NEW ORLEANS -- After slicing through downtown traffic in the type of motorcade a head of state might expect, Geno Auriemma stepped out of Connecticut’s bus, bowed his head to receive a Mardi Gras-style beaded necklace with a Final Four medallion on it and entered the team hotel to the music of a live brass band.
For UConn’s exalted coach, the sights and sounds were happily familiar. Once-battered New Orleans, well on its way to re-establishing itself as one of America’s premier host cities for major events, is home to a women’s Final Four for a record third time -- and Auriemma has been to all three.
"I never get tired of coming down here," said the coach, whose team lost a semifinal game in New Orleans in 1991 and won it all in 2004. "It’s nice to come down here and get tough guys on motorcycles (leading the motorcade), and they get us anywhere we want to go in about three minutes. You can just feel the urgency of it. This city treats events a little bit differently than any other place where they play these games."
The Final Four -- featuring UConn, California, Louisville and Notre Dame -- represents the fourth major college or pro championship hosted by New Orleans in the past 15 months, a time during which city leaders worked to showcase how far New Orleans has come since Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in August 2005.
The hotel serving as NCAA headquarters was the same one famously shown in TV shots with its floor-to-ceiling windows blown out and shredded curtains billowing in the breeze.
It reopened months before the BCS national championship football game played in the Superdome between Alabama and LSU in January 2012. Next came the 2012 men’s Final Four one year ago. The Super Bowl returned to the Big Easy for the first time since 2002 last February, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell left New Orleans making it clear that the league was delighted with the way things went -- despite a half-hour blackout caused by faulty power company equipment outside the Superdome grounds.
Doug Thornton, who manages the state-owned dome and arena for SMG, said officials with the power company Entergy told him the faulty equipment has been deactivated, and he added that the arena receives power from a separate set of "feeder" lines anyway.
The blackout "was pretty innocuous overall," said Jay Cicero, chief of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, which organizes bids for high-profile events like Final Fours and Super Bowls.
Cicero said the NCAA and NFL deserve credit for helping drive New Orleans’ recovery from Katrina by awarding the city events that combined have brought tens of thousands of visitors and hundreds of millions of dollars in spending. The women’s Final Four is expected to bring about 30,000 guests and about $20 million in spending, according to officials with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Yet Cicero stressed that sympathy could not have been the main reason New Orleans landed the events. The people awarding them still had to have faith that the city could pull it off, he said, "or it would have been an embarrassment for everyone."
The city bid on the events around 2008, when considerable rebuilding downtown was underway, including upgrades to the dome and arena, and renovations at some surrounding high-rises.
Since then, a destroyed shopping mall next to the dome has been torn down and transformed into a public plaza hosting pre-game events. Surrounding hotels and office buildings are again occupied.
"We went on a sales mission back in 2008 and 2009 to line up all these events in a shorter time period than we ever have before, and it’s been a tremendous success," Cicero said. "New Orleans has definitely returned to the top tier, if not the best city, to host major sporting events."
New Orleans will host its second NBA All-Star game since Katrina in 2014, and has already announced plans to bid on the 2018 Super Bowl. Cicero said the city plans to bid on another men’s Final Four, women’s Final Four and college football national championship game, all between the years of 2016 and 2020.
All four teams received festive welcomes like the one extended to Connecticut, with everything from beads and brass music to slices of "king cake."
"It would be unbelievable to get to the Final Four no matter where it was held, but I think in particular our entire team has embraced the fact that it’s in an incredible city with so much culture, celebration and things to look forward to," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said Friday.
Each school’s trip from the airport to their downtown hotels on Thursday night included stops at Mardi Gras World, where parade floats are built and stored, for team photos.
Cal center Talia Caldwell took pictures of floats adorned by sculptures of Ray Lewis, Michael Jackson and Jimmy Hendrix. Golden Bears guard Layshia Clarendon said she spent so much time raving about beignets (small, square french doughnuts) that the team’s director of operations added popular French Quarter spot Cafe du Monde to the itinerary.
"Oh my god -- New Orleans -- we’re going to eat so good on this trip," Clarendon said. "I’m excited, because we know we’re going to play hard. The basketball part of it, it’s ingrained, it’s who we are, we’re going to do that, we’re going to take care of it, so we’re really excited to take part in the festivities."