Indy’s March Madness gig built on six decades of savvy decisions

Banners promoting the Final Four adorn the windows of Lucas Oil Stadium. (IBJ photo/Lesley Weidenbener)

It was a series of projects and choices over decades that, to the casual observer, might seem unrelated, even unremarkable.

Construction of a convention center, a basketball arena, a football stadium, to start.

Many of the people behind the moves—names like Richard Lugar, Bill Hudnut and John Barton, leaders of a bygone era—might seem to have little connection to the monumental event about to unfold here.

But their decisions—and the work of countless others, many of whom are still involved in sports and the community today—established the foundation that makes it possible for the entire NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament to take place in central Indiana.

Landing that tournament would not have been possible without the decision in 1965 to build the Indiana Convention Center downtown and emblazon it with the state’s name instead of the city’s, which helped the project gain state government support and funding.

Or without the decision in 1971 to build Market Square Arena downtown, rather than in the suburbs. Or the bold choice in 1981 to build a domed football stadium even before the city had an NFL franchise.

Other audacious moves were also critical building blocks.

The vision to go after the city’s first Final Four in 1980. The gutsy call to pursue the city’s first national multi-sport event—the National Sports Festival—in 1982. The downright risky decision to step in as host of the 1987 Pan Am Games after Santiago, Chile, and Quito, Ecuador, pulled out.

Without local leaders like Democrats Barton, Evan Bayh, Frank O’Bannon and Bart Peterson and Republicans Lugar, Hudnut, Stephen Goldsmith and Phil Borst, another city would likely celebrate the unprecedented arrival of March Madness next week.

Also crucial has been the army of foot soldiers through the years. There are too many to name them all, but they include Jim Morris, David Frick, Greg Shaheen, Sandy Knapp, Susan Williams, Milt Thompson, Ollan Cassell and Dale Neuburger.

Glass

“While it might look like the NCAA woke up one morning and said, ‘We have to have the tournament here,’ it was 50 years’ worth of decisions and happenings that led Indianapolis to be trusted with the NCAA’s most valuable asset,” said Fred Glass, a local attorney and longtime civic leader.

“What we have here is solid, bipartisan and trusted,” Glass said. “And very unique.”

Glass, a Democrat who served as Gov. Bayh’s chief of staff in the 1990s and was a key ally of Mayor Peterson in the 2000s, has had a front-row seat for many of the events that led to this incredible month in Indianapolis, where 55 of the 67 tournament games will be played. The remaining 12 games will be played in Bloomington and West Lafayette, keeping the NCAA’s biggest cash cow in one state as the pandemic continues to make travel risky.

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Building blocks

Glass, who was Indiana University athletics director from 2008 to 2019, said some of the most important bricks in the city’s sports foundation pre-date him.

He pointed to Barton, Indianapolis’ mayor from 1964 to 1968, who championed construction of the convention center at a time downtowns nationwide were dying. “That was the foundation for everything,” Glass said.

And as suburban flight continued unabated, Lugar—who was mayor from 1968 to 1976 before becoming a U.S. senator—pushed to build Market Square Arena in the city’s center also.

A number of people can take credit for construction of the Hoosier Dome—later renamed the RCA Dome—but Hudnut, mayor from 1976 to 1992, earns a good chunk of it. Frick, Hudnut’s chief of staff, also gets credit not only for the dome, but also for helping lure the Colts here from Baltimore.

But it was Morris, a longtime Republican operative and Lugar chief of staff, who played one of the biggest roles.

He had just returned from a scouting trip to the 1981 National Sports Festival in Syracuse, New York, where he saw the new Carrier Dome at Syracuse University.

“I went down to the [Indiana] Convention Center and, with my own two legs, paced off the distance between the south side of the convention center and the railroad tracks to see if there was enough space to put the Hoosier Dome in there,” Morris said.

“Building the Hoosier Dome without a football team,” Glass said, his voice rising an octave. “Hudnut got ripped for that.”

The mayor was in good company.

“There’s a long list of local leaders who were chided and derided for their decisions,” said Glass, who also served as president of the Capital Improvement Board. “But they had the guts to make them, anyway. That’s why we are where we are.”

On the front end of many of the brick-and-mortar moves was the formation of the Indiana Sports Corp. in 1979. It was the first sports-hosting organization of its kind in the nation. Knapp, the Sports Corp.’s first president, became a key figure in hosting the city’s early big-time sports events.

While government officials often took center stage, the movement would have gone nowhere without private muscle from the local corporate and philanthropic sectors.

No player was bigger than the Lilly Endowment, which poured tens of millions of dollars over the years into the city’s sports efforts, including $25 million to help lure the Colts and another $10 million to help attract the NCAA headquarters.

“It’s been like three legs to a stool: public, private and philanthropic,” said Neuburger, who served as Sports Corp. president from 1993 to 2005. “Without any one of those, it all comes toppling down.”

