By: S. G. Lacey
For 9 of my most formative years, those just out of college, I participated annually in an adventure which yielded a ton of amazing memories and brought together great friends. This weekend combined two of my favorite events, the honoring of the Irish St. Patrick on March 17th, and the start of the annual NCAA March Madness basketball tournament which conveniently coincides. Of course, there’s no better spot to enjoy either of these engaging activities than Las Vegas, except potentially Dublin, but the basketball game times are all screwed up over there.
Below is a yearly log of this pilgrimage, highlighting the memorable activities and key learnings. I’ve purposely omitted any names in the interest of anonymity, except for direct family who can handle it. The chronological list below represents my best recollection of the 9 years; apologies for any mistakes since these weekends became pretty foggy at times.
Format: Year – March 17th Day Of The Week – NCAA Champion (Seed) – Vegas Hotel – # Of Peeps
2006 – Friday – Florida (#3) – Tropicana – 6
- This was the inaugural crew, 6 of us male engineers from work, all just out of college in the East Coast or Midwest in the past few years, and now living and working together in Southern California. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep and made several errors in judgment throughout the weekend.
- We left for Las Vegas, NV from Huntington Beach, CA in 2 cars after work on Thursday and proceeded to fight through stop and go traffic for 4 hours before I-15 finally opened up after Barstow, CA; we didn’t get into Vegas until just before midnight. Considering we’d spend most of the work day following the NCAA tournament games on our computer terminals, this was the first and last year we departed from LA on Thursday night.
- We had taken one trip to Vegas the previous fall with a similar work crew and crammed 5 peeps into America’s Best Value Inn just off The Strip thinking we would save money. Based on that debacle, the ABVI room wasn’t much larger than the single queen bed which was in it, we decided to do it right for March Madness and stay in a classy hotel on the main drag. We choose the Tropicana, right next to the America’s Best Value Inn and about the same averaged cost, since we had an extra person but still went with one room move, this time making sure it had 2 beds before booking.
- In this era, the Las Vegas Sportsbooks still offered free alcohol, even if you weren’t actively placing wagers, which was an amazing perk. It also let us figure out how the hell the Sportsbooks worked, since besides some online gambling forays and a few random jaunts to Indian casinos in college, we were all newbies. Like most beginners, we tended towards 4+ team parlays with theoretical big payouts. Funny thing is those never hit, and it took us most of the weekend to learn that lesson the hard way.
- This first year, it became abundantly clear that on this weekend you either wear green in honor of the Irish holiday or sported the branded garb of your preferred college; best case was if you were representing a team with green in their logo.
- Speaking of green jerseys, this may have been the inspiration of George Mason’s run to the Sweet Sixteen as a #11 seed. No one in our crew even knew where the university was, but after handily beating the Michigan State Spartans in a colorful uniform display St. Patrick himself would have been proud of, a few of us took George Mason getting points against the heavily favored North Carolina squad on Saturday. We were happily rewarded, not only with winning bets, but also an outright victory for the Patriots from Fairfax, VA.
- Needless to say, there were a lot of learnings from this first year. However, the tradition had now begun and would continue to grow from there.
2007 – Saturday – Florida (#1) – Flamingo – 8
- Anxious to apply our knowledge from the previous year, we got organized earlier and added 2 other work friends to the group. Bringing the total up to 8 peeps was convenient, we still fit in 2 cars, but did bump up to 2 hotel rooms at the more central strip located Flamingo this time with actual beds for everyone if you didn’t mind snuggling with another dude. We compromised at a 1 PM departure time, logging a half day of work since essentially the entire engineering department was now heading to Vegas.
- As we all worked at a golf company and had 2 foursomes, plus plenty of room in the cars, it seemed logical to play a round of golf in Nevada. Using our local sales rep, we secured 2 tee times at 8 AM on Friday morning. Weather in Vegas was quite pleasant in mid-March, not too hot, so we figured what couldn’t go wrong with this plan. We unfortunately forgot that the concept of time doesn’t apply in Vegas, and as Thursday was our first day in town, I don’t think a single one of us got to bed before 3 AM Friday morning. We didn’t get our basketball bets in the night before, then in a haste to get to the course on time we couldn’t stop at the Sportsbook in the morning. By 9:30 AM, when the first hoops games started we were all on our old school cell phones, trying to get score updates and not thinking about golf at all. Eventually we made it back to The Strip around 4 PM, exhausted and made a mental note of another activity to remove from the Irish Madness Vegas itinerary.
- This year I started managing an NCAA bracket with our group for just the 1st weekend, this made it much easier to pay out and root for specific teams. The format was slightly modified from the standard scoring setup, with the seed of each winning pick representing the number of points earned in each of the 32 first weekend games. This encouraged more selection of upsets, since selecting one #13 seed upset correctly was worth more than getting all four of the #4 seeds right.
- This year St. Patrick’s Day was on a Saturday and we got a full taste for how crazy Vegas travelers are. Walking down Las Vegas Boulevard in the late afternoon; it was hard to travel more than a few feet without running into a crew in leprechaun outfits or a group of ladies drinking green slushies out of 3-foot tall plastic yard glasses. I’d severely underestimated the number of foolish people who travel to Vegas to get dressed up in general, and St Patrick’s Day weekend is no exception. Who knew there were so many people with red beards in the US. In addition to the traditional green colorway, there was a ton of orange. Most noticeable among this contingent were the Florida Gator fans who were out in full force, as they currently held both the NCAA basketball and football championship titles, plus came into this year’s hoops tournament as a #1 seed with goofy looking Joakim Noah in tow.
- While Las Vegas didn’t have any professional sports teams at this time, the local residents made up for this void through their spirited support to the local UNLV Running Rebels basketball team. There couldn’t have been a more fitting team name for the city to embrace, but since a stretch of 3 Final Fours in 5 years which ended in 1991, 2007 was only the third time the Running Rebels had made the Big Dance since. UNLV, as a #7 seed, squeaked past #10 seed Georgia Tech by 4 in the opening round, barely covering the spread which had been bid up significantly by overexuberant Las Vegas residents, and setting up a matchup with Wisconsin on Sunday. One of our friends was a Wisconsin graduate, so we teamed up to support him both verbally and financially against the town that was plastered with Running Rebels gear. This turned out to be a poor decision, as UNLV jumped out to a 12-point lead in the first half and never looked back. The locals were ecstatic, and we took this defeat as a sign to pack up our gear and leave town until next year.
- One of the most valuable insights I made this year was that if you had a fixed bankroll it was better to get the sports bets placed early in the morning, as this essentially serves as a bank which holds your money and prevents you from spending it; there were just too many distractions, and ways to lose money quickly in Vegas if you had a full wallet.
- The drive back this second year was especially painful; a combination of the hangover and terrible traffic as everyone seemed to leave town at the same time mid-Sunday afternoon. The miserable slog only took 6 hours, but it felt like 10 behind the wheel, and we had to stop three times for Gatorades and emergency restroom breaks. It was at this early stage in my Vegas career that I made a key decision; I would always volunteer to drive there regardless of who’s car it was, which would conveniently relieve me from having to drive back. Sunday was a key day for March Madness viewing with earlier game schedules and there were always mimosas to be had, then a relaxing seat in the back of the car on the way home.