How Indy’s first Closing 4 helped usher in a brand new period for town
Stuffed with ads and instructions for downloading the official event app, it included schedules for fan parties, concerts, open practices and more. What felt more like a small magazine than a large brochure mapped out a festival of basketball.
Indianapolis had similar aims in mind in 1980, when the city hosted its first Final Four. Just not on the same scale.
“Back then, it was a basketball game,” said David Frick, then-deputy mayor and a key member of Indianapolis’ organizing team. “It didn’t get a lot of hype.”
The Final Four wasn’t the spectacle then that it is now, and Indy wasn’t the well-oiled event-hosting machine then that it is now. But this was still a major step, for a city trying to use sports to drive economic development.
That meant putting Indy’s best foot forward — sandwich boards and storefront signs, banners welcoming fans to the city and, perhaps most notably, maps of downtown for people to reference during their visit. Not until it was too late did organizers discover a glaring error:
Someone forgot to include Market Square Arena on the maps.
It’s the kind of memory Frick laughs about now. It’s also an example of how Indianapolis has grown, and how the first of what will soon be eight Final Fours in the past 41 years helped usher in a new era for one of the best sports-event cities in the country.
Indy was going places
The silhouette of Indianapolis’ skyline cut differently in 1980. No Salesforce Tower rising over the city. No NFL stadium casting a long shadow from the south.
The city only began purchasing the space for Circle Centre Mall in 1983, and the zoo wouldn’t open in its current location, at White River State Park, until 1988.
But Indy was going places under then-Mayor Bill Hudnut. Sports were part of the formula for getting there.
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“We as a community at that point in time were developing this strategy of sports driving our economic growth,” Frick said. “We were, as a community, tiptoeing into the use of sports.”
It was, perhaps not by coincidence, that the Indiana Sports Corp first opened its doors in December 1979, just weeks before the city would host its first Final Four.
The process for securing the event wasn’t as laborious as it is now. Nothing was. The idea of sports as a spectacle, at least in the way we know it today, hadn’t quite reached the NCAA tournament. But Indianapolis was prepared to invest in the idea that it would, and that more specifically, Indy could become the kind of city that attracted those big events.
“There had to be that kind of thinking going on in order for the Sports Corporation to have been conceived and opened its doors in 1980,” said Sandy Knapp, the first president of the Sports Corps. “It felt like it was a standalone event at that point in time, but if you look at the picture that evolved after that, it clearly was one of the first steps.”
Frick organized things from the city’s side, with help from civic leaders and prominent members of the community, including Jim Morris, Dick DeMars and Bud Tucker.
“We had worked hard to get the tournament to come to Indianapolis,” Morris said. “It was a big deal to get it awarded to the city. We worked very hard with the local organizing committee. It was nothing like it is today, but it was a big deal for Market Square Arena.”
In 1980, the NCAA tournament included just 48 teams, still shared some billing with the NIT and wasn’t quite the made-for-TV event it is today.
“It wasn’t a highly competitive process,” Frick said. “A couple cities were called and told, ‘Come in and make your presentation.’”
Knapp, who worked with the Pacers before moving to the Sports Corp, remembers a different downtown in 1980.
Hotels and restaurants were sparser. Sportswriters in town for NBA games often complained there was nowhere convenient to grab a bite to eat after filing their stories. The idea of organizing what tourism- and nightlife-industry Indianapolis had required boots-on-the-ground ingenuity.
“The organizing committee had come up with all these grand plans for the look of the city. Everything from posters to tent cards in restaurants and bars, décor — how to decorate the city,” Knapp said. “When I showed up in January of that year, they had all this stuff in development, but they didn’t really have a distribution system.
“I learned on the ground. I can remember loading and unloading (signage and materials) from my vehicle in alleys behind bars.”
Indianapolis was a city with the intention to become a major player in hosting sporting events — after all, it had been organizing the Indianapolis 500 for decades — but still didn’t realize what kind of infrastructure that required.
“We declared ourselves, as a community, going after sports,” Frick said, “but we had a lot of learning to do to understand what that really meant.”
Whatever flourishes Indianapolis could add, it did.
One day, shortly before the Final Four began, Frick looked down from the mayor’s office to the City Market.
“We ought to have a little color down there,” he thought.
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Someone went out and bought dozens of flowers. Frick’s team planted them in front of the Market, then marveled at what they added to the scenery.
The enjoyment was short-lived when they realized a late-March freeze was on its way. The flowers wouldn’t make it through the night.
“We dug them up and took them inside the city market, and then the next morning we had people that picked them up and went out and planted them again,” Frick said. “I ran into some fans from Iowa. They had a puzzled look on their face, looking at these flowers. They said they wondered how they got the flowers to survive the cold night.
“I laughed and didn’t tell them we took them in at night. I said, ‘We raise especially hardy flowers in Indianapolis.’”
Final Four had a local feel
On the floor, the field could not have shaped up better.
Larry Brown’s UCLA lent a Hollywood feel to the occasion, while the other three teams could bus in. Lute Olson’s Iowa was just a few hours’ drive away. Purdue and Louisville each pointed their fan bases straight down (or up) I-65.
That meant more interest, and more fans.
“We had a whole bunch of people up there,” Louisville coach Denny Crum said. “Our sections were packed full.”
The experience was more loosely organized. Things that are commonplace now, like official hotels, minute-by-minute itineraries and extensive schedules, weren’t back then.
Louisville stayed in a Hilton by the airport. Purdue didn’t even come down until late in the week.
“We didn’t even go to Indianapolis until the day of the practice that we got to shootaround,” Purdue point guard Brian Walker said. “The Final Four was just down the road, so coach (Lee) Rose pretty much kept everything as if it was just another game.”
There were still some pregame diversions.