Cozy relationship

This year’s Final Four will be the eighth in Indianapolis. It’s clear that, without the Hoosier Dome, there would have been no Final Fours here in 1991, 1997, 2000 or 2006 and likely no Final Fours at the Dome’s replacement—Lucas Oil Stadium—in 2010, 2015 or 2021.

Lucas Oil Stadium is already scheduled to host the event again in 2026.

But the start of the cozy relationship between city officials and the NCAA started back in 1980, at Indianapolis’ first Final Four, in Market Square Arena.

Few remember that Louisville defeated UCLA for the title that year or that Iowa and Purdue were the other semifinalists. Even fewer would recall Frick as a key player that weekend.

But without him, Neuburger contends, Indianapolis might never have registered with the NCAA 16 years later when it considered leaving its Overland Park, Kansas, headquarters.

Frick’s official job was Hudnut’s deputy mayor. But he was a lot more than that.

“David was an important part of the NCAA seeing that Indianapolis was a place where people keep their promises and do what they say they’re going to do,” said Neuburger, who later developed close ties with several NCAA generals in his activities with USA Swimming and Diving and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“What David did was establish a level of trust and confidence between the NCAA and city of Indianapolis. It was a big leap in the relationship. David is very soft-spoken and humble and not an attention seeker, but he’s amazing.”

That trust helped the city land a string of NCAA events. Neuburger, who was an assistant athletics director at IU and manager of the Natatorium on the IUPUI campus during the 1980s and 1990s, helped broker more than a dozen championship swimming events here during that time.

Cassell, the executive director of The Athletic Congress, which changed its name to USA Track & Field in 1991, also helped strengthen the relationship between the city and the NCAA. With USATF located here, Indy hosted the NCAA track and field indoor championships in the RCA Dome for many years and the NCAA outdoor championships at IUPUI’s then-world-class outdoor track in 1986.

“Those track and field events we held here were like everything else we did with the NCAA,” Neuburger said. “They were top shelf.”

Time to move

As Indianapolis was becoming a sports capital, the NCAA’s situation in Overland Park, a Kansas City suburb, was looking less secure. The NCAA wanted to buy the land on which its headquarters sat, but the organization that owned its headquarters building refused to sell.

Dempsey

Cedric Dempsey, who was NCAA president from 1994 to 2003, mentioned the issue to Morris in the mid 1990s when they were attending the same event. Morris got word to local officials, and leaders developed a plan of attack.

Indianapolis wasn’t the only city interested. Dallas, Atlanta and Denver—as well as Kansas City, which had been NCAA headquarters since 1952—also put together proposals when the NCAA solicited bids in 1996.

“Indianapolis just seemed more aggressive about going after it than the other cities,” Dempsey recalled. “Plus, Indianapolis was already well on its way to becoming an amateur-sports capital. And we already had a trust in the city from it hosting the Final Four and other events.”

The $50 million incentive package didn’t hurt, either. The city offered to build a spiffy headquarters in White River State Park on the western edge of downtown.

The package “was tens of millions of dollars more than the other cities pursuing this,” Dempsey said.

Raising the money wasn’t easy. Local government officials came up with $25 million for land and construction. The private sector, primarily local companies, raised $15 million. The Lilly Endowment added $10 million.

Trust continued to mount after Indianapolis won the bid. Neuburger hired Greg Shaheen, an executive with his family’s business, Long Electric Co., to help oversee construction of the headquarters, which opened in 1999, and manage logistics of the association’s move.

Dempsey called Shaheen “a tremendous facilitator.”

Shaheen was responsible for all of the move’s “nitty-gritty stuff,” Neuburger said. “He was the guy who answered every good and goofy question that came his way. He answered questions about where people should live, send their kids to school and even what hospitals and doctors people should go to for specific conditions.

“We described it as concierge service. Anything you wanted to know, Greg would get you an answer, and he would get it quickly,” Neuburger added.

The NCAA was so impressed that it hired Shaheen full time after the move. He was mentored by NCAA executive Tom Jernstedt and was eventually elevated to oversee operations of the men’s basketball tournament and Final Four.

Jernstedt, who died in September, was impressed not just by Shaheen but also by the entire city’s embrace.

Before his death, Jernstedt told IBJ he got to know more local residents and officials in his first year working at the NCAA in Indianapolis than he did in 25 years working for the association in Kansas.

“The relationship between the city of Indianapolis and the NCAA developed into something special,” said Jernstedt, who departed the NCAA in 2010 and was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.

Extraordinary deal

In 2003—at a routine annual meeting with the NCAA, city and state officials, and representatives of the Indiana Sports Corp., Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association (now Visit Indy) and a few others—a surprise major building block in the relationship was added.

The meeting started uneventfully enough, recalled University of Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, the Sports Corp. chairman from 1992 to 2001.

