Great Alaska Shootout a Dying Breed of Holiday Tournaments

Posted by Kenny Ocker on November 27th, 2015

The school-managed exempt tournament is going extinct. The proliferation of corporate-owned events, including those put on by ESPN, have made sure of that. But out on the Last Frontier, the last holdout is conducting its last event on its own: The Great Alaska Shootout, organized and hosted by the University of Alaska-Anchorage, goes until Saturday, with its champion being the final team to win the tournament before Basketball Travelers takes over as managers next season.

The Great Alaska Shootout Produced One of the Best Moments for Bob Huggins at Cincinnati, in 1998. (AP)

The Great Alaska Shootout Produced One of the Best Moments for Bob Huggins at Cincinnati, in 1998. (AP)

The 50-plus-year-old tradition of exempt tournaments started when schools off the U.S. mainland needed to have an incentive before teams would schedule visits, and for a long time it stayed on an island floating off the coast of the NCAA landscape. But when eccentric Louisianan Bob Rachal took over the UAA men’s basketball program during its inaugural year in the NCAA’s Division II in 1977-78 – donning a tuxedo and top hat in his first game on the sidelines – he found that metaphorical island and used it to his advantage.

“He wanted something that could make a splash, something that could get the program on the map, so he dug around in the NCAA bylaws and he found out that you could host basically free games held under the exemption for any teams playing in Alaska or Hawaii at that point,” Seawolves sports information director Nate Sagan said. Well, not quite free, but close enough: A tournament of up to four games could count as one game against the NCAA’s limit of contests per season.

Maybe Rachal should have told his bosses before he signed contracts with schools including Indiana, Louisville, North Carolina State and Texas A&M, but maybe he shouldn’t have had some recruiting improprieties that led to his departure from Anchorage after a season. “When they cleaned out his desk, they found all these signed contracts from places like NC State and places like that, and they thought, ‘Well, let’s give it a try, let’s try to have this tournament,’ when they realized what he’d done,” Sagan said.

The Sea Wolf Classic, as it was called, was a successful first event, held at the Army’s Fort Richardson over Thanksgiving in 1978, and it included Billy Packer on the broadcast.  “The legend goes that during one of the games, he spouted off, ‘This is a great Alaska shootout,’” Sagan said. “It took that name in 1979 and, obviously, we stuck with it.”

The Great Alaska Shootout Will Go Corporate Next Season

The Great Alaska Shootout Will Go Corporate Next Season

The early years were great to the tournament – winners included big-time programs North Carolina State, Kentucky, North Carolina and Louisville, and James Worthy, Len Bias, Joe Dumars and Wayman Tisdale are among the many stars on the all-tournament teams – but school officials ended up unintentionally laying the groundwork for the explosion of exempt tournaments decades later. When the NCAA wanted to cancel the exemptions in the mid-1980s, after the Great Alaska Shootout had moved to the on-campus Sullivan Arena, athletic director Ron Petro and coach Harry Larrabee crisscrossed the country, shaking hands and talking shop to get athletic directors to vote against the proposal and save the exemptions. Exemptions were eventually limited to two tournaments for a school in any four-year time frame, which helped keep the exclusive nature of events such as the Great Alaska Shootout, and kept the quality of the field high: From 1995-2000, the tournament’s champions were a list of some of the best programs in the nation: Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Cincinnati, Kansas, Syracuse.

The Shootout was hit with events in back-to-back years that ended up changing the face of the tournament: First, in 2006, after a lawsuit by schools that nearly reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Division I institutions were allowed to participate in an exempt tournament each season. The amount of exempt tournaments increased from 32 to 58 the next year. Then, for the 2007 event, the tournament lost its television contract with ESPN.

Instead of being a huge money-maker for Alaska-Anchorage, the tournament was struggling financially. Support from the school, community and sponsors helped keep the event together, Sagan said, while Alaska-Fairbanks’ Top of the World Classic joined many school-run events on the extinct list. The big schools were gone, but the tradition remained. (The women’s basketball program, which runs a tournament that abuts the men’s tournament each year, didn’t really skip a beat, as they won all four tournaments from 2006-09, part of the six titles they have won.) A TV contract was formed after a couple of years without broadcasts (the tournament is now shown on CBS Sports Network), helping provide publicity for the event, and more of a focus was put on finding talented middle-tier programs. Damian Lillard and Weber State paid a visit, as did Isaiah Canaan and Murray State, Ian Clark and Belmont and Wesley Saunders and Harvard. “Even though the North Carolinas and the Kansases aren’t here at this point in the tournament’s history, you’re still getting really good basketball,” Sagan said.

But even with the basketball-specific Alaska Airlines Center as the venue starting last season, it proved difficult for a lone Division II school to compete against corporations with myriad events for teams to attend. Alaska-Anchorage teamed up with Basketball Travelers starting in 2016 to help put on the Shootout. The executive director, Nels Hawkinson, is from Fairbanks and the company is based in the Pacific Northwest, but it has global reach and a sound business model, including its highly successful Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands.

“It’s not easy to go out there and recruit teams, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort and you need to know a lot of people, and that’s what they do,” Sagan said. “While we have our connections and know people, I’m not ashamed to admit that we don’t have as many connections as they do in the college basketball world. It just seemed to make a lot of sense.”

Share this story

One response to “Great Alaska Shootout a Dying Breed of Holiday Tournaments”

  1. Tony Geinzer says:

    I think nixing the Great Alaska would add nothing but hamstring Alaska’s crushed economy and I felt nixing 2 in 4 was the devil, along the same time as the 5-8 Rules Retirement.

    I think it is coming back around where the NCAA wants to see a Proper Home Court before they’d invite Iowa to Puerto Rico, Orlando, or Hawaii again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *