TAMPA — Rob Higgins ran into Craig Mattox on the concourse at Georgia Tech University in March 2008, the morning after a tornado with 110 mph winds ripped through the Georgia Dome, damaged the roof and forced the SEC men's basketball tournament to be moved on hardly any notice.
Mattox, the longtime tournament director, had been awake for 24 hours. He was still handling the logistics of moving the game from a 26,000-seat arena to a college facility with a 9,100 capacity.
"Craig hadn't slept, he looked delirious and he was punch-drunk," said Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, who was in Atlanta preparing for this year's tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum. "But I remember one of the first things he said to me was, 'Find out as quickly as you can what our backup is next year.' He mumbled that to me. So we made sure we got that off the checklist quickly."
Mattox's concern was understandable. In a matter of minutes, last year's SEC tournament was thrown into chaos.
Mattox was sitting at the scorer's table watching an overtime game between Mississippi State and Alabama on March 14 when the event coordinator informed him the city of Atlanta was under a tornado warning.
"He knelt down and handed me some public address announcements that we needed to have read over the PA system," Mattox said. "I took the announcements from him, was reviewing them. I stood up to go walk them down to our PA announcer, and that's when it hit. All that happened in, I think, 30 seconds to one minute. I personally had very, very little warning."
Atlanta officials had about 10-15 minutes' warning. And just like that, emergency plans that had been dormant for years were dusted off and put into action. The storm tore a hole in the north section of the Georgia Dome roof. Debris fell from the roof as officials tried to keep fans calm. It delayed Mississippi State's 69-67 overtime win for more than an hour.
Eventually, the Georgia-Kentucky game, which was scheduled to be the final game of the evening, was postponed until Saturday.
"We were in the locker room getting ready for the game against Kentucky," Georgia senior guard Terrance Woodbury recalled. "We didn't even know, all we heard was that there was a tornado outside. We couldn't see anything. People said it was shaking outside, the ceiling was shaking and stuff was falling from the ceiling. I'm from Virginia, so I've been through a few bad storms myself."
Mattox believes that the short warning may have been a good thing.
"It may have been a blessing in disguise that we had no warning," he said. "Certainly when the tornado hit, people would have known what it was, some might have tried to start leaving. There could have been a potential for a lot of panic. I don't think we really had any kind of panic. It was very calm. But people definitely knew something was going on out of the ordinary."
Players and coaches were sent to the locker room, along with the coaches' wives and children, and stadium officials evacuated fans from the upper levels of the stadium. The damage was extensive to many buildings in the downtown Atlanta area, including the CNN Building and the Omni Hotel. Debris was strewn across the area, and cars crushed by falling debris could be seen throughout downtown.
"We watched it on SportsCenter (later) because they wouldn't allow us to go out there," Kentucky junior guard Jodie Meeks said. "It was too dangerous."
Meeks, who is from the Atlanta area, had family on the way to the game, but they turned around en route after hearing about the tornado.
The final two days of the tournament were held at the much smaller Georgia Tech facility. SEC officials decided that only media, school pep bands and family members from each team would be admitted, and thousands of fans left the area. The SEC lost about $2 million.
Mattox has made five trips to the Tampa area for site visits during the past 18 months. "We feel like we're well-prepared," he said.
Tournament officials don't expect any problems this week, but in case of a disaster, the tournament will be moved to the Martinez Center at the University of Tampa. Higgins said SEC officials prefer that the backup site remains in the core geographic area of the original facility. The University of Tampa is within about 1 mile of the St. Pete Times Forum, the SEC's headquarter hotels and many of the downtown area hotels where fans will stay.
"If you're going to pick up at a moment's notice, you want to be in close proximity to all of that infrastructure," Higgins said. "It just makes a lot of sense from a geographical standpoint, but also because we know the University of Tampa would do a great job with the staff they have over there."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.