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'79 was final bow in Final Four spotlight

Sean Reynolds

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'79 was final bow in Final Four spotlight


By Lex Hemphill

Special to The Tribune

If the Bird-Magic Final Four in 1979 was the springboard to better times for both NCAA and NBA basketball, it also marked the zenith for college basketball in the host state of Utah.

University of Utah officials, who won the bid for the 1979 Final Four over Los Angeles and Albuquerque in June of 1974, knew that this would be their only date with the NCAA's championship game. In the five years between the award and the event, the NCAA had decided it would not place the Final Four in an arena with fewer than 17,000 seats and it had already awarded the 1982 and 1984 Final Fours to domed stadiums, signalling its eventual move to a dome-only event.

So, when Michigan State, Indiana State, DePaul and Penn convened here March 24-26, 1979, Utahns knew this would be their only moment in the NCAA spotlight. It would be the top of the college basketball mountain for them. More than that, the Final Four arrived here at the same time that college basketball in Utah was at its hottest.

All four of the state's Division I basketball programs -- Utah, Brigham Young, Utah State and Weber State, all of whom boasted on-campus basketball palaces that had been built within the previous decade -- had qualified for the NCAA tournament in '79. And they had combined to draw more than 12,000 fans per game. Now, the Final Four was coming too.

Times were so heady that, as Sports Illustrated reported in its Final Four issue, Sen. Orrin Hatch took to the Senate floor and crowed, "I know that all of this may seem like a bit of bragging on my part [but I] feel confident that no other senator can find four schools in his state that have the support of the fans like these schools." Sen. Richard Lugar later showed that his state of Indiana did, but the point was taken: Basketball in Utah had become capital stuff.

Utah's most advanced case of March Madness lasted through the Final Four, which was a largely successful operation here. But then, just when the Utah college basketball balloon was fully inflated, there came a small pinprick, an omen that it would never be the same again.

On April 11, 1979, just 16 days after the Bird-Magic final, a couple of out-of-town businessmen named Sam Battistone and Larry Hatfield told a Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce breakfast gathering that they intended to move their NBA team, the New Orleans Jazz, to Salt Lake City. The Jazz indeed came to Utah for the 1979-80 season. And, within a decade, the Jazz usurped the colleges' popular dominance.

Perhaps the most tangible legacy of the 1979 Final Four in Utah is that it cemented the University of Utah's reputation with the NCAA for being able to host the tournament. And so the Huntsman Center has become a regular stop for the NCAAs ever since; the building has now hosted 75 tournament games, second most of any arena in the country.


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