— Rooting for a small program like Long Island University, Northern Colorado, or Belmont University is not like supporting Duke or Kansas.
Fans of national powers dream of deep runs, Final Four appearances, and a shot at the title. Small-program fans have different goals: they camp out in freezing temperatures for tickets, drive 12 hours for games, and wait through decades of losing, not in the hope of winning a championship, but just to see their school reach the spotlight. For these fans, Selection Sunday is the Super Bowl: what happens Thursday and Friday is almost irrelevant.
This is the story of superfans of schools from downtown Nashville, the prairies of Colorado, and the streets of Brooklyn. Their teams might not go far this weekend, but they will still walk away happy and proud.
Discovering a new continent
Selection Sunday celebrations have become almost routine at Belmont, a small Christian music-and-business university in Nashville. Students and players flock to Beaman Student Life center to watch the brackets unfold and cheer for their Bruins. Even the national cameras were there this year, capturing a few seconds of pandemonium as Belmont earned a No. 13 seed and the right to face Wisconsin.
It wasn’t always that way. When David Fish arrived as a Belmont freshman a decade ago, the team played in non-air conditioned Striplin Gym, which seated 2,500 but was usually empty. The team moved to the downtown Municipal Auditorium when Stiplin was demolished, and students stopped following the Atlantic Sun Conference punching bag.
“During conference games, there were maybe five students in the students section, and about 50 fans overall,” Fish said.
“We were always the helpless underdog,” added Chip Hayner, also a student at that time.
Frustrated by the paltry crowds, Fish founded the Motivational Organization of Belmont (the “MOB”) with the blessing of the athletic director. Getting students interested in a down-and-out team was tough, but Fish offered T-shirts and pizza to students who joined the MOB and attended games. At first, membership was sparse, and fans could race through empty seats to make noise and distract opponents. “The whole place was our playground,” Fish said. Later, the Bruins moved the Curb Event Center, and the MOB slowly grew.
Belmont basketball also got better. The MOB grew to 850 members. Fish graduated but took a job in the admissions office and kept supervising the MOB. When Belmont reached the tourney for the first time in 2006, Belmont selected 12 MOB members to join a 150-strong contingent that traveled from Nashville to San Diego for a first-round game against UCLA. Fish and Hayner were chaperones. Tears of pride rolled from boosters’ cheeks when they passed T-shirt vendors hawking search with Belmont’s name on them. “It was like we discovered a new continent,” Fish said.
A year later, Belmont faced Duke in Washington D.C. MOB member Reid Buck, who stood on his courtside seat with his face painted all season long in 2007-08 (“I never painted the same pattern twice,” he said), earned an all-expenses paid trip to the game. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” he said about learning he was one of the school’s 10 student representatives. Other students fell short of the free ride, but it didn’t stop them from supporting their school: Jason Piland, then a freshman, hopped in a car with his girlfriend at 5 a.m. and drove 12 hours to watch a game everyone expected to be a blowout.
Buck’s painted face drew smirks from Duke fans, but the mood changed when Belmont led the Blue Devils late in the game. Fans of other schools began joining in the Belmont chants. Piland, in another section of the arena, looked at the scoreboard with five minutes left and saw that the Bruins were beating Duke. “It was the most surreal thing you could ever imagine.” When Belmont ultimately lost by one point, “Duke fans showed me a lot of respect,” Buck said.
Walking through D.C. wearing a Belmont shirt the next day, Buck and his friends were congratulated by strangers on the near-miss. With one narrow loss, Belmont went from an obscure college to America’s underdog, and the superfans enjoyed the whole ride.
A microcosm of New York
While Belmont grew into a small-conference powerhouse, Long Island scuffled through a decade of 10-19 and 14-17 finishes. The commuter college (whose main campus is really in Brooklyn) generated little buzz, even on campus. “It wasn’t the main sport,” said John Tolis, sports editor for the campus newspaper. “People talked about soccer or lacrosse.” Jerry Donner, a former A.D. and lifelong fan, agreed “LIU was never really a rah-rah school.”
When Donner arrived in 1963, the neighborhood near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge was rough. Now, it’s a cultural community of campuses, restaurants, and pricey condos. “You could have bought the multi-million dollar brownstones for a song and a dance back then,” Donner said.
LIU also changed: while it still serves locals and first-generation college attendees, it now attracts students from all around the country, who come to live in the neighborhood or one of the school’s two residence halls. The change can be seen in the LIU lineup: in Donner’s day, the roster was so full of Brooklyn and Queens kids that the one Long Island student was, ironically “the out of towner.” Now, players hail from Texas and Canada. “It has become a microcosm of New York,” Donner said.
LIU was a powerhouse from the 1930s through the 1950s, but the team rarely attracted large crowds in recent years. The biggest games of the year were battles against St. Francis, just a few blocks away. Those games brought out fans from the community: old-timers from neighborhoods like Flatbush and Brooklyn Heights and transplants who brought small children to the games to be part of the hoopla. “It’s like our ‘Mets versus Yankees,’” Tolis said.
LIU hosted their conference tournament, and as the Blackbirds battled toward an automatic tourney bid, the attitude — and volume — on campus changed. Students dressed in all-white for the “Whiteout” championship game. Female students spelled out “Blackbirds” on their midriffs.
Tolis covered every LIU home game but never saw or heard anything like it. “It was so loud you could barely hear yourself talk,” Tolis said of the arena after the Blackbirds defeated Robert Morris. Donner described an environment he hadn’t seen since the late 1960s, when LIU made some noise in the then-relevant NIT and beat Bradley before losing a close game to Notre Dame. “There was just an electricity in the air,” he said.
