NCAA “First Four” returns to
University of Dayton Arena

By Marc Katz

We welcome teams to the First Four as if they’re playing in the Final Four.

They get hotel lobbies decorated in their team colors.

They get Laura’s Cookies iced to look like basketballs.

And they get serenaded by bagpipes.

We’re Dayton…

Wait a second. Bagpipes?

I’ve followed a few teams to the NCAA tournament over the years, and never heard a bagpipe squeal anywhere, especially for an early round.

But this is Dayton, remember, and we do all we can to make basketball teams feel welcome., except for maybe those old Notre Dame teams we carpeted on court with toilet paper rolls. We’re more refined now, and Notre Dame doesn’t visit
anymore, anyway.

Sorry for the presidential diversion. We’re talking about the First Four.

It all began in 2001 – no, not the bagpipes, the Play-In thing that became the First Four.

The NCAA added two teams that would play outside the regular 64-team bracket. The winner would become a No. 16 seed, and the game itself was called a Play-In game.

While the NCAA had a concept, it didn’t have a Play-In site.

“They just didn’t have a place to play those games,” said Gary McCans, now retired from long-time service to the University of Dayton and the UD Arena, where he was arena manager. “Tom Frericks (the late legendary UD athletics director) just said, ‘Give us the game. We’ll take care of it.’”

Northwestern State and Winthrop showed up for that first game, and 6,813 fans followed them through the doors.

It was a stunning turnout, especially since the arena was hosting first and second round games just a few days later, meaning fans had already spent their discretionary funds.

It didn’t matter. Frericks took care of it.

“The NCAA said we could do whatever we wanted,” McCans said. “We sold tickets for $10 and $5 for kids. It was a cheap night and you’d be watching NCAA quality teams.

“Dads took their kids. The people just got behind it. They got to see teams they normally wouldn’t be able to see.”

McCans remembers one side of the arena rooting for one team, the opposite side for the other team.

I remember wondering who these teams were, and where they were from.

But back to those ticket prices.

Ten dollars? Please.

However, I’m going to tell you even with inflation, this year’s tickets are a bargain, ranging from $50 to $130 a seat for all four games over two nights, March 13-14. Call me an elitist, but that’s a bargain.

The Play-In format of one extra game was used 10 years, until 2010, and while none of the winners went on to win the tournament, there were some exciting games played at UD Arena.

Somewhere along the way, the NCAA became involved again, as the event became a money maker. In 2011, the First Four was inaugurated, with eight teams playing four games over two nights. Those aren’t the lowest-seeded teams in the tournament, either, although only one – VCU – made it to the Final Four from Dayton.

Two other memorable moments were achieved when President Barack Obama visited the Arena for games in 2012 with British Prime Minister David Cameron and in 2015 when the UD Flyers used their home court to defeat Boise State by a point.

At some point, just before or just after the advent of the First Four, Del Braund, a sheriff’s deputy (now retired) and an active member of the Shriners, was contacted about his playing the bagpipes for visiting teams.

The story about why the Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau wanted a bagpiper is still a little fuzzy to me, but Jacquelyn Powell of the CVB said the Bureau was serious about providing a unique experience for teams visiting the First Four site, and what could be more unique than bagpipes?

Banjos are so yesterday.

“I’ve played 20 years with the Shriners,” Braund said. “We do funerals, weddings, the National Flight Hall of Fame…all kinds of events.”

He had never been asked to serenade college basketball teams to their hotels prior to NCAA tournament games.

But this is Dayton, birthplace of cash registers and automobile self-starters and serenading college basketball teams with bagpipes to their hotels prior to NCAA tournament games.

“It’s an eye-opener,” Braund said.

Eric Farrell, who runs the First Four event – which involves much more than just the games – says the First Four generates about $4.5 million in positive economic impact to the region and involves Wright Patt Air Force Base, which helps sell some of the tickets, many of which are donated them back for use by service personnel.

“This arena has to be filled,” said Farrell after one of his meetings. “We have to provide a first class experience. When the Play-In games were here in early 2000s, it was able to grow to 9,000 fans. It’s a bigger entity now than it was.”

Dayton has the First Four through 2022 and the NCAA, which was bailed out by Dayton in 2001, now bids the games to the rest of the country. So far, Dayton has kept the event, although other sites have tried to take it away.

Dayton doesn’t want to let go.

“This is the road to the Final Four, and you’re on it,” Powell said. “It starts right here.”

Bagpipes and all.

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Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at

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