Benner/Sports and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: March drama extends beyond basketball court

March 26, 2011

Of this, that and the other while wondering why the NCAA’s Division I men’s basketball committee let Virginia Commonwealth University into the tournament.

Oh, never mind.

But while I am on the topic of the tournament, it was interesting to hear from so many Purdue fans—the same ones who had (rightfully) lauded coach Matt Painter for guiding the Boilermakers to a surprisingly strong season despite the loss of Robbie Hummel—who suddenly were ripping Painter in the aftermath of the tournament loss to VCU.

Painter was a terrific coach the day before the VCU game and a terrific coach the day after. It was one game against an opponent that played at an extremely high level. It’s sports. It happens.

While the focus locally has been on the men’s tournament and another run by the Cardiac Kids, Butler’s Bulldogs, the road to the Women’s Final Four ends at Conseco Fieldhouse on April 3 and April 5. And like the men’s version, this won’t be anything like the event here in 2005.

Only the crowd will be smaller. That’s because the ’05 Women’s Final Four took place at the RCA Dome, where more than 28,000 attended both the national semifinals and the national championship game, won by Baylor University.

Lucas Oil Stadium was an option for this year’s Final Four, but NCAA staff and the women’s basketball committee wisely chose Conseco Fieldhouse instead.

That’s not to say demand couldn’t have surpassed Conseco’s 18,000-plus capacity, but bigger is not always better. It will be a great atmosphere—a basketball atmosphere—for the women’s games.

But outside the fieldhouse, events have expanded since 2005, with the NCAA branding it all as “It’s More Than Three Games.”

Tourney Town, the interactive fan festival, opens April 1 at the Indiana Convention Center and runs through the weekend. It’s free. There will be a Circle City Dribble (also free) for kids, youth clinics, a run/walk (dubbed the 4Kay, it takes place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway April 2 and honors the late North Carolina State University coach Kay Yow), a high school all-star game (April 2 at Conseco), pep rallies and the Cirque du Salute April 1 at the Convention Center that honors the four teams and coaches.

And that’s just a partial list.

Hosting the Women’s Final Four (it returns in 2016) is part of the city’s and Indiana Sports Corp.’s agreement with the NCAA to have both it and the men’s Final Four on a rotating basis. It is a valued piece of business that represents another success from the city’s sports strategy. Last year, Indy staged what most believed to be the best men’s Final Four ever. Here’s hoping we leave that kind of mark again.

Moving on … months after the fact, the University of Tennessee finally got around to doing the right thing in firing basketball coach Bruce Pearl, who admitted to lying to NCAA investigators about illegally hosting recruits in his home.

“Is there a difference between being a liar and not telling the truth?” Pearl famously said in an interview with CBS’ Seth Davis. “I’m not sure.”

I thought that would easily qualify for the most preposterous quote of the year until Ohio State University President Gordon Gee came along.

Yes, his football coach, Jim Tressel, didn’t lie. He merely withheld the truth that five of his players were in violation of NCAA rules by selling gear and football rewards in return for tattoos and other perks.

When it finally came out that Tressel had violated his contract by not reporting the violations, Ohio State announced a two-game suspension. At the news conference, Gee was asked if OSU had considered dismissing Tressel.

He responded, “I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”

As we slap our heads in disbelief, I’m reminded that a couple of former Indiana University presidents may have felt that same way regarding a basketball coach—but there’s a difference between being a jerk and breaking NCAA rules.

A couple of more examples of the culture in Columbus: ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, a former OSU quarterback who has been critical of the goings-on within the football program, has moved his family to another state because of the harassment they were receiving. And Bruce Hooley, a local radio show host who also voiced his disapproval, was fired by the station. It just happens to be the one that airs Ohio State football.

Wow.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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