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You know when the roar is real. When you’ve been to enough games, enough big games, you know when the student section at a college game is, for lack of a term that more adequately conveys the raw smack of the energy, lit the fuck up. It’s not the obligatory pre-game buzz that comes after an arena’s video intro. There’s an aggressive eagerness about the student section before these big games start, like an angry dog ready to rip whatever he’s tethered to out of the ground and maul the mailman foolish enough trespass on his lawn. Once the game begins, the energy doesn’t subside. Somehow, seemingly impossibly, it grows. It fluctuates and it rages, and the resolve of the fanatical students batters against the opposing team like angry waves against a levee. Granted, the players win and lose the game, and levee doesn’t always break–but oftentimes it does, because in college sports atmosphere is everything, and it begins and ends with the student section. If you’re sitting there, you best get loud or get the fuck out.
On Saturday night, in the quaint but impressive home of the SMU basketball team, situated in the middle of one of the most beautiful and serene campuses in the country, Moody Coliseum and its student section were lit the fuck up.
A newly powerful SMU basketball program, rising on the back of basketball coaching legend Larry Brown, faced its biggest game in decades. The seventh-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats, a perennially strong program that was forged in the once brutal Big East Conference (and still retains its former conference home’s bruising identity) were in town to give SMU its biggest test in the program’s fledgling relevancy. Appearance-wise, the Mustangs, though undeniably talented, weren’t quite on the level of the bigger and longer Bearcats who, clad in all black, looked every bit the part of the intimidating, national powerhouse that they are. That didn’t matter to the SMU students–that’s what they wanted. The glowing red student section that wrapped around three-fourths of the floor was burning for that exact sort of matchup. The SMU players were confident and eager in their own right. They knew how talented they were, even if no one else outside of Highland Park did yet, and they knew they had one of the greatest basketball minds ever behind them. They wanted this, too. Before they finished the warm-ups, the team urged the already thunderous student section to get louder. The students roared, sending their message: “Not in our fucking mansion. Not tonight.”
That might all sound a bit dramatic. It was just a mid-season college basketball game. A loss wouldn’t sink the solid NCAA tournament hopes of either team, though, objectively, a win for SMU would certainly cement their spot in the field of 68, barring a complete collapse down the stretch. But consider the drama a tribute to the dramatic turnaround of the SMU students, a fanbase that could, until recently, legitimately be ranked among the country’s most apathetic.
Though the Cincinnati-SMU game was the first basketball game I attended at the school, I had been on the Boulevard several times last year, tailgating SMU football games. Until this year (though it’s Larry Brown’s second season) SMU was most definitely a football school. Walking from fraternity tent to fraternity tent, there was rarely ever any talk about the game going on half a mile away. Every conversation was about games going on half a country away. “What’s the Wisconsin score?” “When does USC play?” “FUCK Clemson!” “No, FUCK SOUTH CAROLINA!” I received a fair amount of flack for Missouri’s lackluster 2012 season while on the Boulevard that year, and coupled with SMU kids following that by smugly boasting about teams that weren’t SMU, I wanted to scream with irrational rage, “You go to SMU not [insert literally any other school] SHUT UP I WILL MURDER YOUR FACE OFF LEAVE ME ALONE!”
SMU is a fantastic place, but it legitimately seemed as if there was no hope for those fans. Aside from TCU games, that stadium was empty. Basketball tickets are free for students, and the school literally could not give them away before this year. In fairness to SMU, this was a football program that had been killed by unprecedented sanctions in the ’80s, and a basketball program that, despite a Final Four appearance in the ’50s, had not done much. The school was essentially prohibited from winning in football, and seemingly uninterested in winning in basketball. SMU students have always loved their school, but in terms of sports, it’s tough to back a loser, and it’s impossible to root for the nonexistent.
The first half of the Cincinnati game was a perfect storm of relentless crowd pressure and the flawless execution of a brilliant Larry Brown game plan. Both kept Cincinnati on its heels for 20 minutes, and also caused Cincinnati coach and man-elf Mick Cronin endless frustration that culminated first with a technical foul and then, as he walked off the court, some casual on-air cursing. Getting out-coached by Larry Brown is understandable. Having your bench located roughly two feet away from the SMU student section is unbearable. During the game a week earlier, that same student section might have actually caused Memphis coach Josh Pastner some decent mental trauma. Larry Brown had to send out a school-wide email after that game begging the SMU student section to be nicer. I’m not sure the student section listened.
The first half could be perfectly summed up in its final play. With only a few seconds left in the half and SMU looking to build on a shockingly sizable lead, the crowd spent the timeout before the final play raucously celebrating the dominant half with chants of “S-M-U! S-M-U!” and “LAR-RY! LAR-RY!” the latter of which Brown always hilariously waves off in mild frustration, telling them to chant “S-M-U!” instead. The student section definitely didn’t listen to that. The initial inbound pass was quickly whipped over to highly touted freshman and Church’s Chicken enthusiast Keith Frazier, who drilled a wide-open three as time expired. Larry freakin’ Brown. The student section exploded.
The second half saw a double-digit SMU lead shrink down to seven. Effective full court pressure from Cincinnati (which they inexplicably abandoned later) harassed the previously fluid SMU offense into a lot of poor possessions. It was also clear that Larry Brown had pulled back and let his players play for a while. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the one who called for, like, four alley-oops in a row, all of which failed miserably. Allowing his team to put on an AND1 blooper reel wasn’t a bad idea in theory. SMU is a young team and they need the freedom to learn. However, once it was clear he needed to rein things in a bit, Brown called a timeout and SMU never looked back. Goddammit that man can coach. The student section, unlike the team, never lost momentum for a second. Chants and cheers, boos and “BULLLLSHHITTTT” echoed as they waved their two-fingered pony ears hand sign, which actually sort of looks more like they’re miming a cobra strike, for the entire 40 minutes. A testament to the fans to be sure, though SMU students do have the glorious and unfair advantage of being served beer in their arena. Some kids just get everything.
SMU blew the damn doors off seventh-ranked Cincinnati, to the tune of a 76-55 curb stomping. The students rushed the court and then spent the night raging from fraternity houses to Barley House. It was like someone spiked the punch bowl at the country club with absinthe and bath salts. I was right there raging with them because, as many of the very new basketball fans exclaimed, “Yay sports!” As they celebrated their massive, postseason-clinching win they cheered each time the sports porn that was their game highlight came back around on the SportsCenter loop.
That night at SMU was everything that’s great about college sports. That begins with the atmosphere, and it begins with the students. The now 23rd-ranked SMU Mustangs (their first ranking in three decades) are undefeated at home. Guess why. The student section roared with a chip on their shoulder all game long, and at one point I had to laugh, because here were several thousand kids who, for the most part, could never in any other facet of life be considered “underdogs” assuming that very role and embracing it. Where else but college sports does a regular season game on a regular Saturday night turn into that? While you’re in college, never miss a chance to do that. And when you do go, get loud, or get the fuck out.