July 22, 2008

Top of the World Classic hits bottom

Morehead State athletic director Brian Hutchinson says it wasn't about the money.

It's the politically correct thing to say concerning the Eagles' decision to pull out of the Top of the World Classic, an exempt tournament in Fairbanks, Alaska, that would have entered its 13th season this fall.

Some lucky 13.

In fairness to Hutchinson, he didn't know he was taking part in effectively killing off the event. He and coach Donnie Tyndall opted to pay the $30,000 "liquidated damages clause" to get out of the tournament when Louisville offered a spot in its Billy Minardi Classic.

The Cardinals are paying $60,000-$70,000, Hutchinson said. The Eagles will use that money to pay off the Top of the World organizers and pocket what's left.

The travel also will be a little easier on the Eagles a 135-mile bus ride across the Bluegrass State versus trekking 3,900 miles to within 3 hours of the Arctic Circle.

"It was never about money for us because we really wanted to go to Alaska," Hutchinson said. "An OVC team has won that tournament (Austin Peay in 2000), and we thought we could go up there and be successful. But you really have to block two weeks out of your schedule. You've got to be there a day before it starts, and when you get home you have to give the team at least a couple of days to recover, if not four to five.

"The logistics for an East Coast team are challenging. It sounds great when you sign up for it, but the reality is it's tough for pre-conference dates."

Morehead signed to play in the 2008 Top of the World Classic on Oct. 9, 2006. Within five weeks Forrest Karr, AD of host school University of Alaska-Fairbanks, also had signed deals with Stanford and Chattanooga. So Karr had half of his field, but he wasn't especially confident looking down the road.

That's because in January 2006, the NCAA board of directors voted to eliminate the certification program for preseason events. There had been only 10 such events in the 2005-06 season, including the Top of the World, the Great Alaska Shootout and the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii. But the elimination of the certification program basically meant any school could be host to a multi-team event.

Karr feared it was the beginning of the end. He was correct.

"I remember the day like it was yesterday," Karr said. "I woke up in my hotel room in Indianapolis and under the door was the NCAA News. Division II members (such as UA-Fairbanks) don't get to vote on Division I legislation. My immediate thought was this will probably be the end of tournaments like ours."

Karr said he had a conversation that day with Steve Cobb, AD of Alaska-Anchorage, host of the Great Alaska Shootout.

"He said, 'Our event has a 30-year history and a TV contract, more ticket sales and resources and larger sponsorships, so this change will get your tournament first,' " Karr said. "But his words, 'We're right there with you.' "

Cobb was prophetic. Sure enough, a couple of teams paid their way out of the 2007 Great Alaska Shootout, including Washington State. Cobb and Karr responded by upping the damages clause in future contracts, but Morehead State had signed with the Top of the World before the clause was changed.

Karr said the event always had been fiscally sound, and it hadn't changed what it had offered teams from day one. Its package was composed of 18 airplane tickets, a $2,430 per diem, 36 hotel nights and a vehicle for the coaching staff for five days. Karr estimated the worth of the package at $20,000-$25,000.

But with bigger schools allowed to serve as host for their own exempt events, the landscape changed. Suddenly, schools such as Morehead State were having large sums of money thrown at them, and a certain Fairbanks tournament was left out in the all-too-familiar cold.

"It certainly has been a big part of our community," Fairbanks Mayor Terry Strle said. "We've rallied behind it.

"Basketball is big in rural Alaska. I know the Top of the World Classic was something we all looked forward to. It came at a time of year when there's not a lot to do here. And to enjoy that quality of basketball was just great for us. It's a big disappointment that it's gone."

Karr didn't let it die without a fight.

"We were hearing of teams getting offered more than $100,000 to play, and we realized we needed to do something," Karr said. "So we started offering more money. We signed UCF on April 16, 2008. We gave them $20,000, plus 20 plane tickets, 36 room nights, a rental vehicle and the per diem. It was $20,000 more than we had ever offered."

Morehead State opted out shortly after UCF signed on. At least it meant Karr had $30,000 to go get another school. Bradley inked a deal May 12. The field was up to five, and Karr and tourney officials were thinking of going with a six-team tourney.

In late June, Austin Peay, the 2000 Top of the World champ, reached an oral agreement to return to Fairbanks. The Governors' financial package was significantly more than the event had ever offered any school, and the OVC favorite would have been making way more than Stanford. Karr said the offer to APSU was $30,000, 23 plane tickets, 48 room nights, the per diem and ground transportation for the entire team.

"We'd had a 12-year history of offering the same thing, and now we were well over $60,000," Karr said.

On the same day, though, Chattanooga exercised the damages clause in its contract. Meanwhile, Stanford officials had asked the event to let the school know something by July 1 or it would like to explore other options. Karr felt like that was a fair request.

He then made an "all-out effort" to find a sixth team. Karr said the offer he made to the final five or six teams he tried to lure to Fairbanks was "well over $90,000." He said a couple of schools were close to signing, but found last-second reasons not to. One balked at being in the same three-team pool as Stanford and Bradley. Karr declined to name the school.

On July 1, Karr called Stanford and told the Cardinal it was being released to look for other options.

"I'm disappointed for our staff and our community," Karr said. "It's like a punch in the gut. I felt like this is not what college sports are supposed to be about.

" Preseason certified events were limited to outlying areas (before the NCAA rule change). They said they wanted to level the playing field, but it's not level for us. If another tournament is offering $60,000 in cash to come down the road, we have to offer $80,000 or more to get them here. For us, it created a disadvantage. We can't afford to play that game."

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.


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