Friday, Feb. 21, 2014
Snow carpeted Richmond, and the city’s residents scurried inside. Grocery shelves were left picked clean, cars stayed off the slick streets, and schools, including Virginia Commonwealth University, closed en masse.
The Rams basketball team, however, faced a stern test that could not wait for better weather. Atlantic 10 rival George Washington, which had already upended VCU in Washington, D.C., earlier in the season, had beaten the storm into town and was steeled for a second showdown. In light of the mess outside, prospects for a customarily rowdy Siegel Center crowd seemed dim. VCU coach Shaka Smart would later tell reporters that he’d warned his players before the game not to expect the overwhelming advantage they’d come to expect when they played on their home floor.
As the players burst from the tunnel into the arena, however, they felt that familiar surge. The band was rocking, and the fans were roaring. Every seat was filled. The snow had been powerless to slow down their fans. During the next two hours, the din did not let up – the crowd was as deafeningly loud as ever.
“If anything,” Smart said. “It was louder.”
The contest – a 92-75 VCU victory – was only the latest evidence that the home atmosphere for VCU basketball games has developed into one of the most raucous in the country. The intimate Siegel Center is packed without fail, and fans rarely rest, instead raising their voices and engaging in a wild mix of cheers, chants, songs and impromptu explosions of noise that rattle both rafters and opponents. VCU has now sold out the Siegel Center 48 straight times, and the Rams own an 18-game winning streak in their cozy home confines.
Widespread recognition has arrived. VCU won the Naismith Student Section of the Year award last year, and discerning journalists and opposing coaches and players marvel at VCU crowds and their influence on the games. Most recently, after the George Washington game, John Feinstein, one of the deans of college basketball writing and the author of hoops classics “A Season on the Brink” and “A March to Madness,” wrote in the Washington Post that “few buildings in college basketball rock like the Siegel Center.”
“When the band plays ‘400 degrees’ and the students sing ‘It is havoc that you fear!’ it feels as if the roof will come off the building,” he wrote.
A Siegel Center crowd assumes the characteristics of a living, breathing creature, complete with its own clamorous personality. Guided but never limited by the action on the court, the crowd swings and sways, swells and swoons, lifting and spurring on the players, often under the spell of The Peppas, the best pep band in the world.
And the connection between the fans and the disruptive, fitful, frenzied “Havoc” brand of basketball that Smart has concocted is undeniable. The pressing, trapping and fastbreaking Rams rampage in neat symbiotic lockstep with the boundless energy in the stands. Charismatic junior guard Briante Weber, who plays with a combination of restlessness and obvious joy, serves as a kind of avatar on the court for the fans, personifying their irrepressibility.
Early in VCU’s Feb. 1 home game with the University of Richmond, Weber picked the pocket of an opposing player, igniting a fastbreak that ended in an easy VCU basket. The crowd went nuts and stayed nuts, sustaining a fevered pitch as the Spiders tried to inbound the ball against what seemed like a dozen Rams players, bouncing and sliding and waving their arms. The noise, the energy, the mad action – it all seemed like one, unified thing.
Following the game, Smart told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “I’ve never been in a place where there is such a good relationship between the team and the crowd.”
Stalwart fan Chris Crowley, who is known to fellow fans as VCU Pav, said a sense of community has developed at the games, and the Siegel Center has become a place for people to gather and celebrate – while enjoying the freedom to go a bit out of their heads.
“It’s exhilarating,” Crowley said. “It’s the most entertaining, exciting and inspiring two-and-a-half hours there is.”
Below are snapshots of some of the colorful characters – both longtime diehards and more recent converts – that make the Siegel Center such a special place to watch a basketball game.
Betty Tudor, aka “The Sign Lady”
Seventy-five minutes before the home game with Richmond – a game that had a bright-and-early 11 a.m. start – the crowd was still largely half-asleep. Fans chatted breezily, bought refreshments at the vendors and sprawled back in their seats, conserving their energy. Betty Tudor, however, was already up, cheering, bouncing on her feet and holding up a sign in each hand. On the court, players in warmup suits engaged in a casual shoot-around, while Tudor, a few rows back, seemed to be in mid-game form.
