With all due respect to the tens of thousands of visitors who have arrived for Final Four festivities, the ultimate college basketball experience: Welcome to the desert.
North Texas is not a college basketball village.
Of course, we know it. We’re not even close. Not by any metric.
North Texas is not home to a traditional national power or even a team that has consistently flirted with the Top 25.
Ratings for college games are close to the bottom of the pack among American television markets. Attendance at games has traditionally been low.
There are no hometown rivalries, nor is there any demand for, say, Oklahoma to play Texas here in an annual neutral-site game. Regular-season tournaments and doubleheaders boasting top teams at American Airlines Center are virtually nonexistent.
Media coverage is minimal. There is no radio sports talk chatter.
The Big 12, which has its headquarters here and is home to four Texas teams within a 350-mile radius of Dallas, consistently plops its postseason tournament in Kansas City.
If college basketball gave markets an RPI rating, the ratings percentage index used for ranking teams, we’d be closer to the bottom than the top.
What we are experiencing now is a four-day oasis, courtesy of Jerry Jones and his massive AT&T Stadium.
SMU was a novelty act this season. Maybe its success was the first baby step toward raising the college basketball consciousness. The Mustangs did sell out their three NIT home games and several late-season games at refurbished but compact Moody Coliseum. Maybe February’s frenzy and March’s madness were a tease, a one-and-done experience. Maybe it’s the start of something big.
North Texas is a professional sports town. It’s located in one of a dozen metropolitan areas across the country that is home to teams in the four major sports. Texas Motor Speedway draws more fans for its three major race weekends than does a season’s worth of games in the college basketball arenas at SMU, TCU, North Texas and UT-Arlington combined.
And oh yes, college football also fits neatly into the local landscape, light years ahead of basketball.
“It would take a confluence of events to raise consciousness of the game in this town,” said Fran Fraschilla, a former college coach, current ESPN college basketball analyst and a local who spends his time crisscrossing the country covering big games in other people’s towns.
“Even then it would last only so long as one of the local schools has success. Aside from the Cowboys, this is a winner’s town.”
To be sure, the game enjoys its greatest success in college towns rather than major metropolitan areas with professional teams. The game thrives along Tobacco Road. Preston Road isn’t in the ballgame.
But it also plays on Broadway. New York remains a mecca for the game. The Big East holds its postseason tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Atlantic Coast Conference is considering moving its postseason tournament to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, whose only ACC connection may be that it sits along Atlantic Avenue. The preseason NIT plays in the city.
When Texas Tech of the Big 12 played the American Athletic Conference’s University of Houston this season, the game tipped off in New York.
In Philadelphia, the fabled Big 5 — Villanova, Temple, St. Joseph’s, LaSalle and Penn — still commands the city’s attention. Villanova is a perennial NCAA Tournament team.
Chicago proved it could be a college-crazed town when DePaul competed for national titles in the 1980s. Los Angeles has history with UCLA.
Once upon a time in the 1980s, Dallas had a holiday tournament called the Dallas Morning News Classic. Its run was brief.
The last time a team from North Texas played in a Final Four, there was a native Texan in the White House. It was before Lyndon Johnson. The year was 1956. Dwight Eisenhower was still in his first term. A valiant SMU team lost in the semifinals to an undefeated team from the University of San Francisco, which happened to be led by a game changer, Bill Russell.
It’s been a one-and-done experience.
Yes, Texas Western, from 635 miles away in El Paso, won the 1966 NCAA championship, and Houston has been to five Final Fours in the last 47 years, but North Texas has been shut out for the last 57 years.
Let’s take a peak at a real college basketball town — Louisville, which doesn’t have a single big-time professional team and holds college football second to basketball.
Year in and year out, the town, consumed by the Louisville Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats, 75 miles away in Lexington, leads the nation in college basketball television ratings. When Louisville and Kentucky battled in the Sweet 16, almost half the television sets in Louisville tuned into the game. Here that takes the Cowboys playing in the Super Bowl.
Of course, success might have something to do with that. Kentucky has been to 15 Final Fours, Louisville to 10. The Wildcats have won eight national titles. The Cardinals have won three. The Cowboys have won five Super Bowls, the Mavericks and Stars have one championship each.
A couple of retired college basketball coaches host one of Louisville’s most popular daily radio sports talk shows. Kentucky-ex Joe B. Hall is 85. Louisville-ex Denny Crum is 77. Hall last coached at the Kentucky in 1985; Crum at Louisville in 2001. Combined their teams won three NCAA championships.
Kentucky’s blue-white preseason basketball scrimmage is televised. Louisville’s red-white scrimmage annually draws 12,000 to 15,000 fans.
On the road downtown from Louisville International Airport, visitors can’t miss the giant portrait of Darrell Griffith, who led Louisville’s Cardinals to the national championship. That was 34 years ago.
In 2012, Charlie Strong then football coach at Louisville found troubling the distinct lack of attention his spring football practice drew while Louisville and Kentucky were playing at the Final Four in New Orleans.
He lamented that not even “junior reporters” or “interns” showed up for look-sees.
Strong won’t have to worry about such an indignity anymore. He’s in a better football place now, working at the University of Texas in Austin.
“We are a city consumed,” says Rick Bozich, who spent 34 years as a sports columnist at Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper and is now a television personality at the local Fox affiliate.
“In the fall and winters we have college basketball,” he said. “In the spring and summer we have college basketball recruiting.”
In North Texas passion is directed elsewhere. We call it Cowboys football.
According to Forbes, which seems to rank the value of everything sports, Louisville is No. 1 and Kentucky is No. 3, behind Kansas, in its 2014 list of money generated by college basketball programs.
Forbes’ most valuable NFL franchise? The Cowboys, of course.
SMU’s role model
For decades, many folks in Dallas looked at the SMU basketball program and saw a Duke starter kit.
Dreamers saw a relatively small private school with a struggling football program enjoying national success in a cozy arena.
All SMU lacked was a coach to lead it to the Promised Land.
Of course, Duke’s stiffest hometown competition may be baseball’s minor league Durham Bulls. The NFL Panthers and NBA Bobcats play 140 miles away in Charlotte.
Still, Duke provided the dream blueprint.
And then in 2012, Larry Brown came to SMU with his Carolina Blue credentials.
But Brown, a North Carolina alum, never saw Duke in his crystal ball.
Instead, he introduced the name “Georgetown” into the conversation.
In SMU, he saw a similarity to the Washington, D.C., university buried in a professional sports town that was able to leap to national prominence on the shoulders of a powerful, demanding coach.
“We see what John Thompson did at Georgetown,” Brown said soon after he was hired. “Georgetown is in a great area like we are. We can be Georgetown.”
Georgetown’s run has been sweet but it has included only two Final Four appearances since the Hoya’s 1984 national championship season. The Hoyas were national runners-up the next season and semifinal losers in 2007.
That’s probably not enough sizzle for North Texas.
“For Dallas to come anywhere close to a basketball town, it needs SMU to enjoy a generational success,” said Chuck Cooperstein, the radio voice of the NBA Mavericks, who has called his share of college games and is regarded as one of Dallas’ leading college basketball experts.
“SMU needs a superstar players,” he said. “It needs schools like Texas and A&M and Tech and Arkansas and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to come play here. It needs a string a 20-win seasons and success in the NCAA Tournament.
“It needs a perfect storm, and it also needs media coverage,” he said.
“And all that won’t make this a pure college basketball town,” Cooperstein said.
But at least it will keep the game relevant all the years the Final Four is elsewhere.