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By Ronnie Ramos
Florence, AL - Not many people thought this national title game would stay here long. Most NCAA championships move from city to city and this four-city hub in northern Alabama known as the Shoals didn’t have a history of hosting national championship games.
“I’m not sure any of us envisioned it being here this long,” said Mickey Haddock, a member of the Shoals National Championship Committee’s board of directors. “I don’t know that anyone dreamed it would last that long – because no other championship has, except baseball.”
Dick Yoder, a member of the 1986 NCAA Division II football committee when it first came here, also wasn’t optimistic about the game remaining in the Shoals for long. “When we first came here, we seriously weren’t sure,” Yoder said.
But the area was determined to transform a national title game into a week the student-athletes would remember. “The vision was, as long as it was here, we’re going to make it a championship event,” Haddock said.
The community embraced the championship, and vice versa. The NCAA has kept coming back, awarding the Shoals the championship through numerous bid cycles ever since.
On Saturday the Shoals will host its 25th consecutive DII football national championship when Minnesota-Duluth plays Delta State at 10 a.m. on ESPN2 (and ESPN3.com online).
“Everything has gotten so much better,” said Yoder, who also keeps coming back long after his stint on the DII football committee ended. “It really is a Division II bowl.”
At a reception this week to celebrate the landmark anniversary, Haddock paused long enough to enjoy the moment. “When you look back at the last 25 years, I think we’ve accomplished that – we’ve put on a championship event,” he said.
The region has embraced this national championship, an annual event so woven into the fabric of the community that the local newspaper refers to it simply as “the Game.” The only NCAA championship that has remained in one place longer is the Men’s College World Series, which has been in Omaha for more than 60 years.
The Shoals has relied on a simple, but very effective formula that has proven very successful: focus on the student-athlete experience, provide exceptionally friendly service and build strong relationships.
“It’s like family, all the relationships,” said Randy L. Buhr, the NCAA’s associate director of championships. Like most things surrounding this championship, Buhr is one of the many constants that provide the championship with stability.
Buhr is back for his 11th year as the championship’s administrator. Grady Liles, the UNA supporter who led the efforts to bring the championship here, is still involved at age 79. Shirley Tucker Cheatwood, a former employee of the Shoals Chamber of Commerce and the game coordinator from 1986 to 2001, also returned for this historic occasion.
Buhr said the championship came to the Shoals area because of the community support. It has thrived here, he said, because of the exceptional championship atmosphere and strong relationships that have formed. “When you come back, it’s like you’re coming back to a family as opposed to just running a championship.”
Buhr and the local championship committee plan and sweat every detail, from the constant police escorts for the team buses to the Thursday night barbecue entertainment to give the event a unique championship feel the participants really appreciate.
“I’ve never been to a bowl game but to me what Florence has done has given it that type of atmosphere,” Northwest Missouri State coach Mel Tjeerdsma, who has made seven appearances in the title game, told the Florence Times Daily. “With the police escorts you get everywhere in town and all of the personal attention the teams get from the hosts, it really is a special experience.”
It’s also a special experience for the community leaders who keep organizing the event. “It’s the excitement of the event, the good people you meet,” said Earnest Haygood, a member of the region’s tourist board who has worked every one of the 25 championships. “It’s just a lot of fun and it means so much to the area.”
While the game does not sell out, the community support, especially from the business community, remains strong. “What is most gratifying,” Haddock said, “is the community has continued to buy into it and see it as such as positive event for our community.”
But most importantly, the community has remained determined to make sure the main reason for all of the work is the student-athletes, Haddock said.
“We’ve turned it into a championship event for the student-athlete. When you look at the whole process of the entire week and how the student-athletes are treated - they will remember the experience.
“They will remember these days.”