Mark Womack’s official academic record indicates he has a Bachelors’ degree in Communication from the University of Alabama that he earned in 1978.
His unofficial academic background includes a PhD in Crisis Management, something earned in 30-plus years working for the Southeastern Conference, most of them as executive associate commissioner as the right-hand man of the league commissioner.
Over the years, Womack has navigated sticky situations while the Commissioner Du Jour was disposed at the moment.
Like at the 1992 men’s basketball tournament in Birmingham when Tennessee’s Carlus Groves and LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal got into a WWE wrestling match, with Tigers’ coach Dale Brown attempting to be O’Neal’s tag team partner.
Afterward, Brown was incensed that because O’Neal had been ejected from the game like Groves, O’Neal would miss LSU’s semifinal the next day against Kentucky. When Brown threatened to boycott, Womack had to track down SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, who was in Indianapolis as the chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee, and get both parties on the phone.
There was early 1994 when an enterprising reporter from Memphis (yes, it’s me, guilty as charged) had solid sources telling him the SEC was moving its championship football game site from Birmingham to Atlanta.
When I broke the story, Kramer happened to be in Norway at the Winter Olympics in as guest of CBS, the SEC-TV partner.
Guess who had to call Kramer to come home? And guess who had to deal with angry Birmingham city officials until the cavalry arrived back in Birmingham from the Olympics?
Sorry, Wo Wo. And by the way, I’m still not telling you the sources for that story.
But an incensed basketball coach and a news-busting writer paled in comparison to the crisis Womack had to handle at the 2008 SEC men’s basketball tournament. That’s when a tornado struck the Georgia Dome during second-round play, forcing the tourney to move overnight to Georgia Tech so it could finish play.
When the Georgia Dome roof got raised by Mother Nature, it just so happened SEC commissioner Mike Slive, like Kramer many years ago, was in Indianapolis as part of the NCAA tourney selection committee. Womack was left dealing with the greatest catastrophe of his career.
“I don’t why it keeps happening like that when the Commissioner is out of town,” says the good-natured Womack, respected nationally as one of the top conference administrators in college sports.
You’d think one of the years that Womack could get some payback by being out of pocket during crunch time, free from an impending havoc. But that’s not his makeup.
So this week, when he steps into the Georgia Dome for the first SEC men’s tournament in the place since The Great Tornado Invitational of ’08, Womack, Slive, the rest of the SEC staff and the Georgia Dome may pause for a moment to reflect on the most unpredictable weekend of their careers.
“I always believe character is reflected how people handle a crisis, having grace under pressure and that’s what my staff demonstrated that night,” Slive says. “And we all should be lucky to have Mark Womack at the helm when those situations arise.”
The tournament had been held eight previous times in the Georgia Dome before ’08. The tourney operation progressed into a well-oiled machine, so much so that for the ’08 tourney, Georgia Dome general manager Ron Adkins felt comfortable enough to take a side trip on Friday, the tournament’s second day.
He felt the timing was right to fly to Charlotte for the day where the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament was being staged. The Georgia Dome had the bid for the ’09 ACC tourney, so Adkins figured a full 9 to 5 outing in Charlotte on a logistics mission, talking to ACC officials, was a good primer for hosting the league the next season.
Adkins’ return flight was delayed and he didn’t land in Atlanta until 9 p.m. But once on the ground, he got in his car and headed straight to the Dome while listening to the Alabama-Mississippi State game in progress. He called his wife to let her know he had landed and was heading to the office for the last 1 ½ games of day.
“She said, `I can’t believe you landed, there’s been severe thunderstorm warnings and lightning all night,’ ” Adkins recalls.
Once at the Dome, Adkins did something he usually never has a chance to do.
“I’m always inside the building while an event is going on, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to go check all the parking lots, see if the off-duty police officers are working the way they’re supposed to,” Adkins says. “I was just driving around and about to pull in the parking deck when I heard about a tornado warning on the radio.
“I immediately phoned our staff to make sure the SEC knew there was a tornado warning in the area, and to make sure we had our command area set up.
“I got in the building and walked in my office, turned on my walkie-talkie, flipped on TV to The Weather Channel.
“And right then, we got hit.”
They say if you’ve never been near a tornado, it sounds like a train.
“It did sound like a train,” says Mark Gottfried, Alabama’s coach that night and now an ESPN/SEC-TV analyst. “I didn’t know was going on.”
