Jeremy Harmon, Deseret Morning News
Bruce Woodbury shows a vanity plate a friend gave him after the 1979 NCAA Final Four.

Over the years, Salt Lake City has played host to some of the world's biggest sporting events — the 2002 Winter Olympics, a pair of NBA Finals and two ABA championship series.

None, however, have proven to be as long-lasting as the 1979 Final Four, in which Larry Bird and Magic Johnson met for the national championship.

"Historically, it was a bigger deal," said Bruce Woodbury, community relations director for the University of Utah athletic department. "I think it kind of stands out because it kind of jump-started the Final Four."

Television ratings reached an all-time high, hitting a mark that still stands.

"That kind of put the Final Four on the map and made it a huge event like the Super Bowl or the World Series," said Woodbury, who served as local media coordinator for the Final Four.

And the best part, he added, is that it took place at the Special Events (now Huntsman) Center.

"I was in the middle of the biggest sporting event that took place in the country that week," Woodbury said. "It was pretty cool."

So much so, in fact, that it still overshadows experiences he had working the NBA Finals and the Olympics. It allowed Woodbury to meet people who became good contacts for his duties as Utah's sports information director.

Ned Alger, the tournament manager that year, said playing host to the Final Four was rewarding for all involved. Though he recalls spending a lot of time in his office poring over details, the challenging task was still fun.

"I think my fond memory is we ran a successful tournament," Alger said. "The NCAA Final Four, I think, is the best amateur sporting event in the world."

The retired Utah athletic official praised the NCAA and the organized manner in which it conducts its men's basketball tournament. He also credited the university and city communities for making 1979 such a success.

It didn't hurt having Bird and Magic participate, either.

"They put the Final Four on the map, and they put the NBA on the map," Woodbury said. "They were special players, and we were just lucky that they happened to be here."

The same can be said of the tournament finale as well. Though Utah regularly is host to the first two rounds — the next time in 2006 — the Huntsman Center is simply not big enough to ever house another Final Four. Domes have taken over, and policy now dictates larger venues.

Even media coverage has grown. Woodbury said approximately 500 press passes were issued in 1979, a figure that now exceeds 1,000. That alone would preclude arenas like the Huntsman Center and The Pit in Albuquerque from ever hosting again. Too bad, Woodbury explained, because a campus environment only enhances the Final Four. He points out that 1979 in Salt Lake and 1983 in New Mexico are generally regarded as the best tournaments in history.

Each has withstood the test of time, which has passed quickly.

"It seems like yesterday looking back at it," Woodbury said. "It's just one of those deals where you just go 'Wow, has it been that long?' "

Though no permanent tribute to the 1979 Final Four exists on campus, Woodbury's office contains some reminders. A friend, Ute fan Marv Kirkham, gave him a personalized license plate, "NCAA 79," that he had framed. It hangs above the desk in his Huntsman Center office, where he keeps a file of notes, pictures and media guides from the gathering.

"The atmosphere was just cool," he said.


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