Detroit hosts NCAA in first big pitch for Final Four

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Michigan lost to Villanova in last season's NCAA Final Four championship game.

NCAA officials were in Detroit this week for a tour of Ford Field and a star-studded soiree as the Detroit Sports Commission makes its push to host another men's basketball Final Four.

The events were Monday, and first featured a tour of Ford Field — with the NCAA particularly interested in the recent $100-million renovations — followed by an evening gala on the rooftop of the Madison Building, where the likes of John Engler, Tom Izzo, Warde Manuel, Greg Kelser and even Mark Hollis were in attendance for the hour-and-a-half meet-and-greet.

The Detroit Sports Commission officially submitted its bid to host another Final Four in December. While you can specify a specific year in the bid, the commission bid on the next open four years, 2023-26.

Monday's visit by the NCAA was the first formal get-together between the NCAA, the commission and Michigan State, which would be the host university. 

"It's been no secret that we've talked very openly about vetting out a Final Four," said Kris Smith, director of the Detroit Sports Commission. "The Final Four is now vetting us.

"They really wanted to see the feel of the city. They were really just seeing the progress of the city."

About 50 dignitaries were in attendance for the evening event, including a five-person contingent from the NCAA — led by UNC-Asheville athletic director Janet Cone, who is on the Division I men's basketball committee.

Officials from Cobo and Olympia Entertainment also were present, as all Final Fours require secondary facilities for additional events throughout the weekend. Representatives for billionaire Detroit booster Dan Gilbert were not at Monday's events, but are expected to get involved in the efforts at some point.

Manuel, Michigan's athletic director, was in attendance on behalf of the Big Ten, which is interested in coming aboard as a co-host with Michigan State, Smith said.

Officials from Western Michigan and Wayne State also were at the event. Detroit Mercy, the host school for first- and- second-round NCAA Tournament games at Little Caesars Arena this past spring, were not there.

Speakers included Kelser, a former star Michigan State basketball player; Manuel, who made a light-hearted joke about men's basketball coach John Beilein being courted by the Pistons; Larry Alexander, of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau; and Engler, the interim Michigan State president, who took a swipe at Izzo's recent record against Beilein, according to multiple people at the event.

Michigan has beaten MSU three consecutive games, including in the semifinals of last season’s Big Ten tournament.

The event also featured a surprise performance by David Barrett, the Ann Arbor singer-songwriter who wrote "One Shining Moment," the NCAA Tournament's closing anthem since 1987. Barrett, wearing a Detroit Tigers cap, sang the song while sitting at a keyboard.

Michigan has hosted the Final Four once before, in 2009 at Ford Field, when Michigan State lost to North Carolina in the championship game. Detroit Mercy was the host school in 2009.

Hollis, the long-time Michigan State athletic director who resigned in January as part of the Larry Nassar fallout, was in attendance "as a friend" of the Detroit Sports Commission, Smith said. Hollis was working on the bid long before he resigned from Michigan State.

Interim Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman also was in attendance.

Asked if Michigan State was the right host school to help Detroit land the Final Four given the university's plummeting public image amid the Nassar scandal — Kelser, during his speech, brought up the scandal, Penn State comparisons and the victims — Smith said yes.

"There is no other university that you want to work with besides Michigan State," Smith said. "They're the best school to work with. ... There are some brilliant people up at Michigan State.

"Everybody wants to see this happen."

The NCAA is expected to name host cities for 2023-26 in July. There are no official future meetings scheduled between Detroit boosters and the NCAA.