Asheville again: SoCon tries to relive glory days
After Les Robinson and East Tennessee State won their second straight Southern Conference tournament in 1990, a line of cars jammed the highway from Asheville to Johnson City.
"It was like a parade of cars for 40 miles," remembers Robinson, the former ETSU and Citadel basketball coach. "There was no interstate back then, so it took a while to get home. But I never minded the ride. It was always fun."
Those were the glory days of the SoCon tournament, when spectators packed the old Asheville Civic Center and Marshall fans flooded Asheville with $2 dollar bills. During a 12-year run in Asheville from 1984-95, semifinal and championship games almost always were played in front of capacity crowds.
"They filled it up," said Coastal Carolina women's coach Alan LeForce, who succeeded Robinson at ETSU and led the team to the final two of four straight SoCon tournament titles. "It was the atmosphere that made it so great. The place was packed, and people had a good time."
The SoCon tournament returned to Asheville this weekend after stints, with varying degrees of success, in Greensboro, Greenville, Charleston, Chattanooga and Charlotte. And with a three-year commitment from the SoCon and a renovated Civic Center -- now called the U.S. Celluar Center -- league officials are hoping to recapture those glory days.
"We'd like to be able to put down roots," said SoCon commissioner John Iamarino. "That's why we have a three-year commitment. We realize we're not going to meet all the expectations in year one, but I think we'll get there over time."
The tournament's run in Asheville coincided with some very good years for ETSU, Marshall and Chattanooga, teams with highly motivated fans who would faithfully make the trek to Asheville each spring. ETSU and Marshall, which have since left the SoCon, won seven tournaments during that 12-year span, and Chattanooga captured four titles.
"Those Marshall people really helped make the tournament," Robinson said. "They brought those $2 bills, and we sent them home a couple of times."
Iamarino believes that a tournament in Asheville, a neutral-court city centrally located in the SoCon's footprint, can thrive again. He said four SoCon schools already have sold out their ticket allotment, and a fifth is close (each of the 12 schools are required to sell $12,000 worth of tickets). In recent years, only one or two schools have sold out their allotments.
Attendance at U.S. Cellular Center for Saturday's two quarterfinal sessions was 7,464 for the first two games and 5,432 for the second pair. The success of nearby Western Carolina gave the atmosphere in the building a boost.
"This is what a college basketball postseason tournament should be about," said Catamounts coach Larry Hunter. "It should be exciting. It should be an atmosphere. The student-athletes deserve that. All the schools are supporting their teams unbelievably well."
"Since I came here in 2006, I don't think we've come close to having four or five schools do that," he said.
Asheville, which also hosted the quarterfinals and semifinals of the Big South tournament at UNC Asheville this week, has greeted the SoCon with open arms, Iamarino said. The renovations to the old Civic Center, which seats 6,000, cost $8.9 million, with a new roof, new locker rooms and concession areas and a new scoreboard. The building's naming rights, awarded to U.S. Cellular, could bring the city as much as $1.35 million over three years.
The three-year deal between the SoCon and Asheville guarantees the league $50,000 per year, and that figure could grow to as much as $150,000 per year, depending on ticket sales. The deal also means that it will be at least 2015 before another city -- Charleston, perhaps? -- can host the tournament.
And if things go well, it could be a lot longer than that. "I hope like crazy that it works," said Wofford coach Mike Young, whose team won the last two tournaments, in Chattanooga and Charlotte. "I remember as a young coach going to see East Tennessee and App State in the finals, and vividly remember the electricity in the building.
"I hope that -- sooner rather than later -- we can recapture that energy."