Students’ section? Not right now

  • 11/15/2010 3:48 pm in

So it’s come to my attention that it came to Mike Pegram’s attention that Indiana students aren’t the most reliable folks in the world, nor the most polite.

Indeed, their rather meager attendance and vulgar performance last night wasn’t exactly something to be bragged about. Even if Assembly Hall boasts one of the largest students sections in the country — as it claims to — what does it matter if the thing is only 2/3 full?

I’m not here to defend the vulgar language and chanting. I tend to fall on the side of thinking it’s not a huge deal, considering that it’s the trend pretty much everywhere now.

I’m also perfectly willing to call out students, or at least have been in the past. And I’ll admit to having been one of those vulgar, over-the-top fans in the bygone days of my misspent youth, though mostly at football games, where the heckling was actually more entertaining than the game itself.

But as to attendance, I think we’re all being a little bit harsh. Allow me to illustrate with a pair of stories:

When I was a freshman in high school, the women’s soccer coach asked if I wanted to serve as his team manager. I had done the same for the basketball team (wasn’t I really cool in high school?) and this seemed like an infinitely better gig — read: hanging out with cute junior and senior girls running around in short shorts — and so I politely accepted.

During one game, sitting on the bench, I chatted with an assistant principal who had come along about the imminent NCAA title game, held right there in our hometown of Atlanta. Was I pulling for Maryland, the team we all actually knew something about, living in ACC country? Or was I in Indiana’s corner?

I seem to remember choosing Indiana, because they were underdogs and, being an Atlanta Falcons fan, I have an eternal preference for the team less expected to win. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure they were underdogs, but I’m just trying to paint a picture of a place where the lore of Indiana basketball is not so ever-present.

Fast forward about three years, and I’m dining at Cheesecake Factory with all my senior women’s soccer players (it was a hard job to do for four years, but I sucked it up) when one of them points to a television above the bar and says, “Hey Zach, I think Indiana’s playing up there,” and indeed they were. Shellacking Purdue, no less.

By this point, I had stated my preference for Indiana. I’m pretty sure I’d been accepted, but I don’t remember all the specifics. Either way, here I am, self-avowed doe-eyed sports fan and future Hoosier, sitting at dinner not knowing that the basketball team whose season tickets I will soon beg my parents to buy is playing its biggest rivalry game, on ESPN no less.

According to Princeton Review’s latest numbers, Indiana’s out-of-state enrollment is at 31 percent of the entire student body. A Herald-Times article from September 2006, which talks about what would have been last year’s graduating four-year seniors, put the out-of-state figure at nearly 40 percent for the ’06 freshman class.

A large minority of Indiana’s student body is not of the state of Indiana, and IU basketball, glorious though it might be, just doesn’t resonate nationally the way it used to. The Hoosiers haven’t advanced past the first weekend of the tournament since the national title run in 2002, and have actually not been to the NCAA Tournament in as many seasons (four) as they have tournament berths since that magical year.

For many current Indiana students, IU basketball exists in two ways. As a whole body of work, it is steeped in glory. In physical reality, where Indiana has just one four-year class enrolled right now that even remembers the Hoosiers in a tournament, it is a far less appealing option at 7 p.m. Sunday night.

That’s not to excuse the scene Peegs captured in his column today, with sections in the lower bowl mostly devoid of students, even with the general admission rule now in effect. I guess Peegs has had some reader feedback saying that ushers and Assembly Hall security personnel haven’t exactly been helpful with the new policy. Like most things, it will take time.

But so many of the students that should be filling those seats have no concept of what Indiana basketball means to its loyal fans. They know only of the Indiana basketball team that’s won 16 games in two years and hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in nearly four.

That perception, like so many things, will take time to fix. I am of the opinion that the repair has taken — and will continue to take — several steps forward this season. Then maybe the students (and also-absent alumni, of which there were plenty Sunday night) will return.

In the meantime, the next time someone complains about the state of IU basketball and then admits that they skipped a game for which they had tickets, you have my permission to kick them.

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