SAN ANTONIO – As a live band played country covers and NCAA officials ate fresh masa cakes and queso, someone across the room caught Cydni Bickerstaff’s attention.
“Look, it’s my warehouse guy,” Bickerstaff declared excitedly as she waved, then made her way across the room.
While others might focus on the Final Four festivities, Bickerstaff is looking well beyond this weekend.
Bickerstaff is the high-energy operations chief for the Minneapolis organizing committee in charge of bringing March Madness to U.S. Bank Stadium in 2019. She’s part of the Twin Cities contingent in Texas this weekend watching and learning one last time before creating their own version of the event that is both the zenith and finale of the NCAA Division 1 college basketball season.
The “warehouse guy” is an NCAA official with whom Bickerstaff is working to find and coordinate storage space. Lots of space and coordination is needed when there are four basketball teams with their coaching staffs, plus media, pep bands, fans attending games, concerts and festivals.
In San Antonio’s Alamodome, Michigan will play Loyola-Chicago at 5:09 p.m. Saturday followed by Kansas and Villanova. The championship game is Monday at 8:19 p.m.
Bickerstaff, 49, has been here since Tuesday. By late Thursday, the days and hours had blurred together as she darted from meetings and backstage tours to nightly events.
Local organizing committee CEO Kate Mortenson said Bickerstaff has “deep expertise in the detailed logistical planning necessary for an event of this magnitude. She has a lot of credibility in the sport of basketball — it’s second nature to her.”
Bickerstaff describes her work as creating the backbone of the house, collecting the pieces so the house can be built. She wants to know how they store and move both people and equipment.
She looks at things most don’t notice if they’re working well: street closures and traffic flow, for example. She goes to the places fans won’t see: the private lounges for the teams in their hotels, where players can relax away from their fans.
When she visits the fan festival at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, she wants to know where the power sources are, how they get water into the building, where they park the trucks.
She joined the Twin Cities organization a year ago, attending the Final Four in 2017 in Phoenix as well. She went to San Antonio in November for early meetings to find out “what are they talking about in November” and to “see the empty shell” of the event. “For an operations person, you want to see things from the beginning,” she said.
On Wednesday night, she watched the fiesta-themed private arrival celebrations for Loyola and Kansas. She’s seen the setup for the outdoor music festival hosted by the NCAA for some 100,000 fans. The Twin Cities will have a similar event — location to be determined.
A career behind the scenes
Bickerstaff moved her family — husband and two young daughters — from the Washington, D.C., area for the 30-month job because the Final Four had always been on her bucket list, she said.
Her name is probably familiar to basketball fans. Her dad is Bernie Bickerstaff, now a senior adviser to the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Her younger brother is J.B. Bickerstaff, who played for the Gophers from 1999-2001. He’s now the interim head coach for the Memphis Grizzlies.
While her family members prowl prominently courtside, she’s spent a career behind the scenes, most recently teaching and advising at George Washington University. A big chunk of her career — 12 years — was spent in Louisiana planning the storied Bayou Classic football game between Grambling State and Southern University at New Orleans’ Superdome. The event is often described as a mini-Mardi Gras.
Bickerstaff was in charge when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, ravaging the city and heavily damaging the Superdome. In the ultimate challenge to her planning, she had a month to coordinate moving the event to Houston. How did she do it?
“You prepare a plan, you prepare a contingency plan and a contingency and a contingency,” she said.
In the Twin Cities, she’s got many partners and lots of help. The Final Four is a coordinated effort by the University of Minnesota, Meet Minneapolis, the city’s convention bureau and the organizing committee.
Bickerstaff’s vision for the event is to make visitors say, “Wow!” Then, “I want at the end of it all for the NCAA to look at Minneapolis and say, ‘We’ll be back,’ ” she said.