That kind of fervor is standard for Tudor, who has been a Rams’ supporter since she was a VCU student in the 1970s. A fixture at home games and an occasional traveler to away games, too, Tudor comes armed with an assortment of homemade signs that celebrate the Rams and take lighthearted digs at opponents. She’s hard to miss in the stands, waving the signs around, and has proved to be a magnet for TV cameras.
“I feel like I’m reliving my college years,” she said.
When VCU plays on the road, Tudor sometimes analyzes the social media feeds of cheerleaders and members of the Peppas to determine when the buses will return to the Siegel Center. She then stands at the parking lot entrance, often the lone fan there, and holds up signs to welcome home the players, no matter if they’ve won or lost.
“I have so much appreciation for what they do and for what they’ve done for us,” she said. “I want them to know that.”
Tudor’s first-ever sign, which was created during VCU’s 2011 Final Four run, remains a staple in her rotation. It says, “Thank you.”
Daniel Kreutler, aka “The Pharaoh”
Daniel Kreutler’s VCU fandom originated in 2007 when Eric Maynor’s dramatic game-winning shot sprung VCU over Duke in the NCAA Tournament. The Richmond native was hooked.
Once he arrived at VCU as a freshman, Kreutler quickly became an avid presence in the student section. Kreutler arrives at games early, passes out “fat head” posters for fans to hold in the air during opponents’ free throws and tries to set an example with his enthusiasm. Last year, one of Kreutler’s co-workers jokingly referred to Kreutler as the “Pharaoh Ramses,” in a nod to Kreutler’s efforts to lead the crowd during games.
Kreutler responded by devising a pharaoh outfit that he wears to every game. He said he hears nothing but good things from his peers, who find the costume “ridiculous but awesome.”
Kreutler, who is now a junior, said the assortment of costumes in the Siegel Center helps create the sense that each contest is more than just a game – it’s an event.
“These games are just getting bigger and bigger every year,” he said.
Anthony and Ian Renninger, aka “The Nightmare”
In person, on a typical weekday morning, twins Anthony and Ian Renninger appear to be laid-back, friendly guys. They wear backpacks and sheepish smiles and talk enthusiastically about their love of college basketball. It’s hard to see how they could seem scary to anybody.
On game days, however, the Renningers don grim golden masks and transform into something much more unsettling and sinister. Stone-faced, glaring, silent, they have the disconcerting air of villains from a slasher movie. They no longer resemble themselves; they have become something much more ominous.
“Even our friends get creeped out,” Ian said.
The Renningers adopted the masks for last season’s Butler game at the Siegel Center – when the crowd participated in a “gold out” – and liked the impression they made so much that they kept the look into this year. They enjoy their roles as recurring characters in the Siegel Center student section. It turns out even “The Nightmare” can get swept up in the joys of Havoc.
“When everyone gets rocking and the adrenaline gets going, it’s a great place to be,” Anthony said.
Teddy Leinbach, James Spollen and Bruce Toulon, aka “The Lettermen”
Growing up in Durham, N.C., Teddy Leinbach lived in close proximity to one of the most boisterous arenas in college basketball – Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of the Duke Blue Devils and the Cameron Crazies. When it was time to select colleges, he decided he wanted to find something similar at his new school. VCU, fresh off its 2011 Final Four run, caught his eye.
Leinbach, now an art student, attends most of VCU’s home game with two fellow sophomores – James Spollen and Bruce Toulon. The trio decided to do something special for this month’s Richmond game and painted themselves black and gold, spelling out “V-C-U” on their chests.
Already an animated group, the three reached a new level of delirium that day.
“When you get fully geared up like that, you can’t just be low key,” Leinbach said. “You have to live up to the hype.”
Leinbach believes it’s particularly special to be a student and Rams’ supporter in an era when the program and its home environment become recognized as a worthy rival to other, more storied programs, such as the one in his hometown. VCU is the upstart, proving it belongs.