But it ended with a first-of-its-kind agreement that runs through 2039 and assures a cadre of events—virtually one every single year of the deal, including men’s and women’s Final Fours and earlier-round tournament games and a host of NCAA committee meetings—that will create direct visitor spending in the city of more than $650 million.

Glass called the pact “an extraordinary and unique deal that any other community in the country would give their eye teeth to get.”

A much-less-hyped section requires Indianapolis to serve as emergency backup site for the Final Four. It was talk about that idea, beginning with the yawn-inducing topic of insurance, that unexpectedly lit the fire.

Swarbrick sat across from Shaheen at the meeting. Glass was there, too.

“The discussion began as an annual checkup in the summer of 2003,” said Swarbrick, one of the architects of the deal that brought the NCAA headquarters here. “It was more like a meeting between a landlord and tenant.”

There was conversation about what the sides could do to benefit each other. Shaheen mentioned that, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the NCAA’s insurer had been pressuring it to create an emergency backup plan for its biggest money-maker—the Final Four.

The NCAA wondered whether Indianapolis could play a role. It would require a plan that allowed tournament organizers and volunteers to mobilize quickly.

The emergency clause “was not a throwaway,” Glass emphasized. “It was a get and a give. It was a commitment. We had to hold our calendar. We couldn’t just say, ‘yes, yes, yes.’ We had to be prepared for that. It was something we took seriously. And it was something that was important to the NCAA. … It was us saying, ‘If you get in a crack, we’re going to take care of it.’ There’s no doubt, we came out of the deal having taken our relationship to another level.”

For the NCAA, the deal was about security, Dempsey said. “This was no quid pro quo,” he said. “We needed a trusted partner, and the city was there for us.”

Bubble up

So it should be no surprise that, on the heels of the cancellation of last year’s men’s tournament and with this year’s event in question, the association turned to Indianapolis for help. Because of the pandemic, it needed to host the entire tournament in essentially one place.

The Final Four was already set to be played in Lucas Oil Stadium. Bankers Life Fieldhouse downtown, Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University, Indiana Farmers Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, Mackey Arena at Purdue University and Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall at Indiana University were then added to fill out the schedule.

The NCAA declined to make an official available to comment for this story, but two sources in the organization said the long-standing relationship with Indianapolis was foremost in NCAA leaders’ minds. In addition, the blueprint the Indiana Sports Corp. created last year for hosting a sports bubble caught the NCAA’s eye.

“We’re fortunate to have neighbors and partners in Indianapolis and surrounding communities who not only love the game of basketball as much as anyone else in the country, but have a storied history when it comes to staging major sporting events,” said Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president of basketball, after the announcement the tourney would be held here.

A mix of new blood and old hands is leading the charge, including Ryan Vaughn, who left Republican mayor Greg Ballard’s staff in 2014 to become Sports Corp. president, and Rick Fuson, who has been on the Sports Corp. board since its founding and is now its chairman, along with CIB and Visit Indy leaders.

Vaughn said the Sports Corp. developed the bubble concept primarily to help the city’s tourism and hospitality sector get back on its feet. College basketball organizers quickly warmed to the idea and the city hosted a game in the Jimmy V Classic, two ESPN televised games and a USA Basketball qualifying game. The city also hosted a number of youth-sports events.

“We didn’t devise this plan expressly for the NCAA or Final Four,” Vaughn said. “Our goal was to be available if needed, but to host a series of events. We had the Final Four, so it was important for us to get college basketball off to a good—and safe—start.”

After seeing the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, the Sports Corp., CIB and Visit Indy concluded “we could actually do this in a safe way,” Vaughn said.

Smallest details

City leaders kept the NCAA apprised of their bubble plans, but the NCAA drove the decisions about their own tournament. “They reached out to us to see what would be possible,” Vaughn said. “But they drove the bus on their event from day one.”

When the NCAA reached out, said Fuson, Indiana Pacers president, local leaders “were ready to go and hit the ground running” since a local Final Four organizing committee was already working.

Local officials “are working with the NCAA on this event every single day. The level of planning down to the smallest details of this is unbelievable.”

An event of this magnitude would normally mean three to five years of planning. This tournament has been put together in two months.

“Out of sheer complexity and the number of simultaneous moving parts, March Madness and the Final Four this year will be the most complicated and difficult event Indianapolis has ever hosted,” Neuburger said. “Yes, the Pan Am Games was a huge global multi-sport event, but I stand by what I said.

“The element of being prepared for COVID-19 brings many new players to the event operation, many of whom have never worked on a sporting event before and many of whom have never worked directly with Visit Indy or Indiana Sports Corp. There’s a higher risk factor that goes along with that.”

Fuson is confident local organizers are up for the seemingly impossible challenge. “We have to prove ourselves every day. … Once you start taking things for granted, that’s the moment someone else passes you by.”•

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