By Dave Fairbank, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-4637
3:14 PM EDT, March 30, 2013
Three decades later, Marianne Stanley still marvels at the event, maybe more now than at the time.
When the NCAA awarded Old Dominion and the city of Norfolk the first women's basketball Final Four under its purview in 1982, it did so in part with the hope that the Lady Monarchs would make championship weekend and thus guarantee substantial crowds.
ODU was one of the sport's marquee programs, with national titles, well known players and a dazzlingly successful coach in Stanley. But when the Lady Monarchs lost in the regionals, the NCAA faced the prospect of filling a 10,000-seat arena, Scope, for games between teams from hundreds of miles away.
Despite ODU's absence, fans flocked to the games. Scope sold out the semifinals and final, and women's college basketball administered by the NCAA received a huge kick start.
"Now, it's tough to see that happen," Stanley said. "To think that 30-some-odd years ago, that's what Old Dominion was doing, and people embraced it, people supported it, people got behind it. That's pretty amazing."
The groundwork laid by people such as former ODU athletic director Jim Jarrett and Stanley continues to bear fruit, when the city and the school host yet another round of NCAA women's tournament games this weekend.
Top-seeded Notre Dame faces Kansas in Sunday's first regional semifinal (noon) at the Ted Constant Center, followed by No. 2 seed Duke and Nebraska. The winners meet Tuesday (7 p.m.) for a spot in the Final Four.
"I think the important thing is that the basketball fans in Norfolk have really embraced women's basketball, dating back to our earliest times at Old Dominion," said Stanley, now an assistant with the WNBA's Washington Mystics. "The fans have been a huge part of that, developing Old Dominion's reputation as a beacon for women's basketball, first in the AIAW and then with the NCAA."
ODU and Norfolk host NCAA tournament games for the 21st year since college sports' governing body took over women's basketball championships. For years, games were held at the ODU Field House, the 4,855-seat bandbox that was located in the center of campus, and Scope, site of the first two NCAA final fours.
Now, they're at the Constant Center, the spaciously cozy 8,600-seat arena that's both basketball- and visitor-friendly. The Ted is hosting NCAA games for the seventh time in the 10 years since the doors opened, and its second regional final.
"We couldn't have done it without the support of the local community," Constant Center assistant general manager Mike Fryling said. "We have great basketball support from the community, and obviously the tradition of the ODU women's basketball program, it makes it a lot easier when we want to go out after events like this and try to attract them."
Indeed, ODU and local support of women's basketball pre-dates NCAA governance. Jarrett, then a young, forward-thinking athletic director, oversaw a department that was among the first to offer athletic scholarships to women in the 1970s.
The women's basketball program benefited almost immediately, attracting the likes of Nancy Lieberman, Inge Nissen and Anne Donovan. The Lady Monarchs drew thousands nightly and won national championships under the AIAW banner, the group that administered women's college athletics before the NCAA took over. ODU and Norfolk famously hosted the powerful Soviet national team in a Dec. 1979 exhibition game that drew a then-record 10,237 fans to Scope.
Jarrett was a member of the first NCAA women's basketball committee, which awarded the first two final fours to Norfolk and Scope.
"I thought they set the standard for how it should be, from the very beginning," former Virginia women's coach Debbie Ryan said. "They were the ones that took on some of these huge tournaments before it was fashionable to host them yourselves. They took on probably a lot of debt at the start, but they were able to make it a happening. It was a real happening when it was in Norfolk. Of course, Old Dominion was so good then.
"But people like Jim Jarrett had a vision of what women's basketball could be and then he turned it into that, and he turned it into that very quickly. He was willing to stick his neck out and make it something special. I really feel like Norfolk was the lead city for showing how a Final Four should be, how a regional tournament should be. They always did it right, they were always at the top of the heap."
A remarkable list of players came through Norfolk, starting with ODU's Hall of Fame standouts, as well as All-Americans Medina Dixon, Ticha Penicheiro and Clarisse Machanguana.
