The gyrating mass of humanity at Gonzaga University men’s basketball games creates a wall of sound, felt as much as heard.
Twelve-hundred rabid students jumping in unison on mobile bleachers inside McCarthey Athletic Center send pile-driving shocks that reverberate through concrete. Whipped into a frenzy before tip-off, the Kennel Club represents the beating heart of a program that has become inextricably linked to Spokane’s identity.
“WE. ARE. G-U!”
The ear-numbing effects can nullify an opposing team’s rally. But they can also anger outsiders and blemish the school’s image.
It’s the unenviable job of David Lindsay to work with college students – who often push the boundaries of what’s deemed appropriate – to get in the heads of Gonzaga opponents without making it personal or offensive.
“We are managing a big, volatile situation,” said Lindsay, GU’s director of student activities. “You want people to say, ‘Man, that was crazy.’ You want crazy, but you don’t want it to go over the line. Where is that line? It’s not a solid line.”
Following long-standing tradition, for example, the students all turn their backs as the announcer introduces an opposing team’s starting lineup. It’s a practice that generates a couple of complaints a year from GU fans.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Well at WSU, they hold up a newspaper during introductions,’ ” Lindsay said. “That is better how? (GU students) don’t yell obscenities at the other team. Some people say (turning backs) is discourteous. But honestly, we are trying to create a discourteous atmosphere. How do you help your team win and not be rude to San Diego?”
Peter Kelly, a 22-year-old senior finance and economics major from Phoenix, said some people may think the back-turning is disrespectful, but it’s meant to show solidarity.
“I think they realize through our other cheers that it’s not” disrespectful, said Kelly, vice president of the Kennel Club, which students established 30 years ago. “We get pumped up and crazy without doing something to get kicked out. Our students understand that line.”
Even if the club decided to end the back-turning, it probably wouldn’t work, said Kiara Plourd, a 21-year-old senior accounting major and Kennel Club board member.
“It’s a tradition here. It helps unify us more,” she said.
Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh said he or a representative responds to every complaint he receives about student actions.
“It’s not possible to have a view on everything that is happening. But I do think it’s important for us to pay attention and intervene,” he said. “Our students, in my experience, have been very receptive. When they understand there may be some issue, they have taken action to deal with them responsibly.”
The Antlers, a similar student group at the University of Missouri, apparently crossed the line in November when school officials twice booted them over vulgar cheers. One decades-long cheer – “Scum, scum go back where you are from … and die” – prompted school officials to send security into the stands and escort the group out of the arena, even though students had modified the ending to “and cry,” according to published reports. Unlike the Kennel Club, however, the Antlers are unaffiliated with their university.
Student board meets with school officials daily
Gonzaga manages its image too closely to allow a similar occurrence here, students and school officials said.
The Kennel Club, with 2,500 paying members, has an 18-member board of directors that meets with Lindsay and other school officials daily during the basketball season. They go over proposed cheers, talk about what’s acceptable for signs or costumes and constantly try to set boundaries for The Line.
“We talk all the time,” Lindsay said. “Sometimes they say, ‘No. We like that chant.’ Then what we have is a teachable moment. I tell them, ‘You understand it’s not the game, it’s the public … it’s the newspaper … it’s ESPN. You will be gone in four years. You might like this chant now but this university intends to be in business a long time. This is our image. This is who we are.’ ”
McCulloh attends every home game his schedule allows. He is one set of ears, among many, that monitor everything that goes on during the games.
“It’s not all roses. But we also don’t ignore it,” McCulloh said. “When passions run high and they are trying to have an impact, sometimes people’s judgment about how one might behave could be impacted. To me it’s an opportunity to learn about how their actions might impact themselves and the university.”
Kennel Club President Trang Nguyen, a 21-year-old public relations major from Tacoma, said the board and university officials have a very positive working relationship and she doesn’t feel the group is censored.
“We are able to discuss anything that they have concerns about and any projects we want to work on,” she said.
