The Brigham Young Cougars came to Spokane last February and erased Gonzaga’s perfect record in men’s basketball.
That kind of defeat, at a moment when GU held a record of 29-0, sticks in the collective memory of the fans who eat, drink and sleep all things GU.
As the Cougars (18-5, 7-3 WCC) return Saturday to McCarthey Athletic Center, the pending conference showdown has rekindled the discussion – including an article this week in the Gonzaga Bulletin, the university’s student-run newspaper – about how students and fans can show their support for Gonzaga. The idea is to get into the heads of BYU players without offending them or the 26,000 Spokane County residents of the Mormon faith.
“I think sports have an interesting way of bringing people together and bringing out their competitive side,” said Gonzaga senior Claire Murphy, who also is the president of The Kennel Club. “It can kind of manifest itself when you play teams like BYU.”
In past games, some students have chosen to show support for GU (19-4, 9-1) by wearing outfits making them look like Mormon missionaries: White shirt, tie, even bicycle helmets.
Faculty and administration have had ongoing discussions with students about how such gestures can be taken the wrong way.
Last week, a meeting was held on campus that included people from several different departments across Gonzaga to discuss the costume issue. Those in attendance said the general consensus was that the issue shouldn’t be dealt with administratively by the university, but by the student body.
According to the Bulletin story, the Kennel Club board was moving in that direction anyway, and had even discussed the issue at its summer retreat. University officials – both in and out of the athletic department – said on Wednesday that the issue of religious costumes being worn to games is more impactful if the students themselves make those decisions.
“Some people look at it and say, ‘Hey, it’s just a white shirt, tie and bicycle helmet,’” Athletic Director Mike Roth said. “Some people might find it funny, but some find it offensive.
“We are not dictating that students can or cannot dress like that. But is that really the image that Gonzaga wants to portray? We don’t want to get into vulgarities or someone’s gender, their orientation, their religion or their race.”
Of the 6,000 seats at the McCarthey Athletic Center, the school sets about 1,250 tickets aside for students, though those students don’t get actual tickets. Instead, they have to wait in line – often overnight in a tent – to get their student-identification cards activated for the game.
As the students arrive for the game, they are funneled through one entrance, where staff members check over the signs and costumes going in to the game.
Judi Biggs Garbuio, vice president for student development at Gonzaga, said faculty and staff have had recent discussions about the missionary uniforms, but she said those concerns came from the students.
“The leadership of the Kennel Club Board is very sensitive about walking the line when it comes to costumes or signs,” Biggs Garbuio said. “To me, we are living our Jesuit mission by having conversations with students. Why did you choose to dress in that particular costume?”
An added wrinkle to the discussion of the student section is Gonzaga freshman backup guard Jesse Wade, who was rated as a four-star recruit by ESPN.com in 2013. After committing to GU, Wade went on a two-year LDS mission in Lyon, France.
But university officials stressed on Wednesday this was never about one player or even one person, and took exception to a blog post on the USA Today’s college basketball site that indicated there was pressure from higher ups to get the students to quit dressing as Mormon missionaries for BYU games.
“The idea that this initiative is reflective of an intent to intimidate anyone does not do justice to the truth, and to the good work that is at the core of it,” Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh said Wednesday night. “I am proud that the student leadership of the Kennel Club chose to take this issue on.
“It started with the students challenging each other. I thought it was especially important that the energy around this did not come from ‘on high.’ ”
Biggs Garbuio said one of the suggestions by students is to boycott the missionary outfits.
“Maybe that is the way to get into their heads: nobody was dressed up as a missionary,” she said. “It takes the wind out of their sails.”
A couple of students regularly show up to games dressed as bananas. “I don’t know how a banana can offend someone,” she said. But a Gumby outfit “may be too tall. If it causes others not to see the game, that’s another conversation.”
Murphy, a senior marketing major from Lake Oswego, Oregon, said she’s thankful that the faculty has been willing to discuss the issue, which also includes concerns about self expression and the individual rights of students.
“When it comes down to it, Mormon missionary costumes are specifically targeted mockery of the Mormon faith,” she said. “It really doesn’t align with what I believe – and a lot of people believe – Gonzaga should be about.”
Regardless of what the students wear, Roth has no concerns about what to expect from their conduct on Thursday when Gonzaga hosts San Diego (15-7, 6-4) or on Saturday when BYU steps onto the floor.
“I think it will be a great college basketball atmosphere,” Roth said. “We know from talking to opposing teams that they like coming in and playing at our building. Not all are as successful as BYU has been in recent years. But it’s constant energy. It’s a great place to experience college basketball.”
GU’s home record against BYU is not lost on Murphy. The senior personally watched her team lose 79-71 last February, 69-68 in 2016 and 73-70 in 2015.
“There is always a lot of pressure on this game. We have not beaten BYU on our home turf in three years,” she said. “This is a big game for all of us 2018ers.”
Like Murphy and Roth, Biggs Garbuio said she is excited about Saturday’s game.
“It’s going to be a win this year,” she said. “We are going to do whatever we can to make it a win.”
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