In 1977, a spirited man named Bob Rachal became UAA’s head coach, appointed by then Chancellor, John Lindauer. Rachal, with his big personality and big ideas, not only redefined UAA’s current basketball team — from the Sourdoughs to the Seawolves — but also pioneered the future of basketball in Alaska.
Rachal noticed that the NCAA had a regulation stating that any games played outside of the lower-48 would not count towards season records. With this information, he proposed the Seawolf Classic — an event in which Division I schools would be invited to play the UAA Seawolves in Alaska, before (and without penalty) to their regular season. The Division I schools were compensated to play in Alaska and got to play their favorite game in a unique place, while UAA got to host an unprecedented level of basketball in their home and for their fans.
While Rachal left UAA due to a recruiting scandal before the first event, in 1978, his vision came to life. In 1979, Billy Packer, a commentator of the second annual Seawolf Classic, unintentionally renamed the event, coining the term, “The Great Alaska Shootout.” Over the next few years, the Shootout increased in popularity and notoriety, especially with the opening of the new, state of the art, Sullivan Arena in 1983, which could seat nearly 8,000 fans. In 1984, the Shootout turned its first profit and in 1985, ESPN began live broadcasts of the Shootout. College basketball fans all over the lower 48 watched games taking place in Anchorage, Alaska — still an unheard of dynamic today. Many consider this period from the mid 1980’s to the early 2000s to be the Shootout glory days.
“I remember being in awe of players like Ray Allen of UConn and Jeff Capel from Duke and feeling like I was in the presence of royalty when Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Indiana’s Bobby Knight walked onto the floor at Sullivan Arena,” said Mike Tunseth, in a commentary article for the ADN, on his first experiences with the Great Alaska Shootout.
The Shootout was one of the only tournament of its kind and it consistently attracted big name schools in basketball. In 1997, 52,000 people attended the Shootout over its four days — more than 20 percent of Anchorage’s population at the time.
Yet, by the mid 2000s, college basketball had become a big business and the NCAA had approved numerous exempt tournaments, mostly for various charitable causes. It became increasingly difficult to attract the same caliber of ball players. Then, for the 2006-2007 season, the NCAA changed its scheduling rules entirely, furthering competition for the Shootout. In the 2006 season, none of the teams in the Shootout made the NCAA’s Division 1 tournament for the first time in history. In 2007, ESPN stopped airing the Shootout and began hosting its own tournaments. By 2009, only six teams were recruited to play in the tournament, compared to the typical eight.
In 2011, the Alaska state legislature gave UAA athletics a $2 million grant to revamp the once thriving Shootout. This had a lot of Alaskans discussing its relevance — was the Shootout outdated? Was this something that Alaskans supported, personally, let alone financially?
While the answers to these questions remain up in the air, the Great Alaska Shootout is in its 37th year, and it has come to play. The Shootout got a new sponsor in 2014, when GCI replaced the 20-year sponsor, Carrs-Safeway. GCI has expressed their intent to revive the Shootout as a sold out event and a signature of Alaskans’ Thanksgiving weekend, without asking for state funds, and they’re well on their way, particularly with the help of the new Alaska Airlines Center. As the Sullivan Arena once did, the Alaska Airlines Center brings validity to the level of play available in the 49th state.
“[The Alaska Airlines Center] is right up there with the best of them,” Ryan McCarthy, UAA women’s head basketball coach, said. The Great Alaska Shootout has also entered a contract with Basketball Travelers Inc., a leading organizer for domestic and international basketball tournaments.
With all things, the future of The Great Alaska Shootout is unknown. Yet, the Shootout’s history doesn’t only tell of a time when UAA was able to attract high caliber basketball teams because of a fortunate NCAA policy, but it also captures a time when the people of Alaska celebrated and had a lot of fun with basketball in their state. That needn’t change. The men and women seawolf basketball teams play really competitively in their division — the women lead their region in the regular season last year — and the new Alaska Airlines Center is a great place to grab a bite and spend a cold evening inside, cheering with friends and family. Thanksgiving weekend is a great time to be thankful for the legacy of The Great Alaska Shootout and great basketball played by Alaskan student athletes.