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Big dome ready for college basketball’s biggest stage

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, April 5, 2013, at 5:05 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, August 25, 2013, at 9:02 a.m.

— The observation level of the Georgia Dome was a lonely place just more than 24 hours before Wichita State takes the court against Louisville on Saturday in the Final Four.

The man who runs the elevator up to this sky-high level, Leonard Hardy, doesn’t push the button labeled “OL” very much.

“You’re getting on up there when I hit that one,” Hardy said.

From the perch – the highest point one can be at in the stadium – one can see the entirety of the 71,228-seat home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Every seat was empty on Friday and the black and red seats – Falcons colors – served as a reminder of the enormity of the event about to take place. It’s where Falcons assistants sit during football games and it was where CBS television crews were setting up for Saturday’s games.

What you won’t see from this view is the massive amount of people behind the scenes trying to make the facility’s third Final Four go off without a hitch. The Georgia Dome also hosted the Final Four in 2002 and 2007. Georgia Tech and the ACC are running this one after hosting the South Regional finals last season, just as Cowboys Stadium did last week in anticipation of hosting the 2014 Final Four.

Georgia Tech facility and operations manager Cheryl Watts is running game management for the Final Four, a massive undertaking that has been two years in the making, a period in which Georgia Tech has managed to retain 95 percent of its staff that will work the Final Four.

“This is as big as it gets,” Watts said. “We’ve been very fortunate to work with a great staff at the Georgia Dome … this thing is a bear, from finding staff members to running an operation. The scope of it is mind-blowing.

“I don’t get much sleep anyway, but this week it’s even less.”

Georgia Tech had an ace in the hole with senior associate athletic director Paul Griffin, who has been a part of both Final Fours at the Georgia Dome and one in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“He’s a great teacher, a great leader,” Watts said. “He tells us to come to him if we have a problem or something he can’t handle, otherwise he says he’ll stay out of the way.”

The transformation of the Georgia Dome for the Final Four started at the end of February after hosting the American Motorcross Association’s Supercross event, which required 500 truckloads of dirt to be dumped into the arena.

The NCAA, which bumped seating to more than 74,000 for Saturday’s semifinals and Monday’s final, has a temporary seating arrangement that sits about 18,000 and is placed to fit over the top of the lower-level seating at the Georgia Dome, with the court on risers and roughly where the 50-yard line would be.

The NCAA also brought in a four-sided, 183,000-pound video board that hangs above the court. It’s the first time the Georgia Dome has had a center-hung video board for a sporting event.

“We were able to figure out what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong last year when we hosted the regional,” Watts said. “That was an immense help to be able to kind of have a test run.”

It’s almost certain this will be the last Final Four at the Georgia Dome – but not in Atlanta. A $948 million stadium has been in the works since 2010, and last month the Falcons and Atlanta agreed to build the stadium together.

“The agreement we negotiated is one of the best (stadium deals) in America,” Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’re going to build a terrific stadium. We have kept our team in downtown Atlanta. It’s a very big deal … we did the right thing.”

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