BENNER: Shaheen departure doesn't diminish Final Four success story

April 14, 2012

I am often asked to give presentations recounting the success of the Indianapolis sports strategy. Of course, I speak to the event history and infrastructure investments going all the way back to the construction of Market Square Arena in 1974.

But I also talk about the human impact. It can affect lives in very real, positive ways.

And that, invariably, leads me to mention our own Greg Shaheen who, this last week, lost his dream job: directing NCAA championships and, especially, the event he so loved—the men’s basketball tournament and the Final Four.

As a 12-year-old, he went with his father to the national semifinals of our first Final Four at MSA in 1980. At that impressionable age, he was enthralled with the spectacle and vowed he would be part of it someday.

By the time the Final Four returned in 1991, Shaheen was an IU graduate helping his mother, Yvonne, run the family business (Long Electric Co. Inc.) after the passing of his father. Such demands on his time, however, did not prevent Shaheen from serving—extraordinarily well—as a volunteer on the transportation committee.

Thus, when the Final Four returned again in 1997, Shaheen was not just on the transportation committee, he was serving as its chairman. The job is a thankless task requiring long hours and exceptional coordination of buses, courtesy cars and shuttles.

In other words, perfect for Shaheen. Once again, he excelled.

Thus, later that year after the NCAA had announced its decision to move its headquarters from a Kansas City suburb to Indy’s downtown White River State Park, the Indiana Sports Corp.—charged with orchestrating the move—was in search of someone to oversee construction and to assist NCAA employees who would be moving.

Shaheen got the job.

“Greg excelled at both,” said Dale Neuburger, who was then Sports Corp. president and hired Shaheen. “The construction was done on time, under budget and exceeded everyone’s expectations. In addition, he provided concierge-like service to 300 employees, each of whom had to make family decisions that included housing, schools, churches and civic involvement … . Every question they had he answered quickly, correctly and empathetically.”

And he made such an indelible impression that, once the NCAA took up residence, it hired Shaheen. Tom Jernstedt, then executive vice president, gave Shaheen leadership, counsel and opportunity. Shaheen, who is blessed (or some would say, cursed) with incredible work ethic, ran with it.

In 2005, the tournament and the Final Four became his responsibility.

And that’s the story I like to tell: from wide-eyed kid to volunteer to running the event.

Once in charge, the selection process became more transparent. Instead of debating media, he engaged them, bringing them to Indianapolis to participate in a mock selection a month before the actual selection.

Everything around the Final Four grew. Suddenly it was being played in the middle of football stadiums. There were the Big Dance free concerts. Hoop City became Bracket Town.

Because he had seen the Final Four through the eyes of a host committee member and a volunteer, he was, as Neuburger said, “understanding of the real challenges that host cities have.

“But he also brought a more personal touch to the NCAA relationship with host cities. It wasn’t just institutional. I think that’s Greg greatest legacy.”

Of course, he also handled the business side, expanding corporate sponsorships and working with then-interim NCAA President Jim Isch to negotiate the $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner Sports.

Yet, things change. NCAA President Mark Emmert has been assembling his own leadership team. Jernstedt, architect of the Final Four’s initial growth spurt, was among the first to be let go. Shaheen was told to reapply for his job. He didn’t get it. The NCAA chose Mark Lewis, who has a background with the Olympics and network television.

Sensing his time with the Final Four was drawing to a close, Shaheen gave a farewell speech of sorts to host committees in New Orleans. It was replete with the self-deprecating humor that has become his hallmark.

When he concluded, he received a well-deserved standing ovation.

We don’t yet know if Shaheen will remain with the NCAA in some capacity. Let’s hope he stays in Indy. We have a Final Four in 2015. Maybe it could use an experienced transportation committee volunteer.•

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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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