It was only a slight bit of hyperbole from a coach who is finding the Huntsville area fertile ground for recruiting and wants to be as flattering as possible.
“A big-time city that loves its hoops,” said Mercer coach Bob Hoffman late Tuesday night after the second annual Rocket City Classic.
That’s exactly how it felt inside Von Braun Center’s sold-out Propst Arena for a basketball doubleheader in which UAH comfortably defeated Shorter and Alabama – gulp! – survived a Mercer buzzer-beater attempt for an 80-79 victory.
The third annual is what is on our minds and certainly on the city’s mind.”
But, said Mark Whitworth, the chief operating officer of the promotional company Knight Eady, “Huntsville was the big winner.”
Make this bet: Huntsville will win again next December.
Whitworth told City Blog that “absolutely, that’s the goal” to return the Rocket City Classic for a third year.
“There may be the opportunity to bring in some other teams, but the third annual is what is on our minds and certainly on the city’s mind,” Whitworth said.
“Huntsville has demonstrated that last year was something we could build on. It wasn’t a one-time event. This is something that Huntsville enjoys and wants to be part of its holiday season and sports calendar.”
The Rocket City Classic was a sell-out for the second year in a row and the Alabama-Mercer game was televised live on the SEC Network, which has national reach.
The network did a nice job of broadcasting some “local color,” including footage of a visit to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center by the Alabama and UAH players on Monday.
“There’s nothing about this event I don’t like,” said SEC Network analyst Mark Wise. “We’ve got a packed arena in a Christmas type game, great atmosphere. This is a win-win for everybody. The city of Huntsville, Alabama basketball (and) basketball in the state of Alabama.”
UAH basketball enjoys exposure
It was a win for UAH on a larger-than-typical stage, exposing the Chargers to some potential new fans. As coach Lennie Acuff said, “A lot of people had never seen us, but they’re going to see Alabama if they’re playing on Mars.”
UAH has reached the NCAA Division II Sweet 16 five of the last seven seasons and made 10 NCAA appearances in Acuff’s previous 19 seasons, during which he has been chosen eight times as the Gulf South Conference Coach of the Year.
“I appreciate the energy and the interest this (doubleheader) brought,” Acuff said. “For us to be invited to be part of it was an honor, and I think we brought something to the table.”
“For us to expose the program Avery is trying to build and what Lennie has built, we’re hearing across the state that Huntsville is a great destination for college basketball,” Whitworth said.
“This is the reason why we wanted to come to Huntsville,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “We wouldn’t have won this game under other circumstances … You cheered us on. You motivated us. Thank you Huntsville, thank you for all the people that worked to put this on behind the scenes.”
“I want to thank Mark Whitworth and (Huntsville City Council President) Mark Russell,” Acuff said. “We’re fortunate they’ve made an investment in our town.”
There were numerous local sponsors involved, including presenting sponsor Huntsville International Airport.
Huntsville Sports Commission gets a boost
The primary point-of-contact group with which the Birmingham-based Knight Eady worked is the Huntsville Sports Commission. Though primarily charged with attracting participatory sports to the city that boost the economy, the Sports Commission was on the ground floor with Knight Eady at the inception of this event in 2016.
This week, Knight Eady announced two future deals with the Huntsville Sports Commission.
— “Elevate The Stage,” an elaborate gymnastics competition, will be held at the Von Braun Center March 9-12 and hosted by the Sports Commission. It will feature a meet between Alabama and Auburn’s national powerhouse gymnastics team and a Junior Olympics meet that is expected to bring 1,000 competitors.
— Knight Eady will assist on a strategic plan that HSC executive director Ralph Stone says will elevate the city’s status in the sports community and enable Huntsville to attract even larger sporting events.