MSU’s Hollis brings college basketball to sea

SAN DIEGO – As Michigan State players signed autographs and snapped photos with military servicemen on the eve of Friday’s first-ever college basketball game at sea, athletic director Mark Hollis stood off to the side beaming.

Mark Hollis has staged some events in special venues, but the Carrier Classic brings his creativity to a new level.

As recently as three years ago, Navy officials rolled their eyes and snickered when Hollis suggested the idea of holding a game between Michigan State and North Carolina on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Now perhaps the nation’s most forward-thinking athletic director is less than 24 hours away from seeing his elaborate vision become reality.

“It’s very gratifying,” Hollis said Thursday. “There were people who didn’t think it would get done, but there were enough that said this would be a positive thing that I was always confident it would happen. It was just a matter of time.”

At a time when historic baseball stadiums are hosting football and hockey games and tennis stars are playing exhibition matches 700 feet above ground on a helipad, the Carrier Classic still may be the most ambitious sporting event at a non-traditional venue yet. It cost more than $2 million in sponsorship money and private funds to outfit the deck of the USS Carl Vinson with a makeshift basketball arena replete with a regulation-sized court, a giant video screen behind each baseline and stands big enough to hold 7,000 people.

If sporting events at unusual venues can now be called a full-fledged trend, then Hollis is unquestionably the father. He spearheaded the idea to hold a Michigan-Michigan State hockey match at sold-out Spartan Stadium in 2001 and a basketball game between Michigan State and Kentucky at cavernous Ford Field two years later.

The coaches whose teams will square off Friday could not be happier they embraced Hollis’ latest scheme.

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North Carolina coach Roy Williams called it “the neatest thing I’ve ever been part of” watching his wide-eyed players snap pictures of the ship and its crew when they toured it for the first time Wednesday. And Michigan State coach Tom Izzo marveled that military personnel were approaching him and his team to thank them for being there.

“If you could see my players’ eyes when they walked in, they just had such an appreciation,” Izzo said. “It’s bigger than a game. It’s bigger than North Carolina vs. Michigan State. It’s a dream come true for us because in a small, small way, we’re giving a little bit back. We’re recognizing the people that deserve to be recognized instead of just the athletes.”

[Slideshow: Game on deck of USS Carl Vinson]

North Carolina and Michigan State players were unanimous in the praise for the unique venue.
(Christopher Hanewinckel/US Presswire)

The inspiration for the idea to play a basketball game on an aircraft carrier was Hollis’ deep appreciation for the military.

One of his fondest memories from his previous job working for the Western Athletic Conference was observing the joy players and military servicemen got from interacting with one another during events leading up to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. He also admits it moved him watching the news and seeing the courage of soldiers leaving their families behind to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“My appreciation comes from where it should come from, and that’s from being a citizen of the United States,” Hollis said. “You watch various news agencies as people are leaving, and it affects you. It’s a dramatic thing to see a solider hug his wife and child and get on a ship. It just ate at me where it’s like, ‘We’ve got to do something. What can we do?’ It built up to this.”

Two of the first people Hollis called when his idea was still in its infancy six years ago were Izzo and Williams. Once they were on board, selling ESPN on broadcasting the event wasn’t difficult.

After his 2006 attempt to set up games pitting Michigan State-Navy and North Carolina-Air Force fell through because of the ongoing war and security issues, Hollis redoubled his efforts. The breakthrough came last year when a mutual friend introduced Hollis to Mike Whalen, founder of Morale Entertainment, a company that specializes in providing entertainment to the troops. The two sketched out their vision last autumn on a napkin at a steakhouse in Annapolis and went to work, paving the way for a Veteran’s Day spectacle that will have an audience that includes roughly 4,000 troops and even President Obama.

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If the reaction of North Carolina and Michigan State players to their first glimpse of the ship’s makeshift court is any indication, the inaugural Carrier Classic should be a rousing success.

“Mind-boggling,” Michigan State point guard Keith Appling said.

“It definitely surpassed expectations,” North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes added.

Said fellow Tar Heel John Henson, “I have my little flip cam and I’m documenting everything. It’s something I’m going to save, remember and cherish.”

Since Hollis has now architected a hockey game at a college football stadium, a basketball game at an NFL stadium and a hoops event on an aircraft carrier, he knows what question he’ll hear next.

“People are already asking, ‘What are you going to do next?’” Hollis said, “But I don’t think this is going to be topped.”

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Updated Thursday, Nov 10, 2011