Baylor student in a purple tutu holding an “Amherst Likes Nickelback” sign were the exception rather than the rule. Physicality and speed didn’t dominate the game as it did on the Division I level, but finesse, athleticism, and tremendous skill were still on display. On my road trip from Chicago to Atlanta, I marveled at the beauty of rolling green hills and the black structures and yellow lights of skylines. Both different, both majestic in their own way. I felt the same about the atmosphere and the on-court performances on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Which brings me back to the confrontation during the Michigan and Syracuse game. The Amherst fan expected his 200-level seats to the Division I Final Four to provide respite from the rowdy student sections. After all, he’s from Amherst, where basketball games are best enjoyed with quiet amusement and occasional polite clapping, preferably with a book on hand. The Michigan fans, who called the players by first name and referred to the team as “we”, wanted to celebrate each basket with a jump, a fist pump, and a high-five. Speaking from personal experience, post-graduation D3 fanhood is more a source of quiet pride than loud and boastful cheers. When “we” used to play on the team and actually know each player by first name, the wild rowdiness seems to us, for whatever reason, a bit over the top. Not that I look down on it. Quite the contrary. I envy it. I wish Amherst results put me in a wild frenzy. I wish I could go to a bar in Chicago on Saturdays and cheer with friends as Amherst beats Middlebury in football. I love when my school wins, and I hate when they lose, but the lack of fanfare and smaller stage puts the game in a different perspective for us.

In the end, both men overreacted. The Amherst alum shouldn’t have grabbed the younger Michigan fan and nudged him down to his seat when he stood up to celebrate a Mitch McGary layup. The older Michigan fan shouldn’t have responded by pushing and swearing at the Amherst alum.

At the heart of that clash were two parents who didn’t want a once-in-a-lifetime experience with their kids at all compromised. The father and son decked out in maize, the father and daughter in Amherst sweaters, my father and me a few seats over, the two Michigan grad students who bought our tickets to Monday’s finals – we were all living out a weekend we would remember and laugh and talk about forever. Watching Amherst win was great, but sharing that experience with my old teammates, seeing the big hugs and bigger smiles on the court, and the tears of the new generation of team parents made it truly special.

That’s why this past weekend should be the beginning of a new tradition. Other Division II and III schools deserve this chance, and other alums should get to experience what I did. Between the overload of endorsements and allegations of athlete exploitation, the NCAA creates these unforgettable shared experiences between athletes and fans alike. Why not maximize them?

All-Star Game a welcome change

The Division III third-place game is an anachronism and its time has passed. So it’s good to see it go.

Although indeed, sometimes the third-place game is a spirited, wide-open entertaining affair, it cannot be ignored that the game often features one, if not two teams that truly don’t want to be there. Someone has had their heart ripped out the night before, must come back for a walk-through the next morning (though often a coach will pass on the team’s allotted time) and play a game which doesn’t do much except allow one team to go home with an extra win.

Of course, someone goes home with two losses at the end of a season that should be celebrated.

So, for the NABC to step in and do something immensely positive for Division III men’s basketball is a great step forward for our game. We hope the WBCA will consider doing something for women’s basketball as well.

This will give an additional 16 or so players who never would have gotten the Salem experience a chance to perform in front of Division III fans and be recognized. Fans who drove to southwestern Virginia to see their team play will have reason to stick around and see their best senior player or players in action the next day. And they’ll get to see a bunch of All-Americans on the floor as well, giving some context to fans who don’t get to watch D-III games on television.

It’s a win-win. And I hope it stays a part of the Salem experience for many years to come, like the NABC has done for Division I and Division II.

From courtside in Salem

While the rest of the world is preoccupied with some big-money games tipping off momentarily, I’m one of three people sitting courtside at the moment at the Salem Civic Center, watching Guilford practice in preparation for tomorrow night’s semifinals.

Lots of things going on here today — I have to run out and get an important piece of (forgotten, of course) equipment, then get back here for the Jostens Trophy ceremony, where Jimmy Bartolotta and Melanie Auguste will each get their hardware.

Wash U practices next, at 1:30 ET.

I won’t get to see too much of Guilford’s practice, but Dave McHugh and Rick Seidel from our broadcast team have both seen them multiple times, so we’re in good hands.