You couldn’t blame Gottfried for being oblivious. He was knee-deep into his game with Mississippi State, a contest Alabama needed to win. The Crimson Tide was just 17-15 overall heading into the night, and it needed a couple of wins in the tourney just to get a NIT bid.
But despite losing twice to State in the regular season, Gottfried felt good about his team’s chances against State. For the first time all season, Alabama was entering a game with two consecutive SEC victories, thanks to sweet-shooting senior forward Mykal Riley, who was on an incredible shooting roll.
The previous week in the last home game of his Alabama career against a 25-win Vanderbilt team ranked No. 16, Riley’s boneheaded foul on Vandy center A.J. Ogilvy started a three-point play with 21 seconds left that sent the game to overtime.
“Just a stupid play,” Riley would say later.
And then he went and did something about it. In what still may be the greatest individual overtime performance in Alabama history, he scored the Tide’s first 13 points in the extra period, hitting 4-of-4 field goals including three three’s. In those five minutes, he also hit 2-of-3 free throws and grabbed three rebounds, to finish with 26 points and 10 rebounds in a 78-73 Alabama victory.
"You've got to give him credit,” Vanderbilt forward Ross Neltner said of Riley. “He's got one of the purest strokes in the league. We got to see it tonight."
So did Florida the next week in the first round of the SEC tournament. The two-time defending national champion Gators, with a mostly rebuilt team, got blitzed by Alabama, 80-69, and a major reason was Riley.
He sautéed the Gators by hitting 8-of-9 threes, which remains tied as the most threes in a SEC tourney game. He finished with 26 points and Alabama moved on to a second round game against Western Division champ Mississippi State, which had a first-round bye.
The second round game between the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide tipped off that Friday night at 7:38, before a crowd of 14,825.
At 7:48, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the Atlanta metro area, citing possible frequent lightning strikes, wind gusts to 45 miles per hour.
Inside the Georgia Dome, the crowd was oblivious to the approaching weather. They were too invested in a game that rocked back and forth.
Alabama’s 36-29 halftime lead eventually dissolved. Riley found it tough to separate himself from State sophomore guard Ben Hansbrough, the younger brother of North Carolina star Tyler Hansbrough, who was college basketball’s Player of the Year that season.
Ben, a 6-3 guard, had a totally different physical makeup than Tyler, a 6-9 center. But that possessed one similar trait – they never back down from anybody.
Even with the height disadvantage against the 6-6 Riley, Hansbrough clearly had Riley rattled. He shot a three-point airball, a stunning rarity for him. He blew a layup, committed a couple of turnovers, then watched Hansbrough nail a three-pointer to give State a 54-52 lead.
The Bulldogs were ahead 59-56 and could have clinched the game on the second of two Barry Stewart free throws. But he missed, Alabama rebounded and Tide point guard Brandon Hollinger raced into the frontcourt looking for the game-tying shot. Stewart tracked him down and knocked Hollinger’s dribble out-of-bounds with seven seconds left.
With the ball on Alabama’s half of the court to be inbounded in front of the press table, Gottfried called time. He diagramed the play – Riley running off a screen and shooting a game-tying three-pointer – that State coach Rick Stansbury already knew was coming.
So Stansbury gave strict orders to Hansbrough to foul Riley as he soon as he caught the ball before the shot.
If Hansbrough did that, Riley would be awarded just two free throws (Alabama was in the two-shot bonus) and not three.
Alabama’s Demetrius Jemison, the inbounds passer, slapped the ball to start the play. Riley slithered off a screen, tightroping the baseline coming right to left. Hansbrough was a step behind, so Riley had enough space to catch Johnson’s perfect pass, turn, set his feet and fire a three-pointer that rattled in, then out, then back in as the buzzer sounded announcing a 59-59 tie and overtime.
In front of the State bench, Stansbury started stomping around like a man trying to kill a red ant bed. He was disgusted, frustrated and aggravated that Hansbrough didn’t foul as instructed.
It’s now 9:30 p.m. as the teams huddle to plot the extra five minutes. But outside the Dome, the weather is getting nasty. A tornado hook five miles from the Georgia Dome has been spotted on radar.
The teams play on. State is leading 64-61 and Alabama has the ball with a foul just whistled. Riley and Hansbrough are away from the side of the ball, so Hansbrough’s hand is casually pressed against Riley to maintain defensive contact. Both players are standing almost straight up, trying to catch a breather after a long game.
