The greatest moments of this wild college basketball season – Butler taking out No. 8 Gonzaga on a steal with 3.5 seconds left then a floater at the buzzer, Notre Dame outlasting 11th-ranked Louisville in a five-overtime win that was the longest game in Big East regular-season history, struggling Minnesota upending No. 1 Indiana earlier this week and throwing all our NCAA tourney projections out the window – can be marked by one thing: Mob rule.
I’m talking about the best and most unique part about college basketball, when thousands of delirious home-court fans rush the court in a moment of catharsis. Is there another sport with such a wild celebration of unexpected joy that fans can share with the players, and that no security staff has a prayer to stop?
It happened again on Thursday night. Unranked Virginia upset No. 3 Duke at home, 73-68. At the buzzer, Virginia fans stormed the court, the same as fans of all four teams did when they beat Duke this year. It was a beautiful moment – and it admittedly had the potential to get ugly.
Duke players and coaches weren’t given a rope line to find a path off the court, which meant they had to fight through the crowd with the aid of two security guards and a local cop, according to my colleague Andrew Jones, who covered the game. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski yelled an obscenity at a fan and had to be separated by security. Duke players and assistant coaches exchanged barbs with Virginia fans. Afterward, Duke center Mason Plumlee said Virginia students and fans had tweeted threats at Duke players about what might happen if they rushed the court. Plumlee said that, if players aren’t protected from unruly fans, “it’s fair game.”
Afterward, Coach K was angry. He understands fans get excited when they beat Duke; Coach K has been dealing with this sort of stuff after every road loss for decades. But he understands something else, too: There’s a disaster waiting to happen every time thousands of fans spill onto a court.
“Just put yourself in the position of one of our players or coaches,” Coach K told reporters afterward. “I’m not saying any fan did this, but the potential is there all the time for a fan to just go up to you and say, ‘Coach you’re a [expletive],’ or push you or hit you. And what do you do? What if you did something? That would be the story. We deserve that type of protection.”
Make fun of him for being a 66-year-old fuddy-duddy if you want. That was my gut reaction, that this was just Coach K’s sour grapes after a loss: Come on, Coach, loosen up. Your Cameron Crazies aren’t exactly models of classy conduct. (Though Coach K is consistent when he wins at home, like when he pushed back a court-storm-ready student section after a win over North Carolina earlier this year.)
But 951 wins ought to buy Coach K a bit more thoughtfulness and deliberation than just a gut reaction. And when you think about it, he’s absolutely right.
College basketball fans are rabid. They’re unpredictable. They’re often flat-out mean, and frequently rather drunk. I saw that firsthand on Monday night when I was seated near the Kansas bench during their controversial win at Iowa State. The Iowa State student section razzed Kansas coach Bill Self – and his son, freshman Tyler Self – all game. The things that were said I will not repeat in print.
Suffice to say, I would not have faulted the Selfs if they had punched a fan or two in the face. Father and son took it admirably, winking and smiling at the student section, but after Kansas won in overtime (after a questionable no-call at the end of regulation), Iowa State fans booed. They threw plastic megaphones on the court. One grown man ran onto the court, confronted Self, and had to be pulled away by police.
That was in anger after a loss. But who’s to say that after a court-storm-worthy win, a drunken fan (or a drunken swarm of fans) might, in a fit of angry celebration, channel the hatred they’d spewed all game and take it out on a coach or a player face to face?
Would we fault the coach or the player for fighting back?
Would we print stories about the “epidemic” of unruly fans, or about the “out-of-control” college athletes who brawl with fans?
Could there be a more unfair position to put young student-athletes in than, after an emotional, hard-fought loss, having to confront nutty fans who are looking for their own SportsCenter moment?
“I’m always concerned about stuff like that, especially at this time of the year,” Coach K said. “What if that happened and we get a kid suspended? That becomes the national story. It’s not all fun and games when people are rushing the court, especially for the team that lost. Again, congratulations to them, and they should have fun and burn benches and do all that stuff. I’m all for that. They have a great school, great kids, but get us off the court. That’s the bottom line.”
It’s inevitable. Much like the “someone is going to get critically injured in an NFL game” mantra we repeat after every monstrous NFL hit (cue the Stevan Ridley clip from the AFC Championship Game), there’s no doubt that somehow, some way, a court storming will end really badly. A crucial player will get injured when he gets trampled. A player will fight back against a fan and get suspended. Something ugly will happen.
So what to do about it? Ban court-storming? Do what the SEC does and impose excessive penalties on a home team whose fans storm the court? (It seems to work; when Missouri upset No. 5 Florida at home last week, fans didn’t rush the court.) Turn our college sports arenas into airtight vaults of security, sacrificing freedom in the name of guaranteed protection from harm?
No. First, it won’t work. Knee-jerk legislation typically gives politicians political cover while accomplishing little. Second, it’ll hurt one of the signature moments in college sports. When Missouri upset Florida in a rocking Mizzou Arena and fans didn’t storm the court, the night felt somehow incomplete.
After Minnesota on Tuesday night beat the No. 1 team in the nation for the first time since 1989, I asked Minnesota forward Rodney Williams what it was like being in the middle of thousands of jubilant home fans after the biggest win of his life. It was hot in the mosh pit, really, really hot, he said. Three of the Golden Gophers’ starters fell to the ground in the rush of fans, but were quickly helped back up. Fans treated them like heroes. Williams glowed when he spoke of finally being a part of a court storming.
“Growing up, watching these college games, you see it all the time,” Williams, a senior, told me. “You want that to be you. It took four years, but that finally was me. And I said, ‘’That’s going to be a moment I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.’ “
For underdogs everywhere, let’s never ban storming the court. Let’s never do what the SEC does. Let’s not chastise jubilant home fans by telling them their win wasn’t “court-storm-worthy.” (Some pointed out that Virginia was actually a Vegas favorite on Thursday night, therefore it wasn’t an upset, therefore fans shouldn’t have stormed the court. It’s beside the point. Vegas doesn’t feel the emotion of beating a blueblood that’s ranked third in the nation.)
But in the name of the Dukes and the Indianas and every ranked squad who has ever lost on the road, let’s take a common-sense solution. Listen to Coach K. Get the players and the coaches off the court. Have an escape plan every time a ranked team plays a road game. Tell arena security to disband the impossible task of holding back a crush of thousands of students and instead focus on protecting the losing team at all costs.
Because just as much as we don’t want to lose the most beautiful moments in college basketball, we also don’t want those moments to turn ugly.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.