Jacksonville State University’s gym has served as the Northeast Regional home for as long as there has been a Northeast Regional. The 20th anniversary won JSU president Dr. Bill Meehan and the school’s athletics director, Warren Koegel, a halftime trip to midcourt this past week. Alabama High School Athletic Association executive director Steve Savarese led a special presentation to honor the school.
We’ve gotten used to this highlight on the high school sports calendar around here. We love it, and we’d sure like it to stay on JSU’s campus, even if it’s in a new arena JSU might build.
We’d like the Northeast Regional to stay long term, even if there’s a one-year hiatus for construction of a renovated Pete.
We’d like the tourney to stay, no matter how much Huntsville might want it and be willing to pay for it.
We’d like the tourney to stay, no matter how bummed organizers might be that no Calhoun County team reached one of 12 boys’ and girls’ finals over six classifications this year — an attendance-depressing anomaly that happened for the first time since 2001.
The contract is up in two years. Should we be alarmed?
The man who manages The Pete, coordinates the tournament and deals directly with the AHSAA says no. He’s almost 100 percent sure.
“What they’ve told us is, as far as they’re concerned, the tournament will continue to be here as long as we want to continue to host the tournament,” said Mark Jones, JSU’s director of recreation sports.
Then again, there could be an interruption, depending on which option JSU chooses for its multi-purpose basketball home.
The school has lots of motivation to do something. The Pete is way outdated, a fact no one denies. It’s not helping JSU’s basketball programs recruit, and it’s not helping with the school’s look into a possible move up to college football’s top division.
Something has to be done to make JSU’s basketball venue more attractive to officials from a Football Bowl Subdivision conference. Basketball is the second most high-profile college sport, and FBS conference heads are liable to take one look at The Pete and say, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
The question is, what to do? And one of two options could cause at least a one-year move for the Northeast Regional. If JSU chooses to renovate The Pete, construction might make The Pete unavailable for one year’s tournament.
A one-year move could and likely would be just that. Such was the impression Jones got in conversations with AHSAA folks this week.
Then again, what if the one-year host makes a huge impression on the AHSAA? There’s one city that’s dying to try.
“I know Huntsville has made a big push to try and get this tournament many times,”Jones said. “They’ve made a big push to get a lot of tournaments.”
Huntsville’s Von Braun Center is the site for the AHSAA wrestling championships. It’s bigger and, frankly, nicer than The Pete.
A potential one-year move could set up a buyer’s-market scenario for the AHSAA and change the association’s thinking. Do JSU officials want to take that chance?
AHSAA spokesman Ron Ingram said this week he isn’t aware of any discussions about moving the tournament, and Savarese doesn’t comment amid on-going site negotiations.
What JSU does about facilities comes down to financial feasibility. The school is in the early stages of looking into it, and one senses that JSU officials hope a new facility is feasible.
That’s Jones’ preference.
“I’m thinking our best plan is to build new,” he said. “This facility has some design and structural problems that would make a renovation a major renovation.”
On balance, it could be more cost-effective to build new, especially in the long run. That option would also keep The Pete open through construction, so as not to skip a year with the Northeast Regional.
Nobody at JSU wants to skip a year. Even with what Jones acknowledges as a down year for attendance, parking revenue keeps the tournament out of the red.
Parking revenue paid for new scoreboards. It also helps cover man hours for cleaners, who come in at 4 a.m. every day, and physical-plant workers who come in at 6 and repair seats from the previous day’s use.
The tournament also gives JSU an inestimable student-recruitment tool. Jones, also a high school referee, said he has attended sub-regional games where he saw messages like “Jax State-bound” on signs and rear car windows.
“I might be a little biased, but I think that this is one of the best recruiting tools we have,” Jones said.
As for high schools, Mountain Brook principal Vic Wilson made a point to stop by the press table after the Spartans’ boys won their 6A regional title Friday. Also a referee in this tournament, he talked about how much he liked the atmosphere The Pete provides.
The Pete is smaller than the Von Braun Center, which makes the JSU gym fuller and puts fans closer to the court. Wilson and his staff had to keep students from rushing the court Friday, but he couldn’t keep players from doing Pete Leaps onto the press table to hug them.
Wilson said he would prefer this week’s state semifinals and finals be played in The Pete or a similar venue, instead of the cavernous BJCC Arena. He told Jones the same thing.
As for the AHSAA, it’s likely loath to break the ongoing association between The Pete and Northeast Regional. Tradition-born habits help attendance in most years, especially when local teams keep the habit of reaching the finals.
It seems a win-win for all to keep the Northeast Regional at The Pete. It also seems likely to happen, even if construction causes a skipped year.
Still, why give Huntsville the chance to wow the AHSAA? The ball’s in JSU’s court, wherever JSU decides to put it.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.