Hosting NCAA tournament games requires almost as much planning as a NASA space launch, which is why schools usually are given advance notice of a couple of years to begin preparations.
But that wasn’t the case in 1970 when Dayton and its visionary athletic director, Tom Frericks, agreed to take a pair of first-round games. The 25-team event didn’t have the widespread appeal it does now, nor were schools jockeying for the right to be a tourney site.
“I remember I was laying on my couch on a Sunday afternoon in late January or early February and Frericks calling and saying, ‘Hey, they just awarded us the NCAA tournament.’ I said, ‘Great. When?’ He said, ‘This March.’ And we had not sold anything or done anything,” said Gary McCans, who had graduated from UD two years earlier and was just beginning a tenure as ticket director that would last more than four decades.
“It was nothing like it is today. It was a great event, but it was almost like, ‘Can you do us a favor and host this tournament?’ They just wanted to pass it on.
“But we were a new facility. We were one of the largest facilities at the time in the Midwest. And it was a great venue for them to come into.”
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A sellout crowd of 13,458 filled UD Arena to see Notre Dame play Ohio University and Jacksonville face Western Kentucky, and fans were treated to a 61-point outburst by ND’s Austin Carr, which is still a tourney record.
That doubleheader began a partnership between Dayton and the NCAA that is still going strong today. UD Arena hosted the Mideast Regional in 1972, more first-round games in ’73 and then another block of games in ’75, ’76 and ’78.
By the time three rounds are completed here Sunday, UD will have hosted 101 games, by far the most of any venue in history. And all 10 games this week are sold out.
“The community has been unbelievable,” McCans said. “The NCAA people, we would go over there to meetings, and they would joke that during NCAA week, nobody works in Dayton. The whole town shuts down.
“Not only do we sell out the building, but the people would show up. … We’d never have the open spaces you’d see at some of these facilities.”
The UD staff is known by the NCAA for modeling the way a tournament should be run, and Frericks, who died in 1992 (the year he was named NCAA selection committee chair), set the tone for handling the games in a first-class way.
“Tom would go out to a couple of his cronies and collect a couple thousand dollars from each one, and we put on a very, very nice banquet for the teams coming in,” McCans said.
That’s no longer done, but Dayton’s way of housing and transporting teams — along with getting the backing of the city in the form of signs and banners — became the NCAA standard.
“I think they learned from Tom’s input. He had some insight into that and knew a lot of people at the NCAA, and they trusted him with his recommendations,” McCans said.
Three teams played at UD on their way to national titles: Kentucky in 1978, Indiana in ‘81 and Villanova in ’85. The Wildcats beat host Dayton in a taut first-rounder, after which the NCAA made a rule preventing schools from playing on their home courts.
Three other teams passed through UD en route to the title game: Jacksonville in 1970, Florida State in ’72 and Kentucky in ‘75
There have been plenty of epic games, too. Kentucky knocked off undefeated Indiana (playing with an injured Scott May) and also beat Michigan State when Magic Johnson was a freshman phenom.
The Saint Joseph’s upset of No. 1 DePaul in 1981 may be the most memorable game of all in part because of what occurred — or didn’t occur — immediately afterward.
The Hawks scored on a last-second shot for a 49-48 victory, and DePaul’s Mark Aguirre grabbed the ball out of the net, ran through a hallway past the locker rooms and bolted up the ramp.
He flung the ball across the parking lot and tore off his jersey and dropped it in a dumpster.
An embellished version of the story has become part of NCAA folklore with Aguirre supposedly having thrown the ball into the Miami River. Not true, says retired Dayton Daily News reporter Bucky Albers, who had the exclusive scoop.
He talked to a security guard, who had witnessed Aguirre’s antics, and followed the player and a chaperone as they walked the entire way to their downtown hotel, staying out of sight as he trailed them in his station wagon.
“Dick Vitale and others for years have gotten on TV and have said Aguirre threw the ball into the Miami River. Well, it would be impossible to throw the ball into the Miami River even if he was standing on Edwin Moses Boulevard,” Albers said. “He just threw the ball in the air in the parking lot. That whole thing is a story that gets told and retold.”
While he never could get the DePaul star to talk about his meltdown after approaching him at the hotel, Albers did confirm the facts on Aguirre’s famous heave.
“It was halftime of the (second) game, and I went over to the scorer’s table and got the game ball. I spun it around, and I found an asphalt bruise on this brand new game ball, which they used for both games. I knew the story was true,” Albers said.