Team Tampa Bay's Take with Joey Johnston - History Served: Tampa Bay Garners Rave Reviews for Hosting Effort
NCAA President, Committee Chair, and Coaches talk about volleyball’s growth, record-breaking weekend, and Tampa Bay’s attention to detail.
By Joey Johnston
Upon arrival, the four teams at the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship were excited to see their team buses wrapped in tropical motif with the school names and logos displayed prominently.
When all the confetti had fallen from the rafters of Amalie Arena, when the Texas Longhorns wrapped up their convincing sweep of the Nebraska Cornhuskers to capture their second consecutive NCAA title on Sunday afternoon, when the ABC-TV coverage was complete, it was finally time to go home.
But as the Longhorn players and coaches exited the building and approached the team bus, their eyes grew wider and a few players even squealed in delight. Immediately after the match was completed, the team bus wrap underwent its final surprise renovation.
It now read: National Champion Texas.
“The attention to detail … oh my goodness!’’ said NCAA volleyball committee chair Holly Strauss-O’Brien, the deputy athletic director at Loyola-Chicago. “This has been an absolutely amazing student-athlete experience. The memories made here have been priceless.’’
Whether it was fans, coaches, athletes, school administrators media — or even NCAA president Charlie Baker — everyone had a positive reaction to college volleyball’s showcase event, which the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and the University of South Florida hosted.
“There’s nothing but blue sky ahead for the sport of college women’s volleyball because the elevation and athleticism of these women is so far ahead of where it was even 10 or 15 years ago,’’ Baker said. “It’s a sport we need to invest in and do whatever possible to keep it growing because it is going through the roof. The growth is astronomical.
“There’s a sellout crowd here in Tampa and it’s being televised by ABC … and these are things this sport deserves. This day has made a pretty clear statement. This sport has earned this attention. And as I look around, I’m so happy with the job Tampa has done in hosting this event. But after knowing how Tampa has hosted big events in the past, it doesn’t surprise me at all.’’
Whether it’s the Frozen Four or the Women’s Basketball Final Four, Baker said Tampa has a proven track record of hospitality and execution when it comes to hosing NCAA championship events.
“The difference to me is having an organization like the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which is really second to none in the way it recruits, manages and delivers great sports events,’’ Baker said. “They have proven credibility. From start to finish, they own every detail and take pride in delivering a great experience. Their commitment makes such a huge difference.
“Then there’s the footprint of the city itself. It’s such an easy walk between the athletic venue and most of the hotels and restaurants. You’re on the water. The weather is generally beautiful. The whole thing is just ideal.’’
Fans began lining up outside the arena shortly before noon — more than three hours until the match began — so they could get a prime spot for the team arrivals. It was a sea of red and burnt orange, but three-quarters of the crowd appeared to be Cornhusker fans. They made their presence known.
GO BIG RED! GO BIG RED! GO BIG RED!
Once inside the arena, though, Texas quickly took control of the match. Ten days ago, the Longhorns were nearly eliminated, facing a fourth-set match point against Tennessee in the region semifinals. But Texas fought back, then entered a zone of its own, dispatching three consecutive No. 1 seeds (Stanford, Wisconsin and Nebraska) to clinch back-to-back national championships.
It was a wonderful moment for Texas coach Jerritt Elliott. In 2009, when Tampa first hosted the event, the Longhorns won the first two sets in the NCAA final against Penn State, which was seeking its 102nd consecutive match victory and third straight national championship. The Nittany Lions rallied for the reverse sweep, winning 16-14 in the fifth, in an epic moment for college volleyball.
Elliott said he loved everything about his previous Tampa experience “except for those two points,’’ but also stated in his opening news conference that Tampa should host the NCAA volleyball championships “every single year.’’
After capturing a championship at Amalie Arena — before an all-time championship-match record crowd of 19,727 fans — Tampa will undoubtedly have Elliott’s heart forever.
“I had fond memories of Tampa,’’ Elliott said. “It felt really good the last time we were here. And I stated that I would love the national championship to be here every year because it’s such a great location. They put so much love into what they’re doing. And I want to thank them for that.’’
Even while dealing with a painful defeat, Nebraska coach John Cook made it a point to praise Tampa’s hosting performance.
“Tampa did a heck of a job with this thing and the people here deserve a lot of credit,’’ Cook said. “It’s one of the best Final Fours I’ve been to. It was a first-class event. They did an awesome job and we’re very appreciative.’’
Strauss-O’Brien, the former Connecticut coach, used to compete against former USF coach Claire Lessinger, now the TBSC’s vice president of events, when both schools were members of the Big East Conference. Strauss-O’Brien, now an athletic administrator who’s accustomed to helping select championship sites, hinted that it won’t be 14 years before Tampa hosts its next NCAA volleyball event.
“Obviously, the Tampa Bay Sports Commission knows what it is doing,’’ Strauss-O’Brien said. “Rob and Claire are the best.’’
And just to drive that point home completely, everyone in the volleyball community received a billboard reminder on the drive into Tampa International Airport. The message accompanied an image of Sunday’s Amalie Arena sellout crowd.
THANK YOU, FANS!
LET’S RUN IT BACK.
To quote Strauss-O’Brien:
“The attention to detail … oh my goodness!’’