At that very moment, at 9:39 p.m., as Georgia Dome security guard Jerry Mincy said later, a tornado with winds of 120 miles per hour dips from the clouds, skims along the west side roof of the Dome and then directly hits the World Congress Center, blowing out over 400 panels of glass and causing $57 million of damage.
“It came from nowhere,” said Mincy, who was in the process of parking his car outside along Northside Drive.
Inside the Dome, there’s that train roar Gottfried has never forgotten. Suddenly, anything hanging above the stands and court is swaying. Tiny wisps of insulation float through the air, falling like a dusting of snow.
“I think that’s a tornado,” Hansbrough says to Riley, still casually guarding him.
“I think you’re right,” Riley says.
Like everyone else in the building, they glance at the roof, see the gash revealing the night sky and flashing lightning.
The game clock stops with 2:12 left in overtime, many fans sprint toward exits and both teams scurry to the dressing rooms. There, they get on their cell phones and frantically try to call their parents who had been in the stands.
“I got a text message to my Dad,” Alabama center Richard Hendrix said later. “He said everybody was all right and just concentrate on the game.”
As Hansbrough ran off the floor, he stopped to look for his father in the stands.
“My Dad just had surgery, so I was ready to go up in the stands, put him on my back to get him out of here,” Hansbrough said.
Earlier this week as State’s Stansbury prepared his current ’10-’11 team for this week’s trip to Atlanta where they have a bye into Friday’s second round, he recalled the moment the tornado struck the Dome. He admitted he was in a bit of a fog at the time, totally into coaching a tight game.
“I was so focused, I was one of the last people who knew what was going on,” Stansbury says. “What got my attention were people in the crowd running up the steps. Then, I saw the JumboTron swaying and the stuff falling from the ceiling. I looked at my players and they are all looking up.
“When everybody started running off the floor, I turned around in the stands to look for my wife and three boys. I forgot two of them had been sitting at the end of our bench, and they were already back in the locker room.
“I didn’t know what it was, an airplane, or a tornado (that had hit the roof).”
Adkins ran out of his Georgia Dome office, sprinted up to the club level and saw his staff moving fans away from shattered glass.
“I looked outside and saw stuff flying,” Adkins says.
Meanwhile in Indianapolis, the NCAA selection committee had ended its discussions for the day. SEC commissioner Mike Slive and some other committee members were still parked behind closed doors watching a bank of TV sets tuned to different conference tournaments.
“Our (the Alabama-State) game was on the TV set on the far left,” Slive remembers. “All of a sudden, someone in the room, who’s watching our game, says, `What’s that?’
“I looked over and the TV cameras began to show something on the (Georgia Dome) ceiling, but you couldn’t tell what it was. Then, the commentators (Tim Brando and Joe Dean Jr.) started to fill in the blanks and we realized what was going on.”
About that time, Slive’s phone was ringing. It was Womack, internally maybe a bit stunned – “It was the first time a tornado had ever hit downtown Atlanta,” he says” – but outwardly calmly handling a crisis for which there was no precedent.
It was 10:30 before both teams returned to the floor for a 10-minute warmup period to finish the game.
“I just know we stayed in the locker room for almost an hour to try and figure out if we were going to play the rest of the game,” Stansbury says. “When we did start play, I thought our team came out of the locker room the most focused.”
State closed out a 69-67 victory as one last Riley three-pointer rattled out at the buzzer – “I thought it was going down and we would be playing tomorrow,” Gottfried said afterward – as the Bulldogs were eager to get back to their hotel.
“Seeing stuff fall from the roof really scared me,” State forward Charles Rhodes said. “The last time I was that scared, a bat was in our gym.”
Once the game ended, Kentucky and Georgia, dressed and standing in the hallway ready to play the fourth and final game of the night, were told it wasn’t going to happen. Another line of severe storms was about to move through the area.
Meanwhile, when the crowd was finally able to exit, they were greeted with a real-live disaster movie set with wailing sirens, shattered glass and twisted metal everywhere. There was a reported $150 million damage in the downtown area.
SEC officials, led by Womack, Mark Whitworth, Craig Mattox and Charles Bloom – all long-time staff members and Slive’s chief advisors and sounding board, began huddling with Adkins and the athletic directors of the remaining teams in the tourney.
