When a press release came down Tuesday saying the NCAA College Basketball Academy was being canceled next month because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of work from Steve Pyne and his staff was put on hold, if not sent down the drain entirely.
Pyne is the University of Utah athletic department’s event management director. As such, any time the school bids on an NCAA-sponsored event like the NCAA Tournament, Pyne is among the key point people for the bid.
The NCAA College Basketball Academy began in 2019 in response to recommendations made the previous year by the Commission on College Basketball. Bidding was opened to all schools, with four sites eventually chosen to host. For 2020, a total of approximately 1,200 student-athletes across the classes of 2021, 2022, 2023 were chosen to participate, while new recruiting calendar guidelines made the two academy sessions, July 20-23 and 23-26, evaluation periods so college coaches could watch and recruit.
“The NCAA gives you a 27-page bid spec for the academy and it’s broken down into a lot of areas,” Pyne told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Timeline, personnel, venue specs, insurance, event space, lodging is a big one. Lodging is huge in being awarded.
“Ultimately, you really need the support of your campus for things like this, and we have had that here for a long time.”
Pyne wanted to bid for the inaugural event in 2019. The school was already hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament that March at Vivint Smart Home Arena, so in an effort to not overload himself and everyone around him, Pyne and Utah zeroed in on bidding as a 2020 site.
For what it’s worth, the NCAA takes on all costs for the event, not the schools. Pyne declined to give specifics on Utah’s 2020 bid, but he did offer that when the University of Houston was awarded a site in 2019, its budget was roughly $400,000. The other 2019 hosts were UConn, Illinois and Grand Canyon.
With plenty of basketball courts between the Huntsman Center, Huntsman Basketball Facility next door, and the Eccles Student Life Center, plus adequate dorm space for players and a slew of hotel options in town for college coaches and parents, Utah’s 2020 bid was submitted in May 2019.
Since the school has a strong, decades-long resume of hosting the NCAA Tournament, both at the Huntsman Center and Vivint Smart Home Arena, Pyne was fairly confident Utah would be awarded an academy site, if not in 2020, then certainly in the near future. To that end, he and his staff decided to go to Houston in June 2019 to observe how the academy was run.
“We speculated we’re going to get this in the next three years, so we wanted to see what it takes,” Pyne said. “We watched registration unfold, dining, the kids take classes during the week, just got a feel for everything. I think we left Houston with more of a handle on things. When we got the bid, we knew exactly what we needed to do.”
Utah was awarded the NCAA Academy for the West region on Sept. 20, 2019, while UConn (East), Wichita State (Midwest) and Winthrop (South) were given the other three. From there, Pyne and his staff held weekly meetings up until the week before the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the NCAA instituted and then pushed back a recruiting dead period, the growing assumption was that the academy would be a casualty. That came to fruition on Tuesday, and the future, both of the academy and Utah’s ability to host it, is unclear at the moment.
Pyne’s hope is that Utah goes to the front of the line for 2021. NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt threw some cold water on that Wednesday night.
“We would love to go to Utah in the future,” Gavitt told The Tribune via text message. “We are assessing the four-region format for 2021. We’ll know more in the fall. Utah would have to submit a competitive bid, just like our NCAA championship preliminary-round process. We would certainly consider any future bid from Utah favorably, as they have always been great hosts for NCAA basketball.”
While the future of academy bids is in the air, Pyne told The Tribune that Utah has submitted an NCAA Tournament bid for the 2023-26 cycle. Those sites are scheduled to be awarded in October. Vivint previously hosted the West Regional in 2010, and first and second-round games in 2013, 2017 and 2019.
The Huntsman Center has hosted the NCAA Tournament 15 times, but not since 2006. The building was host to one of the most-famous games in college basketball history, the 1979 national championship game between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State and Larry Bird’s Indiana State.