For instance, Lindsay allowed some students to attend the game against Brigham Young University wearing white shirts and thin ties.
“That’s not pictures of body parts. It’s mimicking what is part of their culture,” Lindsay said. “We are going to let that one go.”
But when a male student arrived at a BYU game with several girls dressed up as his wives, “that’s … not going to get in the door.”
“When you are 19 years old and you are in an event, jumping up and down with thousands of your friends and it’s a very intense situation and it’s going crazy, it’s easy to forget where the line of respect is,” Lindsay said. “Humans at this age are pre-programmed to explore. ‘What happens if we do this?’ Our job is to pad the box so it doesn’t hurt so bad when they hit the other end.”
A few years ago, a group of Gonzaga students started a “Brokeback Mountain” chant directed at an opposing player they believed to be gay.
“Two guys started a chant and it caught on. People thought they were being funny,” Lindsay said. “We fought that hard. That was a teachable moment. You’ve got to jump on it. The students didn’t even think about it, but it was insulting and demeaning.”
Once it was discussed with the Kennel Club, the students complied.
“We have bright students,” Lindsay said. “But they are 18- and 19-year-olds in an adrenaline-infused atmosphere. They make mistakes. But as far as the entire Kennel Club going off, that’s not been a huge occurrence that we have had to deal with.”
Lindsay often has gone into the stands to confront students who blurt out profanity. Only once in the past seven years has he had to escort a student out of McCarthey, he said.
“We had a kid who drank too much and was kind of belligerent,” he said. “But again, one student every seven years in all the games … it’s minuscule.”
Kennel Club has made a ‘huge, huge difference’
On Jan. 23, students streamed through security for Gonzaga’s game against San Diego. All bags were searched and beverages checked for alcohol.
One student dressed up as a taco. Another sported a yellow hazardous materials suit complete with a gas mask. Several young women wore clothes sporting some version of the American flag.
“We screen every sign,” Lindsay said. “One student tried to bring in a white piece of paper and a Sharpie to make the sign while he was here. No, that’s not going to work.”
As game time neared, the students propped up huge photos of the players.
The game was close throughout and came down to the final seconds as the crowd and Kennel Club roared.
During a timeout, in an atmosphere drenched in noise, the Kennel Club yelled “We Will Rock You” and then danced to an ear-splitting rendition of the song “Jump Around.”
Late in the game, down two points, Torero guard Christopher Anderson missed his first free throw to an explosion of sound. He hit his second free throw to bring San Diego within one point at 57-56.
The entire crowd stood and cheered wildly when Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos hit a shot with 1:25 to go.
San Diego brought the ball up the court and the crowd erupted again as San Diego’s Anderson missed the final shot amid the chaos for a 59-56 Bulldogs win.
“It’s unbelievable to have them,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of the Kennel Club after the game. “The energy is unreal. It’s what you come here for.”
The wall of sound makes it difficult for opposing teams to communicate, Few said.
“It’s been a huge, huge difference over the years,” he said.
San Diego coach Bill Grier has seen the Kennel Club from both sides. Before taking the job with the Toreros in 2007, Grier worked 15 years as an assistant coach for the Bulldogs.
“When you are on the (Gonzaga) side, you walk out of their locker room with a lot of confidence,” Grier said. “The students get the rest of the building going. They feed off the energy.”
BYU has a very large crowd, but Grier said it doesn’t compare with the Kennel Club’s energy.
“It’s hard to communicate with your guys,” Grier said of the chaos. “You’ve got to be really, really tough between the ears to come in here and play with poise.”
That challenge, of course, is exactly what Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth wants.
“Our students do a great job,” he said. “We’ve been asked, ‘How do you get your students to do that?’ We don’t. They do it themselves.”
Roth said the school doesn’t tell the students what to say, but Lindsay made it clear that his office tells them what not to say.
“We can’t have that,” Roth said of profanity-laced chants. “We want the atmosphere. When they are bouncing up and down, to us, it’s not chaos. There is a method. It’s so loud, it’s electric.”