Basketball student section slowly being revived

BY IAN MARTIN | MARCH 04, 2011 7:20 AM

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In 1980, Dave Collins and his friends on the 11th floor of Slater had no choice. They had to go to the basketball game.

Of course, the arena was near; the Iowa basketball team played in the friendly, old Field House, which was right across the street. But had the crew members lived on the East Side, they would have attended every game as if going to Hawkeye church.

“Basketball was as popular as football,” said Collins, who graduated from the university in 1983.

Hawkeye fans sat on top of the action — three rows of courtside seats were on the floor — and the facility was packed for every game. The upper decks were made of steel, and Hawkeye fans stomped their feet in unison during rallies and critical moments, turning the Field House into a steel-drum nightmare for visiting teams.

“That’s what everybody looked forward to in the winter,” Collins said.

On Feb. 9, the Iowa student section in Carver-Hawkeye was the best it had been all season. During the overtime thriller against Wisconsin, almost a third of the 4,000-seat HawksNest were filled with fans clad in black and gold. But still, sections H and G — two of the largest in the 15,500-seat Carver-Hawkeye Arena — had only the Pep Band to keep its seats warm, leaving well more than 1,500 seats folded.

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Not so long ago

As recently as 2005 — at the height of the Steve Alford era — the student section was full. No one believed that the section was too big, because students were able to consistently fill the approximately 4,000 available seats.

Former Iowa forward J.R. Koch, who played for the Hawkeyes under Tom Davis from 1995-99, fondly remembered how juiced the acoustic-friendly arena could be.

Other Big Ten players often said how intimidating it was to go about their business surrounded by the bowl of Iowa fans.

“They always said that Iowa was one of the toughest places to play,” Koch said.

Any player who says fans don’t affect the game — especially a college-basketball game — is lying. Just ask any man who’s had the unfortunate task of in-bounding a basketball in front of Duke’s Cameron Crazies.

Of course, it can have as much of a positive effect on the home team as it does a negative effect on the visitors.

“I think it’s very important [to have loud fans],” Koch said. “It gives you that extra gear or that extra spurt.”

Before this season, Iowa’s new head coach Fran McCaffery made his pitch to students. He toured Burge, Hillcrest, and Mayflower to sell his program to the one demographic that’s usually guaranteed at a school with decent basketball tradition, because he recognized the necessity of a student section.

“What we want to create is a difficult environment for the opposition, and the best way to do that is with our students," McCaffery said on Sept. 20, 2010. “They make this place [Carver-Hawkeye] hard to play in.”

Fans ‘owe’ the players

Logic would say that any great team will have great fans. But can a great student section rise independently?

“The team’s not going to improve significantly unless [the Hawks] have the fans to back them up,” UI sophomore Paul Mowery said.

It would be tough to find a more passionate fan than Mowery. The Clarinda, Iowa, native said his parents would “disown” him if he didn’t attend Iowa football and basketball games — and he’s missed just one of Iowa’s in-semester home basketball contests over the last two years.

Mowery and the few pals he comes to the game with can seem almost out of place in the often-moribund HawksNest, especially during the last year of former head coach Todd Lickliter.

Mowery has worn a Teletubby costume — among others — to games this season, and he can be seen yelling at opposing players on free throws.

All, he says, because he feels obligated to.

“The student-athletes are working so hard, the fans owe them to work as hard as they do,” Mowery said.

Among those who agree with him is the president of the HawksNest, Kevin Velovitch, a UI junior from Noblesville, Ind.. He recognizes the uphill battle he faces in generating interest for a team that has had little success the last few years.

But he’s seen the tapes from the ’80s and watched games from as recently as 2005, when the student section was full and loud.

A tall, lanky business major, he is a great salesman of a product whose customer base is jaded. He tries to sell students on creating something.

As the team improves, meaning a more enjoyable game for people to watch, a student section with seemingly no original chants can create something else.

“[Students] want to see more tradition come out of the student section,” Velovitch said.

Toward this effort, his organization — which has only been an officially student organization for two years — is trying to unify people.

The HawksNest has helped change Carver-Hawkeye’s policy on signs — students may now bring them if they are “respectful.”

His next goal is “unification” — having everyone in the section wearing the same color shirt. After that, he says, the fans, and the traditions, will come.

“Traditions, I think, develop from students coming to the game,” he said. “Coming with a creative idea, and it’ll develop and, hopefully, continue for years to come.”

A relative improvement

The last two years have seen an increase in ticket sales. This past season, there were 1,730 student tickets sold, although as of Feb. 21, 400 had not been picked up. This number is larger than any year during the Lickliter years but is fewer than half the 3,791 sold for the 2001-02 season.

But ticket sales aren’t the only measure of student interest.

Velovitch and Mowery agreed that this year has been an improvement.

“In years past, it’s been kind of something of an afterthought: ‘Oh, there’s a game tonight,’ ” Velovitch said. “But now, students are actually saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to take a couple hours out of my day and go have some fun in the student section.’ ”

Mowery had a different tone, though. He said he remembers Carver “rocking” during the Tom Davis era. He said you “couldn’t hear yourself think” during games.

“Close to that, I’d say there’s miles and miles to go,” he said. “But close to being an intimidating place to play? We’re on the cusp.”

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