Pueblo, CO (Mar 18, 2008) - "If I had one lesson to take from this," says Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball Media Relations Director DeWayne Peevy, "is to never underestimate who will step up with ability to help when facing trying circumstances." Peevy, of course, is referring to the decisions that had to be made, and the implementation of these decisions after a category F-2 tornado hit the heart of Atlanta last Friday night. Alabama and Mississippi State were in the midst of an overtime period in their quarterfinal match-up when, with 2:11 left on the clock, the sound of a train running through the area was heard. To many people who have experienced it in the past, they knew it was the sound of a tornado. Everything on the court stopped and people started looking up, not realizing at the time that a major change was coming to the 2008 Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament.
"We have disaster plans in place in the event of an emergency," Peevy said in a telephone interview with Eye on Sports Media yesterday. "But they were never designed to accommodate a situation such as this." Peevy sounded tired and worn out on the phone, and this was to be expected. "After the decision was made to move the remaining games to Alexander Memorial Coliseum on Georgia Tech's campus, we got back to the hotel at 6:00 AM. This gave us a small window of time to get showered and changed so we could head over to Georgia Tech to get ready for the Noon tip-off time for the rescheduled quarterfinal game between the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky."
Even though the Tech campus is only two miles or so away from the Georgia Dome, for logistics in a tournament of this size and reach, the SEC Staff may as well have been walking on Mars. "We have never had an event there," said Peevy. "So we went in there with a set of expectations based on our experience, and we could have not been more wrong. With Georgia Tech being on Spring break, we were very fortunate to be able to get Tech Women's Basketball Sports Information Director Dan Goldberger down there first thing in the morning to help us find our way."
The first thing Peevy and his staff had to deal with was where to put the working press. Alexander Memorial Coliseum has a very small press area located about 20 rows up in one corner, and it was never designed to handle the number of media assigned to work the tournament. Roger Clarkson, who is the University of Georgia Men's basketball beat writer for the Athens Banner-Herald, said this morning that "this actually worked out well because fans were not allowed in, so the press could basically sit anywhere they wanted. It was kind of funny seeing long-time veteran sports writers sitting in the bleachers. I bet they have not had to do that for a long time."
For Clarkson, the challenge was the fact that he had never been to the Georgia Tech campus for a basketball game. Having been with the Athens Banner-Herald for less than a year, he has not had a need to. The probably could probably be said for many of the SEC beat writers and national writers. So before he finished his shower and got over to Tech, Peevy and his staff more than had their work cut our for each other. "There is no parking at Tech, and we could not have any of the cars left by students for spring break," explained Peevy. "We went from having more than enough parking at the Georgia Dome to virtually none at Tech. Raycom, who started packing up their equipment at 5:00 AM knew the layout at Tech because they are always doing games there. But their production truck, because of the parking situation, was certainly not where it would normally be parked. Jimmy Rayburn of Raycom was on site, and we also put a lot on Raycom Director Roger Roebuck to get everything moved and set up in time."
It was also fortunate that CBS Sports had not yet begun the process of setting up for their scheduled broadcast of the game. "A few of their staff were on-site Friday to do some interviews, but the bul of their equipment had not yet arrived, so it made their task a little bit easier," continued Peevy. "Our bigger challenge was radio, as Tech only has two radio drops in the coliseum. So we had to come up with some creative ways to accommodate the radio crews from the remaining teams and for the folks from Westwood One."
Some other "rules" had to be relaxed. "We let the videographers shoot from the floor live during the games and during the press conferences," said Peevy. "We normally do not do this and it gave us a challenge at the end of the game to control what could have been a mad scramble."
In fact, it was a need to be able to do this as well as control other security aspects of the game site that contributed to the decision to not allow previously ticketed fans in for the games. "One issue, of course, was that we had no way to decide what fans to let into the game, explained Peevy. "But more importantly, we had no way of putting together a security plan and force to manage the venue if it was full. Normally available police and security companies were tied up with the more pressing matter of clean-up and recovery from the tornado. We even wrestled with whether or not we should allow the five members of the accredited media who had not yet picked up their credentials to do so." They did.
Clarkson said that he would give the SEC staff an 8 on a scale of 10 in how they responded to the quick change in revenue, but that was because of things outside of their control. That is becaiuse it is very hard to quickly convert a coliseum that was not built for an event like the SEC Tournament overnight. The media work room is located at the top of the building, far removed from the team locker rooms, and is small.
Peevy said that it was incredible how many people pitched in to help out. The Georgia Dome sent over interview platforms for press conferences, as well as additional copiers to complement the two Tech had in the Coliseum. ASAP Sports sent staff over to handle transcription services.
Even with all of these actions, it came down to a choice for reporters like Clarkson, it came down to a choice. "I could run up and down between the press room and the locker rooms, or just pick one," said Clarkson. He decided to stick with the locker rooms.
And the end result? Peevy says that "A very small minority in the media voiced complaints, and that is probably because they did not just understand the magnitude of what had to be done.The remaining part of the tournament was actually one of the smoothest we have ever had." This could be because the tornado slapped the Southeastern Conference and media out of their complacency that can breed from doing things a certain way, year after year. One thing is for certain, everybody in the Georgia Dome Friday night is very lucky that the tornado did not make a direct hit. It is also probable that the SEC will start drawing up contingency and disaster recover plans for their sponsored tournaments and championships.
This was originally published on Eye on Sports Media on March 18, 2008.