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.
"I think what made the CAA event so good is the fans really turned out," said Miami coach Jim Larranaga, who was at Mason from 1997-2011. "The place was packed. I know in my last five or six or seven years, the semifinals and finals were just packed to the rafters, and just great games."
Larranaga's teams won three CAA tournament titles and played in five NCAA tournaments. Notably, his 2006 team that made an unlikely run to the Final Four didn't win the CAA title and automatic bid. It earned the league's first NCAA at-large berth in 20 years.
"There was definitely an incredible buzz in the building. You watched as different teams and crowds started rooting for other teams," said Brownell, who remains the last coach from a team outside the state of Virginia to win the tournament, having done so with the Seahawks in 2006.
"There's something to be said for walking into the arena for the semifinals and see the yellow and green of Mason in one corner, and the blue and teal of Wilmington in another corner and the yellow of VCU, and the blue of Hofstra or blue of Old Dominion over here," Brownell said. "It's pretty neat, and you just don't have that in a lot of other tournaments, when you're playing in somebody else's gym.
"For me, in some ways it was like the regionals and sectionals and state tournament, growing up in Indiana. You'd look up in each corner and there would be four different schools' colors for a day of basketball, and it was pretty special."
The tournament traditionally begins with a banquet the night before competition, honoring the league's top players. Among the keynote speakers have been Dick Vitale, Julius Erving, Bill Walton and Bones McKinney.
"We attempted to shine a light on players that didn't necessarily get a lot of publicity," Yeager said. "It's been a great event for the student-athletes."
The games and the moments and the players often made it special. They began with Richmond's two titles under Tarrant.
Old Dominion won the 1992 title in its first year in the league. The Monarchs won three games in three days, though they had won two in a row only twice all season.
Seventh-seeded East Carolina upset No. 1 seed JMU in the 1993 final and remains not only the lowest seed to win the tournament, but to make the title game.
Driesell's CAA tournament resume' bears mentioning at this point. His JMU teams lost to an eight seed, a two seed, a four seed and a seven seed in consecutive years. During a timeout late in the '93 title game, referee Dick Paparo strolled over to some familiar faces on press row and remarked, "Lefty's dyin' over there."
After the ECU loss, Driesell said, "I'm going to quit coaching in tournaments. We knew we had to win this to get into the NCAA tournament. I don't know, maybe they'll just give us one because they feel sorry for us."
One year later, the Dukes appeared on their way to another disappointing title game loss. But they rallied from 18 points down in the second half and won 77-76 on Kent Culuko's baseline 3-pointer at the final horn.
"The greatest win I've ever had," Lefty said afterward. Reminded that he won an ACC title, NCAA games and countless other big games, he replied, I've never been down 18 in a championship game and come back and won it.
VCU won the title in 1996 in its first year in the CAA, after coming over the Metro Conference. In 1999, Mason and 28-year-old Army veteran George Evans gave Larranaga his first tournament title and NCAA berth in 15 years as a head coach.
Two years later, the CAA was in a precarious position. The defections of Richmond, East Carolina and American in 2000 left the conference with a six-team tournament. The league still managed to make history, though not necessarily in a positive light. Evans, the CAA's only three-time Player of the Year, and the Patriots defeated UNC Wilmington 35-33 for the championship, in what was then the second-lowest-scoring game in the shot-clock era.
As offensively challenged as the game was, Larranaga said it might be his most vivid tournament memory because of its closeness and intensity.
UNC Wilmington won three titles in a four-year span under Jerry Wainwright and Brownell, led by two-time Player of the Year Brett Blizzard.
VCU won the 2004 title, its first since '96, under 29-year-old Jeff Capel III. That signaled the Rams' resurgence and was the first of four CAA championships and five NCAA appearances in the next nine years, under three different coaches: Capel, Anthony Grant and Shaka Smart.
Old Dominion's 2005 title was its first in eight years and began a run of three championships and four NCAA tournament appearances under Blaine Taylor.
The CAA produced at least four 20-win teams in six of the past seven seasons, which led to multiple NCAA bids on three occasions. Notably, neither of the conference's Final Four teams won the tournament, which illustrates the point that league officials and advocates have made all along — that the CAA deserved NCAA at-large berths for years.
"Another part of it is that the No. 1 seed also won our tournament most of the time during a stretch," Yeager said, "which a lot of times removed our league from at-large consideration. There was a huge correlation between that and not getting a second bid."
The CAA's top seed has won the tournament eight times since 2002 and the second seed has won twice: VCU last year over Drexel and ODU two years ago against the fourth-seeded Rams.
Upsets are the exception in Richmond. Sixth-seed George Mason (2007) was the lowest seed to make the final since 1998. All four semifinalists have come from the top five seeds in seven of the past 10 years.
The CAA's improvement and elevated profile over the past decade hasn't been limited to the marquee programs. William and Mary, a tournament punching bag for years, made the final in 2008 and '10. The Tribe won three tight games to get to the title game in '08 and won a pair of games two years later after finishing third in the regular season.
Though Tribe head coach Tony Shaver's fondest tournament memories are those two weekends, the first step was 2005, his second year in Williamsburg.
"I kept hearing that William and Mary couldn't win in the tournament, and we really hadn't for a long time," Shaver said. "But we beat James Madison that year, and I think that was a big boost for everybody in our program."
The CAA again is in transition, with VCU gone for the Atlantic 10, and Old Dominion and Georgia State departing for other leagues in order to accommodate their football programs.
The final tournament in Richmond for the foreseeable future figures to be a shell of past events, with just seven teams competing over three days. ODU and Georgia State are ineligible, as departing members, and Towson and UNC Wilmington are ineligible because of academic issues related to poor scores on the NCAA's Academic Progress Rating.
The College of Charleston comes aboard next season, and future membership shuffling and conference realignment appears inevitable as the CAA tournament moves to Baltimore and beyond.
"It's grown so much since 2000," Yeager said. "I'd like to think we've developed a pretty good reputation through the years for being a quality league that has good teams and a great tournament. It's going to be different for a lot of reasons, but I believe we can build on what we've done and the experiences we've had and hopefully, keep it going."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun