Dayton’s winning First Four bid: A reminder of the good thing going here

The sign says it all. Photo: Marcus Hartman/CMG Ohio
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The sign says it all. Photo: Marcus Hartman/CMG Ohio

The NCAA announced Tuesday something that should have been a foregone conclusion: The University of Dayton will host the First Four through 2022.

The road to the Final Four will start in the Gem City for another five years, marking 22 in total when the newly awarded bid runs out.

READ MORE: First Four staying at UD Arena

As one UD official pointed out, most if not all of the players competing in the 2022 First Four will have lived only in a world where the NCAA tournament begins with one to four games at UD Arena.

If the last five years are any indication, those young men will play in front of 11-12,000 fans, including a lot of basketball crazies and more than a few servicemen and women.

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Players potentially from any corner of the country will be welcomed to town by a special ceremony, and they will experience the same pomp and circumstance of an NCAA tournament game played on the following Thursday or Friday.

If you attended any of the previous games, it’s hard to imagine another entity topping what the university and the city have put together.

Which begs the question: Why does Dayton have to keep bidding on this thing?

The process seems like a waste of time to me, but neither UD director of athletics Neil Sullivan nor Eric Farrell of Dayton Hoopla (the group that organizes the activities around the First Four) seemed too worried about it after the announcement.

“We’re just thankful that we got these five years,” Farrell said. “Obviously the more room we’ve got the more we can continue to build on past successes, but right now we’re just really happy. We’re focused on all the way through 2022.

“The team here has done it now for 17 straight years, so that inherent knowledge really helps put this university and put the bid over the top with somebody else.”

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That should make Dayton even tougher to beat the next time bids are submitted for the games, something that can’t be comforting to those folks in Detroit, Evansville, Ind., and Hershey, Pa., who tried to usurp what’s become a grand annual tradition on the banks of the Great Miami River.

If they couldn’t beat UD, the First Four Operating Committee and their community partners now, when will they ever?

It’s all rather amazing when considering the games actually ended up here more or less by accident.

After passing on a plan to hold the opening game in Indianapolis, the NCAA decided it would rotate the game among sites that were hosting first- and second-round games each year.

Dayton happened to be a host in 2001 when Northwestern State and Winthrop became the first teams to be placed No. 64 and 65 on the bracket, and by happenstance they were sent here.

The overall experience ended up going so well the NCAA offered UD the chance to host the game every year.

Yadda yadda yadda, the rest is history, right?

Maybe not.

“I think there’s a lot of hard work that goes into building the brand and really showcasing the student-athletes and the coaches that are here,” said Sullivan, who also pointed out all four games in the 2017 edition of the First Four went down to the wire.

“So if you were here, you saw great basketball, great student-athletes competing, great coaches, pageantry, cheerleaders – if you really experience it, it’s a full-fledged part of the NCAA tournament. It’s not an opening act. It’s not a warm-up act. It is the real act with a lot on the line for those students. I think for the fans had to come to appreciate that but once they have you realize it’s the NCAA tournament like any other game.”

The event has evolved into a definite spectacle – one that resembles the rest of the tournament (by design), but remains unique.

It is an extra game, after all, but being sent to Dayton for what grew to the First Four in 2011 is no death sentence for a team's Final Four fantasies (as Kansas State coach Bruce Weber reminded his team after the Wildcats won here this year).

They can still dance all the way to the last weekend of the tournament, as VCU did the very first year when the Rams made it to the Final Four.

That legitimized the whole deal, and now Dayton and the NCAA’s opening round have a symbiotic relationship – one worth an estimated $4.5 million annually to the area.

After 17 years, Dayton needs the First Four, and the First Four needs Dayton.

They go together like a pilot’s hand and his flight gloves.

If the NCAA insists periodic reminders of why, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Did the occasional renewal of vows ever hurt anyone?

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