Final March Madness Alaska for its architect

Beth Bragg
Erik Hill

Here's a March Madness guarantee: The boss of Alaska high school athletics will go out with a bang Saturday.

OK, we need to hedge. Gary Matthews' last day on the job isn't until July 2. But Saturday marks the final day of March Madness Alaska, the week-long basketball palooza at Sullivan Arena that is one of Matthews' crowning achievements in 21 years as executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association.

The 80-team, 118-game tournament is ASAA's showcase event, so it puts Matthews in the spotlight. He's the guy who hands out the big trophies on championship nights, but the task that really makes him the center of attention is when, during halftime of most games, Matthews shoulders an air-powered cannon and fires souvenir T-shirts into the bleachers, a loud boom punctuating each launching.

Being the head of ASAA isn't all fun and T-shirt guns, though. There are landmines to negotiate, even during March Madness when Matthews is able to rest assured that, because of a couple of hundred volunteers, things will run like clockwork (until double-overtime in the 3:30 p.m. game throws the rest of the day off-schedule).

"It seems like we've had a couple of crises," Matthews said during the Friday afternoon session at Sullivan Arena. "We had a couple of coaches who wanted to fight each other after a game." No big surprise, he added -- "There's been bad blood between those two teams all year."

Earlier in the tournament, "we had problems with rosters that could have resulted in a double forfeit but we were able to resolve it without such a drastic result," Matthews said. The problem arose during a first-round game, when scorekeepers noticed that both teams had players who weren't listed on the official team rosters.

Roster violations can lead to a forfeit, but a double forfeit would have turned the bracket into a six-team tournament, meaning two teams would have received byes into the semifinals. Matthews and others consulted ASAA's rules and policies and found a solution that allowed the game to continue and the bracket to remain intact. Each school received a warning, and the game went on.

Matthews said he faces "a surprising amount" of dilemmas like that. Some are big, some aren't. Some, like the eligibility issue over a home-schooled football player that cost Chugiak High a playoff spot a few years ago, are wildly controversial and lead to significant statewide change. Because of the Chugiak situation, ASAA now has policies in place that govern eligibility for home-schoolers who want to participate in ASAA-sanctioned high school activities.

Landmines like that, and the ever-changing landscape of Alaska high school sports, keeps Matthews, who turns 70 in May, interested in a job he has had since 1993.

Matthews took the ASAA job after 25 years in Haines, 11 as a music teacher and 14 as the principal. Before Alaska, he spent two years teaching in Pennsylvania. Each time he changed jobs, it was because he was hungry for a new challenge, he said.

"I've never felt that in this job, because every year new things, new challenges, come up," Matthews said. "I've never felt like I'm on cruise-control, where I feel like we've really got it figured out, because we don't."

When the state legislature passed a concussion law a few years ago that mandates baseline testing and establishes a protocol for how a concussed athlete can return to play, school districts turned to ASAA to work out the details, including how to pay for the unfunded mandates like training and testing. When Alaska's small schools applied pressure to get three-man officiating crews for this year's state tournament games, just like the big schools do, ASAA found $20,000 to pay for the extra referees and had a video made to show them the mechanics of working with three officials on the floor, since the concept is new to most of the refs from rural Alaska. When the governor started the Choose Respect campaign, ASAA started a Boys to Men program, preaching many of the same ideas.

Other entities provide some of the same things as ASAA, Matthews said, like the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA. "But we have such a broader reach," he said. "There are 30,000 kids in high school activities."

Matthews likes March Madness Alaska because it highlights the Xs and Os of high school sports while also celebrating the state's culture. His dream was to put all four classifications in a single place in the same week and turn it into a week-long happening. Basketball is religion in parts of Alaska, especially rural Alaska, and Matthews wants the players from Scammon Bay or Selawik or Shishmaref to be wowed when they came to Anchorage for the state tournament.

"We want this to be the best experience they've ever had," he said.

Next year, March Madness will remain a week-long affair but the Class 1A and Class 2A tournaments will be played at UAA's gleaming new Alaska Airlines Center, Matthews said. The Class 4A and 3A tournaments will remain at Sullivan for at least another year, maybe longer, he said.

Matthews will be a mere spectator at those tournaments -- although if pressed, he would almost assuredly lend a hand by picking up the T-shirt cannon and blasting away during halftime.

Matthews received a touching and unexpected farewell Wednesday night at the awards ceremony following the last of four straight small-school state championship games. The parade of athletes had just finished and hundreds of players, cheerleaders and coaches were sitting on the arena floor when Point Hope coach Ramona Rock rose to her feet and began a chant that quickly filled the arena.

"Way to go Gary, way to go. Way to go Gary, way to go."

"I was shocked," Matthews said. "I had no idea anything like that would ever happen to me. All I ever did, I did for the job, and hopefully that has been the right thing."

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.