CAA prepares for final tournament run in Richmond

Tom Yeager didn't call it validation, but when he looked around the Richmond Coliseum on the night of March 5, 1990, and saw more than 9,700 people for the Colonial Athletic Association men's basketball tournament championship game, he felt pretty good about his league and his plans.

It was the CAA's first tournament in the state capital after a three-year run at the Hampton Coliseum marked by high hopes, first-class hospitality and low attendance. An estimated 2,000 people watched George Mason defeat UNC Wilmington for the title the year before.

It didn't hurt that the 1990 championship game pitted the league's two marquee programs and top seeds, James Madison and Richmond, and their two accomplished coaches, Lefty Driesell and Dick Tarrant. It was an easy destination for fans of both teams, whether they stayed all weekend or showed up just for the title game.

"I remember thinking, holy cow, this stuff is catching on," recalled Yeager, the only commissioner the league has ever had. "We might have something here."

The Spiders, led by a piece of scrap iron named Kenny Atkinson, defeated JMU 77-72, just weeks after getting freight-trained by the Dukes in Harrisonburg by 34 points in an ESPN-inspired "Midnight Madness" game.

One year later, the Spiders repeated as tournament champs and shortly thereafter, upset No. 2-seed Syracuse in College Park, Md., in the NCAA tournament. Three years after Richmond's unlikely run to the Sweet 16, that game helped to build the CAA's reputation as NCAA giant-killers — a label that would be proven time and again.

Thus began the CAA tournament's run at the Richmond Coliseum, which ends after 24 years following this week's event. Whether the chapter is closed or merely interrupted is unclear, as the tournament moves to Baltimore for a three-year agreement beginning in 2014.

Regardless, the CAA's annual Richmond experience has been a big part of league history, from the early performances of Tarrant's UR teams to the recent ascent of the state trio of VCU, Old Dominion and George Mason.

"It was always a really good tournament," said Clemson coach Brad Brownell, who spent 13 years at UNC Wilmington as an assistant and head coach. "From the banquet to the practices to the building of the tournament through the weekend, it was awesome. You felt that every time."

That's what Yeager aimed for. The one-time NCAA investigator and administrator had traveled the country and seen tournaments large and small.

"It was always our intent to model our event after the ACC tournament — a neutral site, easily accessible, with a bunch of activities for fans and families," Yeager said. "We always tried to make it more than eight or 10 or 12 basketball games. Being in a city afforded us the opportunity to do that.

"When you're in somebody's building, you're looking at their banner and their logs and colors, and it's hard to make it seem like it's a level playing field and everybody has an equal shot."

Yeager knew the risks of neutral-site tournaments for smaller and so-called mid-major conferences, particularly in an arena that seated more than 10,000 people: vast swaths of empty seats on national TV for what should be the league's crowning moment.

The CAA had a built-in advantage in its early days. It was a geographically tight-knit group of schools, a bus league that stretched only from Maryland to the southeastern North Carolina coast. Richmond was a central and easy destination, in addition to being the site of the conference offices.

Yeager pointed out that the conference's early corporate partnership with Richfood and with the Ukrop family, and with other businesses in and around Richmond, allowed the league to provide the kinds of amenities and fan-friendly zones and activities he envisioned to enhance the tournament experience.

Even as the league lost members and expanded north to the Philly-New York-Boston corridor and south to Atlanta, Richmond remained a central location. Tournament attendance grew, as did the league's reputation, fueled by multiple NCAA tournament berths and Final Four runs by George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011.

Coaches and fans of teams outside the region routinely fussed about the travel distance and that, neutral site or not, the Virginia schools benefited from the tournament being in Richmond.

"Quite frankly, having it in the same place for a bunch of years in a row I think was smart," said ODU interim head coach Jim Corrigan, who attended the previous 23 CAA tournaments in Richmond, through two coaching regimes with the Monarchs and one as an assistant at William and Mary.

"As much as VCU had a great advantage, it still helped having it there," Corrigan said, "where lots of people could come, whether they were VCU fans or Old Dominion fans or whoever. It was a central location. I know it was hard on Northeastern, Georgia State and Hofstra, but it's hard to argue with a full house."

Indeed, if form held, and it often did, the Sunday semifinals and Monday night title game regularly drew in excess of 10,000 fans.