Road to Final Four goes through Jacksonville

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by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

The nation hasn’t seen the Jacksonville University basketball logo in a long time and based on the fact the Dolphins are struggling this year, the team won’t be playing on national TV either.

However, in mid-March the logo will be front and center for two days.

Jacksonville University will be one of eight host institutions for the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament March 16-18 at Veterans Memorial Arena. That means Alan Verlander, JU athletic director, has his hands full these days. Not only is he running a Division-I athletic program, for all intents and purposes, he’s the basketball ambassador for the city that weekend.

“Only eight athletic directors in the country get to do this. It’s definitely a huge deal and a win-win situation. We’ll be working with some of the most influential people in college athletics,” said Verlander. “Our media relations director and I will be putting in 120-hour weeks for two weeks, but it’s the kind of work we enjoy.”

Verlander added that as a host D-I program, the university will receive 10 percent of ticket revenues from the games played in Jacksonville. Since the games sold out as soon as it was announced the event would be held here, Verlander expects a major cash injection for JU’s athletic programs.

“We’re expecting well above six figures,” he said. “We’ve taken some things out of our budget to make it a great show, but it will allow us to create a reserve for the athletic department, which is something we’ve never had before. We will be able to truly address some of our needs. No more band-aids.”

Verlander said it will be the first time the Dolphins’ logo has appeared on national television since Bob Wenzel took the team to the tournament in 1986. He’s anxious to see how the national exposure will affect enrollment.

“It may create a spike in applications and inquiries about the university. In many ways, this will be JU’s Super Bowl,” he said.

The staff at the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission has also been getting ready for the tournament.

“There are thousands of things we have to get done. It’s intense,” said Mike Sullivan, sports and entertainment director. “The paperwork is more than with Super Bowl, but we’re not dealing with as many people.”

Sullivan credits the new sports complex with creating the interest and excitement the NCAA needed to make the decision to play the first round games in Jacksonville.

“We wouldn’t have this tournament if we didn’t have the arena. You couldn’t do this in the old coliseum. That’s why the NCAA passed us by so many times,” he said. “With our new facilities, we’re able to do just about anything.”

The JEDC can’t put an accurate number on the economic impact of the event until after it’s over. But Sullivan said, “I’m guessing it will be two to three million dollars.”

Sullivan also said there won’t be any vacations taken at the JEDC after college basketball’s biggest show leaves town.

“We’ll go right into getting ready for ACC baseball and there are other things we’re working on,” he said. “We’d like to get an NBA exhibition game every year. We’d like to have Major League Baseball bring at least one game here each year. A lot of things are on the horizon.”