REGIONAL REBOOT: AHSAA moves Central Regional tourney back to ASU
By Tim Gayle
City and county officials who announced in September their plans to move the high school basketball regionals to Garrett Coliseum have now reneged on their promise just weeks before the event.
Coliseum workers who spent thousands of dollars in preparation for the weeklong high school event at the state-owned facility are left to ponder what politics were served by moving the event back to Alabama State University, an organization that has lost – and now regained – the regionals on two separate occasions.
"It’s going back to Alabama State,” said Alabama National Fair general manager Randy Stephenson, who is in charge of the coliseum. “That’s all I can say.”
The announcement became official on Friday when the Alabama High School Athletic Association sent out a press release stating the change.
The release included a statement from AHSAA executive director Steve Savarese.
“We appreciate Alabama State University’s administration for its commitment to hosting this and other AHSAA events,” Savarese said. “We also thank Garrett Coliseum’s board and administration for providing an alternative site in Montgomery."
Alabama State served as the host site for the Central Regionals in the inaugural year of region play, 1994, but lost the event when school officials charged AHSAA officials a fee that was not in line with the other three host sites.
The event moved to Troy University in 1995 and remained there until 2007 when Alabama State was given a second chance, but was scheduled to leave again for the start of the 2017 tournament on Feb. 15 after Alabama State administrators notified the Alabama High School Athletic Association that the school did not want to renew its contract, a decision that was approved by many of the school officials who had to work the tournament each February.
The move to Garrett was seen as a boost for the facility in north Montgomery that has operated without state funding for the last five years and hasn’t had a major sporting event other than the Southeastern Livestock Exposition Rodeo since the AHSAA state indoor track meet in 1992. In announcing the move in September, Stephenson said hosting the regionals allowed the facility to go back in time “to where it started, when basketball was a part of what happened here” and that hosting the event would “open the door to other events.”
Now, members of the Agriculture Center Redevelopment Board, charged with supporting the facility, have slammed the door on efforts to place a major 10-day event in the facility.
Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries chairman John McMillan is in charge of the board that oversees the Alabama Agricultural Center, as it was originally known. The board includes Gov. Robert Bentley, state finance director Clinton Carter, McMillan, Montgomery mayor Todd Strange, county commission chairman Elton Dean, city council president Charles Jinright and four other citizens from throughout the state, including Alabama Cattleman’s Association executive director Billy Powell.
“I do not know a whole lot about it except that, with the change of administration at Alabama State … there were changes in the interest in continuing to host that (event), so the decision was made, at least for one more year, to see how that worked out,” said McMillan, referring to the decision as a political one. “I’m still optimistic that at some point we’ll have enough leaders at the city, county and state level to do more with (Garrett) and see the opportunity that those of us that have been so closely involved with it have observed.”
When the decision was announced in September to move the high school regional tournament to Garrett, it was lauded by city officials as a way of breathing life back into the facility and by director of leisure services Scott Miller because the coliseum was better equipped to handle the multiple teams involved and the facility could hold more people and had more available parking.
When Alabama State trustees fired president Gwendolyn Boyd in early November, they appointed Leon Wilson as interim president. The new administration immediately notified city and AHSAA officials that they wanted the tournament to return to the Acadome and also pointed out that removing the tournament was Boyd’s decision.
“The reason that we moved it to start with is because ASU said we’re not welcome there anymore,” Strange said. “We had to jump through hoops to keep it here (in Montgomery). We, in fact, did spend some money over there (at Garrett Coliseum) to refreshen it. New leadership at ASU came to us and said we would like it back and we’d be willing to do A, B, C and D that the previous administration was not willing.
“It works over at ASU quite well. We don’t have to haul a floor over to Garrett Coliseum. We don’t have to do extra things or bring in heat to make sure it’s 75 degrees. They were willing to do the same agreement and do some of the things that the Alabama High School Athletic Association wanted done, like in (the Northeast Regional in) Jacksonville – which is, frankly, less than what they (AHSAA officials) were insisting on.”
Another asset, Strange said, was the university’s ability to put on the event in the past and make available certain requirements – such as nearby medical assistance – that might not be as easy to obtain at Garrett.
“Some of those little things that would cost additional dollars may not have to be expended,” Strange said. “They can do it at a lesser cost. We gave them 10 days to work with the Alabama High School Athletic Association.”
Wilson signed the one-year contract, which can be extended.
Stephenson said as recently as Jan. 19 he did not know for certain of the city’s plans to pull the event out of the coliseum.
In signing the contract with ASU officials, Strange and Savarese were forced to break the contractsigned back in the fall to hold the tournament at Garrett Coliseum.
“We explained the situation about going back over there (to ASU) and they were very gracious,” Strange said. “Now, we’re going to try over the next couple of years to move some events from the Multiplex (to the coliseum). Take wrestling, for example. That’s a better venue to do wrestling. We’re very pleased that they (Agriculture Board members), in fact, worked with us to move it back to ASU.”
The Coliseum, without state-assisted funds that numbered more than a $ 1 million 10 years ago, operates entirely on revenue from rental fees of the facility, parking fees and a percentage of concessions. A 10-day high school basketball tournament would provide the largest potential revenue stream since the Southeastern Conference Indoor Track Meet concluded its run at Garrett in February, 1979. And two of the people charged with supporting the facility as members of the board, Strange and Dean, were instrumental in moving the tournament out of Garrett and back to Alabama State.
“We’re regretful that we had to go to them and ask them if they would be willing to relinquish that contract so we can have it over there (at ASU),” Strange said. “We said to them that if it doesn’t go well the first year, if they don’t live up to the expectations, we would be back.”
The coliseum, meanwhile, had thousands of dollars in repairs and improvements spent to replace drywall and to repair five of the six heating units in the facility, expenses that would be easily regained by hosting the tournament.
“It did cost us in the neighborhood of $50,000 to get the dressing rooms and everything ready for that tournament,” McMillan said. “But, down the road, it’ll work out. I think the commitment has already been made for the Camellia Bowl tournament.”
That tournament, proposed for next December or 2018, was a collegiate tournament involving Sun Belt and Mid-American conference teams in an ESPN event that would coincide with the Camellia Bowl, a football game in Cramton Bowl featuring bowl teams from the same two conferences.
“If you’re going to go basketball, which has been some of the conversation, you could do that at ASU as well,” Strange said.
State funds were provided for the building of the coliseum in 1945 and ground was broken on the $2.85 million facility three years later. When it was dedicated in October, 1953, the Alabama Agricultural Center was billed as the nation’s largest indoor arena, a title it would soon surrender with the building of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa in 1955 and Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., in 1956. It was renamed Garrett Coliseum in 1963 to honor W.W. Garrett, chairman of the agricultural board when the facility was first constructed.
And while it has always been connected with livestock shows, the SLE Rodeo and the Alabama National Fair, it quickly garnered attention as a basketball facility. The first sporting event was a high school-college basketball doubleheader on Dec. 11, 1953 as Sidney Lanier defeated Eufaula 61-52 and Auburn defeated Georgia Tech 83-57. The Montgomery Invitational, featuring high school and college teams, followed 10 days later and Alabama played Holy Cross in its first venture to Garrett Coliseum on Jan. 2, 1954.