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NCAA officials happy with 2014 Final Four, express interest in return

AT&T Stadium in Arlington earned its share of believers as a Final Four venue in its debut in that role, with multiple NCAA administrators offering praise at the conclusion of a long weekend marked by record-setting crowds and minimal traffic snarls.

Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships, offered his blessing for a future Final Four in Arlington after watching the venue set three attendance records by the conclusion of Monday night’s title game: best-attended Final Four (158,682 for two sessions), largest crowd for an NCAA championship game (79,238 on Monday night) and largest single-day crowd for a college basketball game (79,444 for Saturday’s semifinal doubleheader).

“We’d love to come back,” Gavitt said, summarizing NCAA sentiments at the conclusion of the 2014 North Texas Final Four. “I think it’s been an unqualified success.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert said: “This is a superb arena, stadium and experience. If you’re going to have games like this in big stadiums, they have got to be really good facilities or it just doesn’t work. This one works pretty darn well.”

Gavitt declared his desire to return after watching DFW deal with rainy weather that cut into crowds for the three-day March Madness Music Festival in Dallas and forced Tarrant County commuters to deal with extra traffic challenges when a scheduled NASCAR race in Fort Worth — the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway — was postponed until Monday, the same day as the national championship game in Arlington.

Gavitt said the unexpected wrinkle did not create major traffic concerns for basketball fans headed to AT&T Stadium and the rainy weather did not raise a negative issue that could be held against DFW in efforts to attract future Final Fours to Arlington.

“No,” Gavitt said. “Certainly not. There’s been no issues. We’re very pleased.”

Area basketball fans will learn how pleased later this year. North Texas is one of eight finalists for another Final Four between 2017 and 2020, with an announcement expected in November.

Heading into the 2014 Final Four, primary concerns involved weather problems, traffic and the reaction of basketball fans and NCAA administrators to the 30-minute commute between events in Dallas and the games in Arlington.

Among metropolitan areas vying to host men’s Final Fours from 2017-2020, six of the eight candidates offer a downtown stadium with walking access to sites for ancillary events: Atlanta, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New Orleans, San Antonio and St. Louis. DFW, which has other advantages, does not.

Before and after the Final Four, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby predicted the inability to walk between events in Dallas and basketball games in Arlington would not be a hindrance to local organizers in efforts to bring the event back to North Texas.

“We have too many other advantages. I fully expect that we will get another Final Four before very long,” Bowlsby said.

But will that happen in the next round of bids, for sites between 2017 and 2020? Or will this area have to wait until 2021 or later to see college basketball’s ultimate event return to DFW?

Baylor men’s basketball coach Scott Drew, whose team reached the Sweet 16 round of this year’s tournament, offered his support Saturday on his Twitter account (@BUDREW). Drew wrote: “AT&T Stadium needs to be in the rotation every 3 or 4 yrs to Host a Final 4. Tremendous Venue to watch a game!!! Not even Close.”

But the final decision will be up to NCAA administrators, who went 28 years between visits to DFW because the area lacked a domed stadium needed to meet today’s venue requirements until AT&T Stadium opened in 2009. During its five-year history, the stadium has hosted a Super Bowl, an NBA All-Star Game and a Final Four. It will be the venue for the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship game, Jan. 12, 2015.

Unlike at Super Bowl XLV, where the lingering images of that event include an ice storm that created major traffic problems and a ticket fiasco involving temporary seats, the 2014 Final Four unfolded in Arlington without any high-profile, logistical headaches.

Gavitt said he and members of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee rode on shuttle buses from Dallas to Arlington throughout Final Four week to gauge the commute. They also began soliciting feedback from competing teams before schools and fans left town in efforts to grade the venue’s desirability for a return engagement.

“That’s where we start with our assessment is with the student-athletes, the coaches and the fans,” Gavitt said. “The feedback we’ve gotten from the teams is that they’ve had a fantastic time. The hospitality of the area has shown through.”

Did the Final Four experience in North Texas meet NCAA expectations?

“Very much so,” Gavitt said.

The next question, to be settled in November, is whether it met them well enough to earn another Final Four between 2017 and 2020.

2014 Final Four milestones

Best-attended Final Four: 158,682 (Saturday and Monday sessions)

Largest crowd for NCAA title game: 79,238 (Monday night)

Largest crowd for college basketball game: 79,444 (Saturday)

Texas Trifecta: Connecticut, a 60-54 winner over Kentucky in Monday’s title game, claimed its third national championship in three Final Four trips to Texas venues: 2014 (Arlington), 2011 (Houston), 2004 (San Antonio). After the title game, the Huskies wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: “Lone Star Statement.”

Lucky Seven: Connecticut became the first No. 7 seed to claim an NCAA title since seeding began in 1979. Only Villanova, the 1985 champion, claimed the title after starting the tournament as a lower seed (No. 8).