ESPN.com’s Eamonn Brennan and Dana O’Neil have decided to spend some time debating who the best college basketball student sections are in the country. You have some of the more well known, like those of Kansas, and Duke. You also have some of the lesser known one’s like Utah State and San Diego’s State’s “The Show” going for it.
So where does the Zoo rank in all this? We, biased as we may be, think we’re pretty damn good. There are only a handful of programs in the country that come with even a little bit of the pedigree of the Oakland Zoo.
To start, lets just go with the record at home. 154-13. For all of the talk about best student sections, winning record simply has to be considered. You can tweet Eamonn all you want, but you have to something to stand on of actual relevancy. So, 154-13 it is. That’s good enough for fifth best in percentage in the country over the last 9 seasons behind Kansas, Duke, Wisconsin and Gonzaga. Pitt has acquired that record playing in arguably the toughest conference in the country, the BIG EAST (they like it capitalized apparently). It’s only lost one game or less at home every year since 2007. Most schools in other conferences do not have to go against the likes of Syracuse, UConn, Georgetown, Nova, WVU, Louisville, and Marquette each and every year. Keep that in mind when you consider that record. Consider another record:
9-0 against top 5 teams. Think about that. No top 5 team has ever beaten Pitt at the Pete and the Oakland Zoo. It spawned the phrase “Where Top 5 Teams Go To Die” . Heck, the phrase even has it’s own t shirt. The national champions that have been from the Big East in recent years (UConn 2004/11, Cuse ’03) all lost at the Zoo the year they won it. We did a post on all of the praise the Zoo was getting after Pitt’s win over Syracuse last year which seemed to coin that Top 5 phrase. You can view that here. This isn’t just us blowing smoke, the Zoo has been chronicled by every major national media outlet you can think of.
Here’s a few snippets.
“The Peterson Events Center is one of the toughest places to play in America for a visiting opponent” – Dave O’Brien, ESPN
“One of the great spectacles in all of college basketball…the Oakland Zoo”- Bill Raftery
“These fans are unbelievable. They’re rowdy, loud and proud. That’s the way you want your fans to be” – Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner.
“The students in the Oakland Zoo make the Peterson Events Center an absolutely brutal place to play” – Dan Daitchmen, Collegehoops.net
“The Panthers have become mission impossible for any visiting team in this gorgeous on-campus arena” – Dick Weiss, NY Daily News
“Whatever the roster, regardless of the circumstances, when you enter the Petersen Events Center with a top five ranking you exit with a loss. No exceptions.” – Gary Parrish, CBS Sports
“Pitt’s Peterson Events Center was voted the “Toughest Place to Play in the Big East” by an anonymous poll of of league players conducted by Sports Illustrated”- SI
This doesn’t even include the regular guests the Zoo and Peterson Events Center hosts. NFL players from the Steelers as well as Larry Fitzgerald are frequent guests at Pitt basketball games. Mark Cuban has been to several games.
A lot of student sections are famous for how they act when the game is going on. One thing most people don’t know about is the sheer amount of heckling that occurs before the game. Zoo members literally study their opponents, finding out things like their opponent’s mother’s names to mug shots to what classes they take at their respective universities. Zoo leaders carry white boards to spew words of discouragement at opposing players as well as to organize Zoo members into cheers. The heckling is so well known, the Wall Street Journal featured former Zoo President Dave Jedlicka talking about it:
“Opposition research has become a prerequisite. Pitt graduate student Dave Jedlicka, the president of the Zoo, proudly recounts how Pitt fans found personal pictures of West Virginia star Kevin Pittsnogle and his wife on Facebook and brandished them at a game in 2006. Mr. Pittsnogle missed all 12 of his shot attempts that day. “We’ve gotten really good about being witty and effective but not vulgar,” says Mr. Jedlicka. “I’ve only had to do two written apologies.”
In 2011, the Zoo started a radio partnership with Pitt’s WPTS student radio station to create “The Oakland Zoo Show”, a pregame show co-hosted with the Zoo leaders giving our thoughts on the upcoming match-up and to give people at home the experience of being in the Zoo. How many student sections have their own radio show? Also, in terms of numbers the Zoo only seats about 1250. The Pete was voted one of the top 10 loudest arenas by ESPN, and our student section is less than half of most in other big schools.
When the Oakland Zoo was first founded about 10 years ago, the university actually fought it. It came up with it’s own “AeroZone” to fight it. The Zoo, however, gained more and more followers and prevailed. Today, the Pitt Athletic Department works hand and hand with us to make Pitt basketball the best experience possible for students and fans. They help us design our t shirts each year, and help us with any activities we have planned. The Zoo has become such a positive force for the university, it is even used as a recruiting tool for other sports, especially football. Starting NFL running back LeSean McCoy essentially committed to Pitt when he encountered the Oakland Zoo. When football head coach (now former, ugh) Todd Graham was first hired by the university, the first thing he did was buy a Zoo shirt and come talk to the Zoo at half time of a game. He consulted the Zoo leaders for how to improve the game day experience and relationship with players for football as well.
The Zoo has also gained recognition for some of the things it’s done not entirely related to basketball. In 2006, the Oakland Zoo showed solidarity with the Duquesne University basketball team by wearing red ribbons to commemorate the five Duquesne basketball players who were shot earlier in the year. In 2008, the Oakland Zoo wore ribbons again, however this time it was for Pink the Pete. During the Pitt vs. UConn women’s game, the Oakland Zoo distributed pink ribbons to everyone in attendance to show support for breast cancer awareness. In 2010 against WVU, the Zoo wore red leis to raise awareness for heart health. In November of this year, stickers with the initials “S.L. were distributed in memory of former LaRoche coach Scott Lang, a dear friend of coach Jamie Dixon’s who died of a heart attack.
The impact of the Zoo is felt so strong, the players essentially give it a shout out everytime they put on their uniform. With the suggestion of head coach Jamie Dixon, the Zoo’s logo was incorporated into the Hyper Elite uniforms worn by the players. Not only that, but many of the players wear our shirt as they’re warming up before games. The announcement of our 2011-2012 Zoo T shirt logo accumulated over 3000 views the day it was released. Last but not least, close to 6000 people follow the @OaklandZoo account managed by current and former Zoo leaders, essentially being the central source for everything Pitt basketball related. It is the largest of any such group on twitter. The account gets everything from love from fans to hate tweets to shout outs from current and former players. It’s a force to be reckoned with in social media.
The one thing you can take from the Zoo is that it has grown along side Pitt basketball. Pitt’s rise to prominence is no coincidence, as the Zoo and the players have fed off each other for support. We feed off them, they feed off us. A decade old symbiotic relationship. When Pitt players make the right play at the right time in the Oakland Zoo, there is simply no more intense atmosphere in the country.
The last thing we’ll say is a quote from a Zoo member, Allison Russell, said to us in an email:
I’m telling you, you’ll never see a student section with more heart than the Oakland Zoo. We take losses as hard as the players. We care about our players. We are consistent and we are a very large group. Even though I graduated I feel like I can still say we. I still wear my Oakland Zoo shirt during every game, even though I’m no longer in Pittsburgh. I know plenty of alumni who do the same. It’s not just a four-year club you join while you attend school. I’ll always consider myself a member of the Oakland Zoo.
i’ll simply leave you with some pictures and video:
I’d go to about 2:40 into the first video for the crowd reaction.