For college basketball fans, this is one of your favorite times of the year. Outside of March Madness, Thanksgiving week is your best opportunity to gorge on televised tournament hoops
ESPN calls it Feast Week, with 75+ games, and 13 tournaments across multiple platforms, highlighted by the Maui Invitational, which starts today. This prestigious in-season multi-team event has a loaded eight-team field featuring five ranked teams: No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Purdue, No. 4 Marquette, No. 7 Tennessee, and No. 11 Gonzaga.
Before we sit in front of our screens, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the OG holiday tournament. None of this would be possible without the Great Alaska Shootout. The men’s version of this annual roundball celebration ended in 2017, but its legacy lives on. The inaugural Shootout was in 1978, six years before Maui, and it changed the sport.
Today, most winter tournaments are in vacation-friendly locations such as Maui, Honolulu, the Bahamas, Las Vegas, Orlando, Myrtle Beach, and Charleston, South Carolina. So, if you think having one in Alaska sounds crazy now, imagine how radical it was in the 70s.
The average high temperature in Anchorage in late November is typically 25 degrees. Sunrise is after 9 a.m., sunset before 5 p.m. How do you convince schools from the Lower 48 to make the long journey to America’s least densely populated state?
Bob Rachal was the father of the Great Alaska Shootout. To boost his program’s profile, the University of Alaska Anchorage men’s coach created this tournament by taking advantage of a loophole in the NCAA rulebook that said games outside of the 48 contiguous states didn’t count against a school’s allotment.
This great idea almost didn’t happen. Rachal coached just one season because he was fired in 1978 for recruiting violations. Alaska Anchorage’s athletic director Lew Haines reportedly was surprised to find seven signed contracts with teams, promising payouts of $8,000 each. That was a lot of money for a small program. Haines decided to honor those deals. From that moment, the “Sea Wolf Classic” was born. The field included Indiana, Louisville, North Carolina State, Texas A&M, Pepperdine, Penn State, Lamar, and Alaska Anchorage. North Carolina State defeated Louisville in the championship game before a capacity crowd at the 4,000-seat Buckner Field House.
The event drew national media attention and was praised. The next year, the Sea Wolf Classic had a new name: the Great Alaska Shootout. And once ESPN started broadcasting the event in 1985, college basketball was never the same.
For decades, the Great Alaska Shootout and the Maui Invitational were the premiere Thanksgiving week events. If your school played in either, that meant your program mattered nationally.
Fletcher ➡️ K-Mart ➡️ Helicopter— Cincinnati Men’s Hoops (@GoBearcatsMBB) November 28, 2021
On today's date in 1998, the Bearcats stun #1 Duke in the final seconds of the Great Alaska Shootout title game. pic.twitter.com/bHzckPwIJQ
The Shootout reached its peak in 1998. The championship game featured top-ranked Duke against No.15 Cincinnati. Mike Krzyzewski vs. Bob Huggins. Elton Brand and Trajan Langdon vs. Pete Mickeal and Kenyon Martin. Duke enjoyed a huge home-court advantage because Langdon is an East Anchorage High School graduate.
Understandably, the sellout Sullivan Arena crowd of 8,700 was cheering almost exclusively for the Blue Devils. Alas, there was no fairytale ending. The title game did produce a memorable finish with a perfectly executed game-winning dunk by Cincinnati’s Melvin Levett with one second left.
There were other great games, funny moments, and even a memorable hookup. It seemed like the Shootout would be a part of our holiday TV experience forever. So, why did the fun end? The short answer is money. The long answer is probably more complicated. Other Thanksgiving tournaments arrived. That led to more competition to draw high-profile programs. Once ESPN stopped broadcasting the Shootout in 2007, time was running out.
After that, the event drew fewer power-conference schools and morphed into a mid-major tournament. In 2017, its final year, the 8-team field consisted of the College of Charleston, Sam Houston State, Santa Clara, Cal Poly, Central Michigan, Idaho, Cal State Bakersfield, and Alaska Anchorage.
Central Michigan was the last Shootout men’s champion.
Then-acting Alaska Anchorage athletic director Tim McDiffett said the tournament was no longer “financially sustainable, especially given the economic times of the state of Alaska.” He added that other holiday tournaments were “paying $250,000 to $300,000 to a team to get them to come to an exotic location.”
For the record, the Shootout is not dead. The women’s tournament returned last year and remains active. It doesn’t appear that the men will have a similar comeback.
College sports continuously evolve, and traditions are often casualties. The Great Alaska Shootout as we know it is gone, but its impact remains.
Just watch ESPN this week.