Cultivating a tradition in South Bend

Molly Grace

I’ve been lucky enough to travel some pretty great distances to watch our men’s basketball team play. Besides making multiple road trips to Madison Square Garden to see games against St. John’s and Big East tournament contests, most of my plane ticket purchases have been made at the expense of my addiction to Villanova basketball.

Jan. 2, 2004: I flew into Kansas City, Mo., and drove for an hour with my dad and my sisters through the boring Midwestern plains until we arrived in the small town of Lawrence, Kan., for a showdown with the Jayhawks.

March 19, 2005: After my own lacrosse game made me miss the NCAA tournament first-round game vs. New Mexico, I hopped in my car, drove home to Baltimore, picked up my sisters, and jumped on a plane to Nashville, Tenn., to watch the boys pull an upset against the fourth-seeded Florida Gators.

Jan., 14, 2006: After leaving my house at 5:30 a.m. to catch a 7:35 flight to Austin, Tex., I got a whirlwind tour of the city on my way to the game’s noon tip-off before sitting in the Austin airport until my 8 p.m. flight back home.

This past weekend, I nixed the plane idea and joined about 40 members of the Basketball Club on a three-day road trip (11 hours each way!) to South Bend, Indiana to watch our boys pull off a tough win in front of a packed, rambunctious crowd in bright green.

It’s just this packed, rambunctious crowd in bright green – rather, the packed, rambunctious crowds in each of the four venues listed above – that I would like to call to your attention. I have to admit that in each occasion I was awed by the fan support that the home crowds emitted, enveloping their boys in a deafening cloud of encouragement that made me feel squeamish in my seat. I can honestly say that I have never felt more like an unwelcome outsider as I did in these gyms…and while I was thoroughly annoyed and ticked off by their cheers, I know that my discomfort was precisely the point of the fans’ boisterousness. For their ability to produce this effect through their imposing sense of unity – and therefore accomplishing their goal as the unofficial “sixth man” – I have to give them respect.

My long journeys back from these destinations have given me ample time to wonder how a school goes about creating this sort of intimidating atmosphere, while simultaneously trying to figure out why our games in the Pavilion and in the Wachovia Center – although they have been better this season – don’t generate the same level of energy from the stands.

For one thing, each of the schools I mentioned has a distinctive color that the crowd – students, alumni, and fans alike – uniformly dress themselves in, exploiting the aesthetical hue to form a wall of team spirit. Not that I have a problem with navy blue. My problem lies with the fact that too many fans – including a fair number of students – are content to wear any outfit or color to the game. While a plain navy blue shirt is a step up, let’s be honest – navy blue just doesn’t “pop” out in the stands like the orange of Florida, the bright blue of Kansas, or the burnt orange of Texas. While I don’t think that we should replace the navy blue with another color like Notre Dame does – although the idea to give the students “Irish” green shirts with the moniker “Leprechaun Legion” was ingenious in my opinion – I think the solution is to encourage a 100 percent fan commitment to the navy blue “V shirt.” Think of how intimidating it would be for an opposing player to look up from the court and realize that he was entirely surrounded by a sea of “V’s.”

It’s not just the colors. Each of these venues had an array of cheers and chants that the 10,000 plus capacity crowds knew and participated in. Kansas was the most disturbing; I felt like I was witnessing a cultish ritual. Before the game, the whole crowd stood and followed the cheerleaders at center court in paying homage to their mascot “Rock Chalk” while chanting the words “Rock Chalk Jay Hawk K-U” in a Gregorian-style chant that is now celebrated on a ESPN commercial I saw last week.

Even at Nashville, the Florida Gator cheerleaders tried their best to turn the neutral site into a home court advantaging, getting their entire orange-clad crowd to participate in the Gator clap. By using their arms to imitate the smacking jaws of an alligator as it comes down on its prey, the Florida fans had a ritualized way of turning time-outs into energy-producing sessions that revitalized their team on the court.

Texas? Well Texas was all riled up. After the national anthem, the entire stadium stood with their hands arranged in the “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign and sang the words of their alma mater – “The Eyes of Texas” – to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” If that wasn’t enough, they all then proceeded to belt out the faster fight song “Texas Fight,” which is set to the military tune of “Taps.” When the Longhorn’s center Brad Buckman remained motionless on the floor after a hard hit, the crowd stood with their arms again extended in the “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign until he walked off the floor and into the locker room to be examined.

And it was impressive to see how instantaneously the green Notre Dame crowd jumped up at the first notes of the fight song (think “Rudy”) and how they erupted in cheers every time the “Leprechaun Legion” periodically linked arms to do an Irish jig throughout the game. While the Notre Dame players undoubtedly fed on the energy created by their fans to make their impressive come-from-behind run, it made me writhe in disgust, while at the same time I thought – in awe – why can’t we do something cool like this?

I don’t want to criticize our support base. I’ve been obsessed with Villanova basketball for the past six years, and it’s wonderful to finally see standing room only at the Pavilion, to have to squeeze into the student section aisles as I did at the LaSalle game over Christmas break, and to have to search very hard to find an empty seat even in the upper deck of the Wachovia Center. I was pleasantly shocked to see that about 1,000 Villanovans made the trek out to the Texas game, and that our bus wasn’t the only mode of transportation out to South Bend.

I just think that we can be a little more united and creative in the way we demonstrate our solidarity. I know that the schools mentioned above are steeped in a sporting tradition that gains additional support from rich football programs. We, by comparison, can still be considered babies on the national stage, having only landed ourselves on the basketball map with our 1985 “Cinderella” run to the National Championship.

But then think of the awesome opportunity this offers us as current Villanovans: to start cultivating a rich tradition that will not only support our team on a championship run this year, but will continue to do so in our years of future dominance. I think the die-hard fans in kilts who sit behind our band – and who’ve creatively named themselves the “Augustinian Army” – had a good idea: as a first step, let’s try to learn the words to our fight song and sing along with our fingers raised in the “V” sign.

As a top five team in the nation, each team that comes into our gym will be gunning for us. Let’s make it our goal for the rest of the season to support our boys by making the opposing players and fans as uncomfortable as possible through our united show of Villanova pride.