By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At about 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Southern Illinois University assistant basketball coach Brad Korn walked into the upper echelon of college basketball. Three doormen greeted his team at its swank hotel, The Columbus, before the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Plush white couches sat on mahogany paneled wood in the lobby. Limestone columns framed the front desk.
In his previous five trips to the tournament, Korn rarely enjoyed such luxuries. For the most part, he had arrived as a player or coach with lowly regarded Southern Illinois teams and stayed at lowly regarded hotels. In 2002, the NCAA assigned Korn's 11th-seeded Salukis to a hotel in Syracuse, N.Y., with moldy showers, unkempt beds and filthy curtains. The property was sold in a bankruptcy auction several months later.
This year, Southern Illinois was seeded fourth -- and the lodging arrangements matched the team's elevated status.
In the NCAA tournament, where you stand determines where you sleep at night: to the best teams go the best hotels. About three months ago, NCAA officials visited the eight cities hosting the first two rounds of the tournament, toured hotels and, with input from local host committees, ranked the facilities based on quality and location. The NCAA then assigned the best-seeded teams to the most prestigious hotels. In general, elite teams ended up at downtown Marriotts; small-conference underdogs sometimes settled for small historic hotels or airport area chains.
In most cases, the difference between staying at the best and worst hotel creates nothing more than a dismissible imbalance, coaches and players said. But in the most extreme situations, the gap can exacerbate the disparity between a top-seeded powerhouse and a small-conference underdog in the tournament, which ends with the national championship game in Atlanta on April 2.
"It's nice now to know how the other half lives," Korn said after a night in his team hotel, which was fresh off a $15 million renovation. "The elevators work, the showers are nice, the restaurant isn't going to make you sick -- all of that. In the past, we've had some disasters."
During the tournament's opening days, some college teams arrived at the same first-round sites to drastically different circumstances. In Sacramento, the top-seeded team checked into a Sheraton while the lowest seed pulled up to a Holiday Inn. In Winston-Salem, N.C., Georgetown slept comfortably at the Marriott. Its first-round opponent, Belmont, stayed at a small, historic hotel with old, 19-inch televisions. "That will keep our mind on the games," said Belmont guard Andrew House, who added that the hotel felt more like a log cabin or a bed and breakfast.
In Columbus, Southern Illinois and most other teams settled into towering downtown hotels within comfortable walking distance of Nationwide Arena. Meanwhile, 12th-seeded Long Beach State pulled up at a Marriott located 25 minutes away in Dublin. A few players asked coaches if the team had gotten lost.
"Is Duke going to get a better hotel than Iona during the NCAA tournament? Yeah, probably," said Iona Coach Jeff Ruland, who has taken his team to three NCAA tournaments. "All you can ask for is an even playing field. And the truth is, sometimes you don't get it."
The NCAA said it has long used seedings to determine hotel assignments, primarily for the sake of organization. By mandate, the top-seeded team in each highest-seeded, four-team pod stays at the best hotel. The top seed in the lower pod gets the next hotel, and so on. Eight teams must be accommodated in each of the eight host cities for the preliminary rounds.
"In a perfect world, everything would be exactly the same for every team, but that's impossible," said L.J. Wright, one of the tournament directors. "Every property is going to be a little bit different, and we can't assign eight teams to the same hotel. There can be hits and misses, but we strive to provide eight excellent experiences."
Teams are not required to stay at their assigned hotels, NCAA officials said, but switching requires a process so complicated it sometimes strikes players and coaches as impossible. A team must find someone else -- boosters, cheerleaders, band members -- to fill its allotted 50 to 75 rooms. Then it must find better, available accommodations in a hotel not already occupied by another team.
Still, a handful of teams call the NCAA each year to request a last-minute move, tournament director Greg Shaheen said.
"If they don't like where they're staying, we don't want them to be quiet about it," Shaheen said. "Hotels are one of the most important pieces of this whole event."
Players and coaches identify an adequate hotel as the cornerstone to a successful NCAA tournament experience. Teams that reach the Final Four in Atlanta will spend as many as 15 nights on the road, relying on their hotels to provide all of college life's necessities. In preparing to host teams during the tournament, hotels set up makeshift classrooms for study halls and miniature theaters for game film sessions. Most hotels are responsible for preparing or catering pregame meals.
During Korn's 2002 stay in Syracuse, the Salukis refused to eat food prepared inside what was then called Hotel Syracuse -- a deteriorating, circular tower in the underbelly of the city. Instead, Korn and his teammates asked if they could eat a pregame meal in a Syracuse University dining hall.
Chris Lowery, Southern Illinois' current head coach who was an assistant coach in 2002, suffered an allergic reaction while at Hotel Syracuse. His face broke out in hives, and he missed a pregame practice. Doctors weren't sure what caused the reaction, but players blamed the food and cleanliness of their hotel.
"There can be a gap between hotels number one and number eight when it comes to the details, but you try to prepare the hotels for what they're getting into," said Tim Allen, an associate commissioner for the Big 12 Conference who managed an NCAA tournament first-and-second-round site during each of the last six years. "We coach the staff at every hotel to do all the right things. These teams aren't just experiencing drop-by hotel stays. A lot goes into this."
The hotel selection process for the 2007 tournament began almost four years ago, when cities bid to host the first and second rounds. Each chosen city established a host committee and designated a lodging coordinator.
Some host cities struggled to find hotels that satisfied NCAA stipulations: Properties must be located within about a 15-minute drive of the arena and offer extensive meeting space and a full service restaurant, officials said.
Until recently, the NCAA also required that each team stay in its own hotel. After complaints from coaches and players about the quality of the seventh- and eighth-best hotels in host cities, the NCAA changed its rules in the last few years, Shaheen said. Now, two teams are allowed to stay in the same hotel -- so long as they're thoroughly separated in the building and not immediately scheduled to play each other. Spokane, Wash., used five hotels this year; Winston-Salem used six.
Anne Gordon, a Wake Forest employee, served as the lodging coordinator in Winston-Salem. She initially hoped to host one team at a luxurious Wingate, but she dropped it after discovering that its ceiling heights and meeting space fell short of NCAA specifications. She visited each of her six remaining properties almost once per month during the last year, and she did preliminary rankings of them. During the winter, two NCAA representatives flew into town for a final site visit. Gordon drove them to all six hotels in one day, and they toured each property.
"They didn't change any of our rankings, so that was a success," Gordon said. "The challenge in this town was coming up with enough high-quality spaces for these teams."