I was supposed to be in the ATL right now.
Specifically, I should have been strolling around Centennial Olympic Park on Sunday night with my good buddy Tony Rhoads, drinking a Blue Moon and taking in a free Taylor Swift concert as part of the March Madness Music Festival.
But no, I’m experiencing March Sadness instead. I’m holed up in my house with the wife and furry kids, trying to adhere to social distancing guidelines and attempting not to go insane.
This is my coronavirus story.
A few months ago, I made plans with Tony and two other buddies from Ankeny–Hot Rod Brannan and Brent Cameron–to go to Atlanta for the 2020 Final Four. We are all graduates of Ankeny High School, and we were planning to stay with Andy Crawford–another Ankeny grad who lives in the Atlanta ‘burbs.
Tonight, we would have been going to the national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Between Baylor and Dayton, I’m guessing.
As Rod would say, it was going to be an “epic” weekend.
Andy had stocked up in anticipation for our arrival. If you don’t believe me, check out the photo toward the bottom of this story. Somebody, and I won’t say who, might have a drinking problem.
But then COVID-19 changed all of our plans. And all of our lives really.
Initially, the NCAA said that the tournament would be played without fans. We actually hadn’t purchased the game tickets yet, so we thought we could still fly down and go to the concerts and watch the basketball games at a local bar, perhaps Johnny’s Hideaway. We were also planning to go to the Braves-Marlins game on Sunday afternoon, when it was still believed that it was ok to gather in large groups outdoors.
But then the concerts and the entire NCAA Tournament were cancelled. And the MLB season was indefinitely postponed.
So much for our guys’ weekend.
The economic impact on the city of Atlanta, when combined with the aftereffects of the coronavirus, will be devastating.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars is what they’ve thrown out there. I think I heard a minimum of $350 million,” Andy said of the city’s financial losses. “There were a lot of places downtown really gearing up for the event. They’re all closed now, and a lot of them probably won’t open up again.”
As for our group, I felt the worst for Brent and Rod. Neither of them had ever been to a Final Four, and this was a bucket list item for them.
Tony and I went to the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio as well as last year’s event in Minneapolis, while Andy went to the 1999 Final Four in St. Petersburg–which I also attended with my late brother, John. The Final Four has always been a fun getaway for me between the winter and spring high school sports seasons.
Altogether, I have been to 13 Final Fours since 1997, when my wife and I finally hit the lottery and got tickets through the NCAA for the first time. So, we flew to Indianapolis when she was eight months pregnant with our son, Jeydon. Jen will never forgive me for having to climb up all those steps in the RCA Dome.
We returned to Indianapolis in 2010 for another Final Four–this time at Lucas Oil Stadium. That was the year that Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim, allowing Duke to escape with the title.
It’s always fun to see the Dookies lose. I was there to watch UConn knock off the heavily-favored Blue Devils at Tropicana Field in 1999, and I also saw the Huskies win a rematch against Duke in a 2004 semifinal at the Alamodome.
I’ve been to two Final Fours in four different cities–Indianapolis, Minneapolis (2001 and 2019), New Orleans (2003 and 2012) and San Antonio. This would have been my second trip to Atlanta as well.
My brother, who lived in Ohio, met me in Atlanta for the 2002 Final Four. We stayed in the Dunwoody section of the city, and I’ll never forget the two of us walking from the train station to our hotel–which was about three blocks away–in a torrential downpour. I think our luggage is still drying out to this day.
Perhaps my all-time favorite Final Four trip, though, came in 2017, when I traveled to Phoenix with an old college buddy, Mike Trotter. It was the first time a Final Four had been held in the Pacific Time Zone since 1990, but I would argue that the NCAA should do this more often. The combination of pre-game concerts outside the stadium and temperatures in the 80s was fantastic.
That trip also featured a memorable moment. After watching North Carolina beat Gonzaga in the final, we were headling back to Mike’s dad’s house in Apache Junction when we came face-to-face with a steer in the middle of the road. I felt like I was back in Iowa.
Phoenix will host the Final Four again in 2024. Other future sites are Indianapolis (2021 and 2026), New Orleans (2022), Houston (2023) and San Antonio (2025).
That means 2027 is the earliest that March Madness could return to Atlanta.
“There’s been some talk that the NCAA may just award the next one to Atlanta, and the city won’t have to go through the bidding process,” Andy said. “But that’s a long time away.”
Maybe my buddies and I can reschedule our trip for 2027.