“We got to visit the Indianapolis 500 Speedway, where they take you around the track with the guys that lead the race,” said Louisville star Darrell Griffith.
The NCAA’s own procedures for hosting a Final Four weren’t so extensive as they are now. But the association still had some best practices and requirements of the city, and particularly the people running Market Square Arena.
Now, David Slipher is one of the Pacers’ head ushers. At the time, his father served Market Square Arena in a similar capacity, with the younger Slipher as his assistant. When Slipher’s father told the NCAA he’d keep the court clear of fans, the association was skeptical.
No problem, organizers told them. The arena already hosted the Indiana state high school finals, an event that packed in fans just as easily and prolifically as the Final Four. Crowd control wouldn’t be an issue.
“We had a meeting with the NCAA prior to the event,” Slipher said. “One of the things they mentioned was, ‘We always try to keep the floor clear, and we haven’t been able to do that in the past.’ My dad looks at (NCAA officials) and says, ‘That won’t happen here. We’ll be fine.’
“One person got inside the rope.”
So detailed was arena security, one of college basketball’s most recognizable commentators wasn’t allowed in because he’d forgotten his credential.
“They wanted us to be extremely tight on credentials,” Slipher said. “Billy Packer showed up and didn’t have his pass. I didn’t know who he was, and I wasn’t letting him in. He sent a runner back to the hotel to get it.
“As he was walking by me, he says, ‘Man, that’s never happened.’”
‘Atmosphere was electric’
The field was studded with modern-day legends.
It marked Olson’s first Final Four, and Crum’s first national title. Brown brought Kiki VanDeWeghe, while Louisville was led by Griffith, a hometown hero who had promised he’d win a championship before he left the Cardinals. Purdue was built around Joe Barry Carroll, who still holds program records for career rebounds and blocks, and is second only to Rick Mount all-time in points.
Three of the four coaches would go on to win at least one national championship, and Brown enjoyed a long, successful career in the NBA as well.
“The atmosphere was crazy,” Griffith said. “It was electric.”
Louisville outran Iowa to reach the final, while UCLA slipped past Purdue.
Crum had been one of John Wooden’s lead assistants before he took the Louisville job in 1971. He had since led the Cardinals to Final Four appearances in 1972 and 1975, but never won the whole thing.
UCLA led by two, 28-26, at halftime. Crum knew Louisville was holding its ground but still needed something extra.
“At halftime, I told my team, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll have other opportunities to go to Final Fours,’” Crum said.
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That’s when Griffith and Tony Branch, both seniors, spoke up.
“They stood up and said, ‘You guys may get another chance, but we won’t, so we’re gonna do what we have to do win this one,’” Crum remembered. “We forced a couple turnovers, got the ball going our way a little bit.”
Griffith — nicknamed Dr. Dunkenstein for his high-flying slams — was the difference. Louisville turned up the pressure, forcing 16 UCLA turnovers, and Griffith scored a game-high 23 points.
Louisville clinched the first of Crum’s two national championships with a 59-54 win.
“It was the highlight of my career,” Griffith said. “After the game was over with, I decided not to go on the team bus. I told coach Crum I was going to ride with my brother (back to Louisville).
“You couldn’t go any faster than 40 miles an hour (on I-65). There were just fans honking their horns from Indianapolis to Louisville.”
NCAA was impressed
It proved a watershed event in ways only time could clarify.
“Indianapolis has been transformed into and is generally recognized as, one of the best sports cities in America now,” Knapp said. “That 1980 Final Four at Market Square Arena was one of the building blocks.”
The NCAA was impressed with the city’s management of the event. But it also made clear if Indianapolis wanted to continue hosting events in the future, some things needed to improve.
Market Square Arena, for example, was too small in the NCAA’s eyes to be a viable long-term host site. It ran a capacity north of 16,000 fans for basketball games, nowhere near the number the recently built Rupp Arena (23,500 fans) in Lexington, Ky., could accommodate.
That, among other things, prompted the city to double down on building the Hoosier Dome. The subsequent chain of events brought pro football to Indianapolis.
“Part of the discussion that led to the construction of the Hoosier Dome was what I call the NCAA-large-event-as-a-venue. (Mayor) Hudnut went on the line to build the Hoosier Dome,” Frick said. “What you see today is really a result of things that happened over 30, 40 years, all designed to use sport to develop our economy.”
Along the way, alliances formed that helped the city intangibly as well.
Prominent among them, the enduring bond between Indianapolis and the NCAA, which relocated its headquarters from Kansas City to the White River State Park in 1999. The city became a regular in the rotation to host Final Fours, building what Frick described as a “cumulative” process that helped shape Indy into one of the country’s best event cities.
And relationships between key figures entrenched Indianapolis’ reputation for big events. Frick credited Tom Jernstedt, a longtime NCAA executive who died in 2020, as a driving force.
“(Jernstedt was) one of our biggest advocates when the NCAA was looking at moving their headquarters out of Kansas City,” Frick said. “The Final Four and the NCAA headquarters, those two combined, were really critical in the development and implementation of that strategy. But for the Final Four and NCAA headquarters, we probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity we have now.”
Beginning Saturday, Indianapolis will again realize that opportunity, staging the final two rounds of what everyone hopes will be a once-in-a-lifetime, all-in-one-place NCAA tournament. It will be the eighth Final Four the city has hosted, second only to Kansas City’s nine and most since Indy first hosted the event in … 1980.
So much of what the city is now was still theoretical then, less reality than dream.
But it was an intentional start, a foundation for something that has grown much bigger in the 41 years since. Even amid the unprecedented nature of this year’s tournament, the impact of that Final Four and the fingerprints of the people who worked to make it happen can be found all over Indianapolis.
“It was just an exciting thing to be a part of,” Slipher said. “That was something special. Just something special.”
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.