Louisiana Tech, the inaugural NCAA women's champ in 1982, was led by Wade Trophy winner Pam Kelly. The following year, Southern Cal came to Scope and won the first of back-to-back titles led by All-American Cheryl Miller.
Virginia won the 1990 East Region behind sophomore guards Dawn Staley and Tammi Reiss and the 6-5 Burge twins, Heather and Heidi.
Tennessee's national Player of the Year Candace Parker dunked against Army in a first-round game in 2006. All-American Maya Moore led Connecticut to first- and second-round wins here in 2010 on the way to the Huskies' last national championship. All-American Nneka Ogwumike helped start Stanford's run to a fourth consecutive Final Four in first- and second-round games at the Ted last year.
Notre Dame's All-America guard Skylar Diggins was the Big East Conference Player of the Year this season and a big reason the Irish are projected to reach a third consecutive Final Four.
Ryan's teams played a bunch of games in Norfolk through the years, both in the regular season and in NCAA tournaments.
"We had the very highest of highs and the lowest of lows there," Ryan said. "But it was always a very well run tournament, because they did such a great job."
The highest: The Cavaliers upset top-seeded Tennessee in overtime in 1990 in the East Region final at the ODU Field House, to make their first Final Four. The Final Four that year was held in Knoxville, so the Lady Vols and coach Pat Summitt were denied a chance to play for the national title on their home floor.
The lowest: Two years earlier, Tennessee defeated U.Va. in the East Region final. In 2008 at the Ted, ODU's Jazzmin Walters hit a 3-pointer with 4.8 seconds remaining in overtime to lift the Lady Monarchs to an 88-85 win against the Cavaliers in a second-round game.
The Lady Monarchs were nearly unbeatable at the Field House in postseason. On the way to their last national championship in 1985, they won the East Region final, defeating second-seeded Ohio State and a young coach named Tara VanDerveer.
ODU's 1997 national finalist needed every bit of homecourt advantage to make it to the Sweet 16. The Lady Monarchs held off Purdue in overtime in a second-round game that fans remember as so loud that coach Wendy Larry had to communicate with All-America guard Ticha Penicheiro via hand signals on the court.
"That's what was so great about the Field House," said ODU associate athletic director Debbie White, who has witnessed nearly every big moment for the Lady Monarchs in the past 25 years. "You talk about a homecourt advantage. The fans were right on top of you. I think we've been able to reproduce that, or get close to it, at the Ted."
Though the Lady Monarchs are no longer an elite program, Norfolk remains an attractive site for NCAA games because of the Constant Center amenities, a seasoned, experienced staff, and the area's track record of support.
"I think it says a great deal about our program," White said of remaining in the NCAA rotation. "First, it tells me that the fans of Hampton Roads are still appreciative of women's basketball and especially good women's basketball. They realize that when we host a tournament, it's going to be a good, competitive two days of basketball.
"I think it traces back, certainly, to our pioneer years in the sport, in that people came to realize that Hampton Roads and Old Dominion were symbolic of stellar women's basketball programs. I think there's some residual effect from that, and I think that our fans really appreciate the sport."
Fryling said the feeback he hears from the NCAA and from fans is overwhelmingly positive. He anticipates bidding to host future NCAA sub-regionals and regionals, and believes that the Ted will remain in the rotation.
"Typically, when the NCAA looks at the logistics of future events, our site here is usually the model of what they'll look at," he said. "If another site is looking to host in the future, they'll send them all the information from our facility – pictures, layouts, all that stuff. The message is, the folks in Norfolk do it right, the folks at ODU do it right."
Stanley has understood that for a long time and takes none of it for granted.
"I feel fortunate to have been in a place that was so supportive of the game and allowed me to be at my best and just coach," she said. "Norfolk as a city, and the Tidewater region, got treated to some of the best ever to grace the hardwood. The commitment by the athletic department was matched by the enthusiasm of the people in Norfolk, the populace. They were spoiled, in a good way."
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