“It’s great that we have this up-and-coming basketball program, because it feels like we’re part of it,” Leinbach said. “I think that brings a little more pride to being here for this. We feel connected to what’s happening.”
Harrison Wash, aka “The Minotaur”
Harrison Wash tells his co-workers that they wouldn’t recognize him if they saw him at a VCU basketball game. When the mild-mannered professional they know steps into the Siegel Center, something changes.
Wash, a fan of the Rams since he went to an Old Dominion game with VCU in the Richmond Coliseum when he was 8 years old, dresses loud and screams loudly. His gameday outfit is a football uniform, complete with helmet and shoulder pads, that he’s customized with VCU colors and logos. The helmet has horns, and the shoulder pads are studded with spikes.
The outfit is not only meant to suggest VCU and football, but also GWAR, the costumed heavy metal band that has VCU roots.
“It’s something that projects passion, power and strength,” Wash said.
VCU fans tend to gravitate to Wash at games, greeting him with high-fives and requests for pictures. He readily acknowledges that he delights in the attention – “I love it when people come up to me” – but he said the costume largely stems from a simple desire to be a part of VCU basketball – the same desire he’s had since he was a kid.
Every home game, Wash said, he’s hoping for the fans to be even better, even louder than the previous game, giving the Rams a bigger push than ever before. He’s forever in search of the perfect crowd – one, he said, that “never sits down and never shuts up.”
Chris Crowley, aka “VCU Pav”
When Chris Crowley served as a student manager for the VCU basketball team between 2001 and 2004, the Siegel Center was a more placid place. Big home games might draw a strong crowd, but there were plenty of underwhelming turnouts, too, he said.
Today, Crowley surveys what Havoc has wrought with unmistakable pride.
“We’ve really come together,” he said.
Crowley graduated from VCU with a degree in music education in 2006, and his nickname is pegged to his interest in music and a vague resemblance to opera’s Luciano Pavarotti. He is perhaps the most visible of all of VCU’s fans with his distinctive beard and plush Rams’ horns hat. He’s a mainstay with the Rowdy Rams, the student athletic support organization that fills a part of the student section, having helped usher the group into existence when he was still a student. He uses a white board to urge the crowd into chants and cheers.
The VCU fan base’s emergence began before the 2011 Final Four appearance – in fact, the sellout streak started Jan. 29, 2011 – but Crowley said that improbable tournament run was the clear galvanizing force that prompted the program’s leap and heightened the Siegel Center’s resident madness. Since that moment on the national stage, he said, both the university and the city of Richmond have rallied around the basketball team.
Crowley remembers fondly the charms of being part of a hardy, smaller core of fans, but he doesn’t long for the old days. He’s savoring the new ones.
“I couldn’t feel more blessed,” he said.
Gary Watkins, Brian Curran, Matt Greene and Manny Juranis, aka “Sons of Shaka”
Nearly as entertaining as this season’s Richmond home game itself were the antics of four rabid fans sitting in the front row, near the visitors’ bench. Dressed as pro wrestling legends Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, the quartet indulged in an endless variety of unhinged theatrics from the pregame lineup announcements to the final buzzer, firing up the crowd and sending many into hysterics – even including, conspicuously, a couple members of the Spiders’ bench.
Those fans – Gary Watkins, Brian Curran, Matt Greene and Manny Juranis, who are all VCU alumni – first bonded three years ago when they made an unforgettable trip together to Houston for VCU’s Final Four appearance. The group had so much fun that they resolved to reunite each season for at least one critical game.
All four are regular visitors separately to the Siegel Center – three are season-ticket holders – but for those reunion games they get four tickets together on the front-row baseline. They don’t stop there. They also conceive elaborate costumes, designed to amuse. Two years ago, they dressed in the uniforms of VCU basketball players from the 1970s. Last year, they were referees.
Watkins said the friends love every aspect of the experience, from planning their outfits to the games themselves. They can’t help but revel in the prominence their seats, costumes and behavior bring them.
“It’s amazing,” Watkins said. “It feels like we’re part of the game, like we’re on the court playing.”