For a rapidly-changing community like downtown Brooklyn, the success of a team like LIU can be a touchstone, uniting people of all generations and backgrounds. The conference championship brought people into the streets and restaurants. It sparked calls to Donner from old friends and ex-players; Donner’s wife, a long-suffering fan like him, taped the game on TV and re-watched it later that evening to savor the victory. “You feel connected,” Tolis said. “In our little corner of Brooklyn, people around the country get to see what we can do.”
A bonding exercise
Long Island and St. Francis are seven blocks apart. Northern Colorado University’s top rival, Montana, is 1,200 miles away. NCU is an hour north of Denver in Greeley, a small city nestled among cattle ranches and sugar beet farms. “East of Greeley are the eastern Plains, and there’s nothing there but tumbleweeds and prairie dogs,” said Bob Heiny, a mathematics professor, former faculty athletic representative, and lifelong fan of Northern Colorado basketball.
A few years ago, the school’s basketball arena was as barren as the plains. A former D-II power (the Bears won national football titles in 1996 and 1997), UNC endured a grueling five-year process to leap to D-I. By the time they landed in the Big Sky Conference, their program was too weak to compete: UNC ranked dead last in RPI in 2005-06 and powers like Syracuse hosted them in embarrassing tune-up games.
Even the arena suggested a not-ready-for-prime time program: UNC still had high school-style pull out bleachers. Not that they had to be pulled out very far. “It was a ghost place,” Heiny said, noting that he could spread out comfortably at any home game without fear of bumping into anyone.
In 2006, NCU hired Tad Boyle, a local high school hoops legend with a successful resume as an assistant at schools like Tennessee and Wichita State. Boyle had a whole program to build, and UNC’s few boosters had to endure four-win season before Boyle’s coaching and recruiting produced results. The most loyal alums and supporters kept the faith. “I believed in Tad Boyle,” said Mike Shoop, a season ticket-holder through the lean years.
The belief paid off. The Bears went 25-8 last year, but fell short in the Big Sky tournament when star Devon Beitzel broke his foot. Boyle left for the University of Colorado, but assistant P.J. Hill took over and Greeley began to support the Bears. With seats scarce for the conference championship, students camped out overnight for a chance to get one of the extra free tickets supplied by local booster clubs. “There were pizza boxes, bottles and cans for 250 yards,” Heiny noted.
Charlie Charbonneau was among the campers. He and a friend sat courtside for each of UNC’s home games, but with all seats general admission, he didn’t want to risk losing his spot. A resident assistant, Charbonneau rummaged through a dormitory basement to find an old tent, then camped out in sub-freezing temperatures with three friends. His tent was third in line: the go-getters from the women’s volleyball team beat him to the punch. By 7 a.m., fellow students arrived with coffee and breakfast burritos to warm the campers. “It was a bonding exercise, all of us sleeping out in temperatures in the teens while everyone else was in their nice warm beds,” Charbonneau said.
The excitement of the Bears’ Big Sky championship didn’t let up for several days, on campus or in Greeley. “I haven’t seen enthusiasm like this since the Rockies were in the World Series and the Broncos were in the Super Bowl,” Shoop said, adding that the 1996-97 football champions also generated some buzz. For longtime supporters like Shoop and Heiny, it was gratifying to see students and the community embrace a team that could barely compete a few years ago. “Everybody’s walking around with big smiles,” Heiny said. “We’re all still pinching ourselves.”
Faces in the crowd
Selection Sunday brought a fresh wave of euphoria to these small campuses. LIU hosted an intimate selection show event. Media attendance was sparse, but “the vibe was great,” Tolis said. “As a student, I felt proud.” Hayner returned to Belmont to watch the selection show at the Beaman center. When the Bruins were paired with vulnerable Wisconsin, “the place just erupted,” he said.
After the thrill comes the reality: the NCAA isn’t kind to lower-seeded teams, often flinging them across the country. With Northern Colorado on spring break, Professor Heiny can join other boosters on the team’s chartered flight. Charbonneau won’t be on the plane, but he might be in Tucson: when I interviewed him, he was trying to rent a 16-passenger van and assemble a contingent of Bears fans to make the 14-16 hour trip with him. Getting a crew together by Wednesday afternoon on spring break won’t be easy, but “with Twitter and Facebook it can be done,” Charbonneau said.
But not everyone is so lucky. Students have classes to attend or (during spring break) family matters to attend to. Young alums like Fish and Hayner have small children. Belmont will again send 50 students to the first-round game, but those who can't go can still watch in the Curb Event Center. “It's going to be just like we're courtside in Arizona — getting painted up, cheering, singing our own chants,” Piland said.
None of these small-school superfans expect their teams to last long in the tourney. Longtime supporters like LIU’s Donner and NCU's Heiny expect their teams to be “gritty” and “a handful,” but they are thrilled just to see their schools in the spotlight. Belmont is different – they are a fashionable first-round upset pick – and Hayner admits he might feel his team “fell short” if they can't get past the first round. Beyond that, everything is an exciting “what if” scenario. “The concept of the Sweet 16 is so foreign to us,” Hayner said.
The Sweet 16 might seem foreign, but so are the memories of empty gyms, four-win seasons, and pizza-for-ticket giveaways. The true small-school superfans dare to dream, but they don’t necessarily envy the big boys who get to fight their way into the Final Four. “You don’t feel the commitment to do well in the community or in the classroom at bigger schools the way the Northern Colorado players do,” Charbonneau said.
Piland, a Belmont student who hails from the center of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, agrees. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Piland said. “I wouldn’t want to go to Duke or North Carolina. You’re just a face in the crowd there. No one notices if you are there or not.”
These small programs are no threat to win the tournament, but for a few hours on Thursday and Friday, the nation is sure to notice them.