They had consider their options on how and where to play the final five games of the tourney, and what would happen with the league’s NCAA tourney bids if the SEC tournament couldn’t be completed.
Meanwhile, it dawned on the media during the postgame State-Alabama press conference that the hero of the evening was Riley. He was named to the all-tourney team in what was the last game of his career since the Tide didn’t get a NCAA or NIT invite.
The rationale was simple. If Riley, who now plays professionally in France, doesn’t hit the three-point shot to send the game to overtime, a sizeable portion of the crowd of almost 15,000 is headed out the door about the time the tornado struck.
“We were talking about it in the locker room during the delay," Riley told the Associated Press the day after the tornado. "I think it was Brandon Hollinger who brought it up, and he and Ron Steele were saying that if we weren't in overtime, some people could be dead or injured and then everybody in the locker room started talking about it.
“I've been thinking about it ever since. I couldn't sleep last night because I kept thinking about it. A lot of people could be dead if that hadn't happened.
“I believe it was God. I keep thinking about how the ball just rolled in. It was supposed to happen so that no one would be hurt. I believe God had His
hand in that to protect the people who were in the Dome.”
At about 5 o’clock Saturday morning, the meeting headed by Womack adjourned and a plan was in place. The tourney would be finished nearby at Georgia Tech, but concessions would have to be made.
The first was Kentucky and Georgia, the last game on Friday that never got played, would tip off at 12 noon. The winner would have to play again in the 7:30 p.m semifinal game, in order to stay on schedule and assure Sunday afternoon’s championship game would finish as scheduled before the NCAA tourney selection committee announced its brackets.
Georgia coach Dennis Felton was happy about the arrangement, but his tune would soon change.
The other problem that had to be rectified was figuring out who will be allowed to watch the final four games of the tourney, since Tech’s old-school arena only seated a cozy 9,181 fans compared to the Georgia Dome’s 27,000-seat tourney configuration.
“We decided family, friends, media and anybody who had a tournament credential would only be allowed in, and we gave each school 400 admissions,” recalls Womack, as the SEC established a refund policy for fans who weren’t allowed in for the remainder of the tournament.
Womack says the league probably lost close to $1.5 million because of the tornado. The Georgia Dome, says Adkins, sustained about $1.8 million in damages, though the hole ripped in the roof fortunately was located near some of interior renovations that had just been started in the upper level.
By the time Kentucky and Georgia took the floor, Womack, who still hadn’t slept, settled in briefly to some courtside seats in the most intimate setting ever for an SEC tourney.
“Since this is the 75th anniversary of our league, we figured we come over to Georgia Tech and invite one of our original members back in the league,” Womack said with a laugh.
It was a well-deserved moment of levity. Because soon after the buzzer sounded Sunday afternoon announcing East Division No. 6 seed Georgia’s startling 66-57 tourney finals victory over No. 2 West seed Arkansas before a private showing of 3,700 fans, Womack walked out into Georgia sunshine, inexhaled deep and exhaled deeper.
Only as a few weeks passed did Womack realize what he and the SEC staff had pulled off, with the help of so many others like Adkins and his Georgia Dome staff, and the Georgia Tech administration.
“You hope you never have to go through that again,” Womack says, “but outstanding work was done by a lof of people in a short period of time for a remarkable turnaround to get the event play. A lot of us ran on adrenaline. You’re making decisions to get through on a day-to-day basis.
“It was a couple of weeks later when some of our staff was at the Final Four and colleagues complimented us how our staff handled the situation. When you look back, there’s a sense of accomplishment of making the best of a terrible situation. We did our job.”
Though it was ironic that severe storms pelted the Atlanta area on Wednesday with a tornado warning issue, Womack is optimistic that this week he won’t have to follow the crisis management procedure he basically created in case of catastrophic event.
Most of the players and coaches involved that wild March 14, 2008, night have moved on, which is the nature of sports. There’s always the next game, the next season, maybe even the next career.
As for Adkins, the memory of that wildest Friday night of his life isn’t far away. All he has to do is look at a 20-to-30 foot fabric panel where the tornado ripped it from where it attaches to the base.
“That’s the piece we replaced and the only reason I know that is it’s whiter than the rest of the roof, because it’s newer,” says Adkins, who recalls proudly the Dome was ready for its first post-tornado event nine days after Mr. Twister tried to gatecrash the SEC tourney.
“That was quite a night.
Quite a night managed by remarkable people.