The group’s seats also place them near The Peppas and the VCU student section. Watkins and his crew interact constantly with the students, and he said the group finds the students’ support inspiring.
“The energy we get from them is what motivates us,” he said.
The crew’s unofficial handle, “Sons of Shaka” – a reference to the TV show “Sons of Anarchy” about a motorcycle club – celebrates the fact that the group was forged from the Final Four run. It also is a testament to the tight-knit camaraderie of the VCU fan base.
Before the current season, the Sons of Shaka decided one game wasn’t going to be enough for them. They circled not only the Richmond game earlier this month but the March 1 contest against conference leader St. Louis. “That’s going to be a big one,” Watkins said.
Once again, the Sons of Shaka are planning something special.
Brandon Alness, aka “Batman”
Brandon Alness joined the Rowdy Rams early in his freshman year, because he wanted to make sure that he had tickets to every game. He couldn’t bear the idea of missing one.
Alness loves Havoc’s frenetic quality. He believes it’s the way basketball should be played, and he gets a jolt watching the Rams at work. The student section’s adoption of characters and costumes led him to join the practice. He now wears Batman socks with little capes to every game, and he either paints his face or wears a Batman mask, too.
Alness believes the costumes and rampant eccentricities of a VCU home crowd are unique and give the outside world a positive view of the university as a compelling place.
Alness, a junior, said the reasons for his costume choice are not complex.
“I just really love Batman,” he said. “And it works out that his colors are black and gold, too.”
James Parker, aka “Waldo”
James Parker, a former VCU student, attended a Rams’ game last year that was televised. Friends and family said that they couldn’t find him in the stands. He joked with them, “What, didn’t you see me?”
For the next game, Parker developed a way to stand out. He would wear his Halloween costume of “Waldo,” the protagonist of the “Where’s Waldo?” series of books. The books feature the Waldo character hidden in large crowds and challenges readers to sort through the masses of people to find him.
Parker followed through and wore the character’s distinctive black-rimmed glasses, red-and-white striped shirt and red-and-white bobble hat to the next game.
Sure enough, following the game, Parker was inundated with messages from people who had recognized him in the stands. Friends urged him to continue the practice, and soon he was hearing from people he didn’t know that it had become part of their routine to search for him as soon as they settled into their seats. Parents said that their kids would hunt for Waldo and compete to see who would find him first. Fans posted photos of him on social media with the tag line, “Found you!”
Of course, now Parker feels pressure to attend as many games as he can. Everyone will know if he stays home.
Becca Morrissette, aka “Ginger Rage”
The Peppas have become media superstars, attracting attention for both their audacity and their musicianship. They’ve been followed so closely – such as when a rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” drew admiring mentions from People Magazine, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, among others – that members of the band have taken on starring public roles. Becca Morrissette, a senior with a contagiously enflamed gameday presence, is a natural for the spotlight.
She wasn’t always, though. Morrissette’s freshman year on The Peppas was marked by the straightforward pursuit of steadiness and competence. A trumpet player, Morrissette eschewed dance work and general rowdiness as she trained her energies on playing each piece as well as she could. The playing was hard enough.
She began to move more, though, her sophomore year, gradually becoming more exuberant each season, culminating this year when Ginger Rage, the sobriquet bestowed on her by a fellow Peppa, turned into a full-fledged persona.
Morrissette is hard to miss in her post on the far left side of The Peppas’ section, performing jumping jacks and shaking her trumpet side to side and up and down as she plays. When she’s not playing, she’s often screaming with a force that befits her nickname. Each game’s theatrics feel like a celebration; Morrissette has had six knee surgeries and doctors had once warned her that her running and jumping days may be over.
“I do what I love and let myself get lost in it,” she said.
Morrissette said she’d never show such emotion without the encouragement of her fellow Peppas. The group’s closeness is genuine, she said, borne of long bus rides and lengthy practices.
Encouraged by Peppas leader Ryan Kopacsi, Morrissette has embraced her newfound fame, including starting a Twitter feed – @GingerTrmptVCU – that often gets flooded with messages after a game.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “I never thought that going nuts would get so much attention.”
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