MINNEAPOLIS -- Dan Gavitt’s first in-person Final Four turned out to be historic: Magic versus Bird.
The 1979 NCAA championship game marked the beginning of what became a legendary NBA rivalry as Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad, 75-64, in Salt Lake City.
Given Gavitt’s current job - the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball - that iconic title game serves as a timepiece for another reason. It was held at the University of Utah’s 15,000-seat Jon M. Huntsman Center, so the set-up was easy.
Now overseeing his seventh Final Four, Gavitt has grown accustomed to the challenges he faces in trying to showcase college basketball in mammoth NFL stadiums. That’s why his team started monthly meetings in Minneapolis in June and will conduct a dry run this weekend ahead of the Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 6-8.
A pair of double-headers start Friday, Nov. 30, when St. Thomas plays Wisconsin-River Falls at 6 p.m. and the Gophers and Oklahoma State playing a nightcap at 9. Saturday’s games are North Dakota State versus Drake at 5:30 p.m. and South Dakota State against Northern Iowa at 8:30.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” Gavitt said. He reminisced on how things have changed by watching a game at the Huntsman Center a few years ago. “I thought, my God, there was actually a Final Four in this building!”
Last year’s national championship game drew 67,831 fans to the Alamodome in San Antonio. This year’s title game is expected to top more than 70,000 because U.S. Bank Stadium has more capacity, Gavitt said.
This weekend’s double-header is expected to draw much, much less, with the court setup tucked in one of the Vikings’ end zones as opposed to midfield, as it will be for the Final Four - a centralized setup that started in 2009 at Ford Field in Detroit.
This weekend’s raised court and seating setup started on Tuesday; setting up the Final Four’s raised court at the 50-yard-line, plus temporary seating on all four sides, will take about three weeks.
“It’s a long process,” Gavitt said form the NCAA’s temporary suite of offices in a downtown Minneapolis skyscraper. “When the tournament starts (in mid-March), we will be here setting up.”
The focus of this weekend’s dry run will be on behind-the-scenes operations for staff, teams and media.
Before the Final Four, the U.S. Bank Stadium must install drapes to shield light from coming in through the glass ceiling, but that won’t be the case this weekend, Gavitt said.
Minneapolis was awarded the Final Four in 2014, a typical lead time with requirements such as locking in downtown hotel-room blocks and space at the Minneapolis Convention Center. They unveiled their logo last winter and have been ramping up since.
The NCAA committee has 10 members, with a dozen others on staff and support coming from more than 100. They will take the next step this weekend.