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March. Madness. Those two words go together like Abbott and Costello. Like ham and eggs. You get the picture. It's also the time where teams that were left for dead in the regular season are given a second chance at life.
It's the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. A field of 65 teams that will race to San Antonio for the ultimate prize. National Champions.
I had the great pleasure of covering the University of South Alabama Jaguars in 1989 when Ronnie Arrow was there the first time. His Jags had just beaten Jacksonville in Charlotte in the 1989 Sun Belt Conference Tournament by some 30 points to take the conference title. The Jags also won the regular season title that same year after being picked to finish 4th. My NCAA memory involved a trip from Mobile to Atlanta. The Jags found out who they were playing Sunday afternoon at Stanky Field at a baseball game (which I was covering). It was Alabama on Friday, March 17th, under the leadership of Wimp Sanderson. Wimp did not want anything to do with USA, basically saying that we were fourth class citizens. It was also the year that he was accused of hitting a secretary in the Crimson Tide basketball office.
Anyway, I went to bed early Thursday night because we were going to leave Mobile for a six hour drive to Atlanta early Friday morning. We leave the campus and head up I-65 to I-85 for Atlanta around 7 am and arrive in Atlanta around 1:30 or so, just in time to catch the last of the first game of the session. I think Michigan, who would win the National Championship that year, was playing. That was not our focus at the moment. We knew that we were going to be in for a battle with the people that had the nerve to snub us.
Things did not look good for us at first, as Alabama, led by Robert Horry, ran through us like Sherman's army and we found ourselves trailing by 19 at half. Things started to change for us, however, when one of our best players, Jeff Hodge got hot and I mean smoking hot. Chipping away at the Crimson Tide, we wore them down like Ali wore down Frazier. Then the key moment of the game came with less than 10 seconds to go, when Hodge nails a three from NBA distance to give us the lead for the first time in the contest. Alabama raced down the floor quickly to try and take the game but a heads up play by Gabe Estaba quelled any ideas of an Alabama comeback. South beat the Tide that day 86-84.
Then during the dinner break, I got to meet Brent Musburger, who was working for CBS then. It was a thrill. I also got to watch UCLA and Iowa State play their games that evening.
I enjoyed my Saturday off, attending a media "function" (party) at Jocks and Jills in Midtown. Sunday came around and I arrived at the Omni early, spending the night at my cousin's house, it was time to go to work. The next opponent was going to be Michigan with the "Fab 5" and they played like it. They beat us by 10 points and would go on to be champs.
No matter. It was a fun week. I had a hell of a time and got to see some college basketball for free and see the Omni before they tore it down. I still have my press pass, by the way. It's in a scrapbook with my story clips from the 1988-89 season. Not everyone can say they met a legend in sports.
It was my March Madness and I wouldn't trade it for the world.