Entering this season, there seemed to be a pervasive fear that the Cameron Crazies as we knew them were dead.
At several games last year, the student section in Cameron Indoor Stadium was emptier than an Econ 55 lecture. With a few hundred students absent, the atmosphere was lousy, and this upset Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Department of Athletics.
After a number of these games, Krzyzewski called out the fans, wondering where they were and saying the environment needed to return to the raucous "Cameron of old."
As a response, the athletic department introduced draconian policies to enforce student attendance, such as threatening to give away tickets if students did not fill their 1,200-seat allotment. Just a few games into the season, though, students were cramming Cameron like they did in the eras of Battier and Laettner, and the policies were suspended. Did the athletic department compel students to go by forcing them to sign up in advance? It's certainly possible.
But it also could be that this year's team won 22 of its first 23 games and averages more than 85 points per contest.
Although it sounds obvious, it's also clear Duke students will attend games in one of two situations-when a team is really good or when games are inherently exciting or dramatic. When this year's squad took on an athletic Clemson team in the first major test of the conference season, more than 100 students were turned away by the fire marshal.
And it's not just men's basketball: there is evidence for this argument across Duke's athletic programs.
Two years ago, I stood jammed against my classmates in the stands of Cameron and watched former head coach Gail Goestenkors and her second-ranked squad dominate No. 1 Tennessee en route to an appearance in the National Championship game. As Duke ran all over the Lady Vols, the Crazies rained support upon their beloved squad and mercilessly mocked the opponent.
But this year, under first-year head coach Joanne P. McCallie, wins have been harder to come by and games haven't been nearly as well-played or exciting.
When Pat Summit's crew came to Cameron this January, the students did not. Sure, in the box score it was listed as a sellout, but that sellout wasn't nearly as sold out-particularly in the student section-as previous sellouts.
Just yesterday, when the Blue Devils had their worst loss in 25 years to North Carolina, it didn't make the front page of this newspaper like the game did in the past three years. Not even the first page of the sports section.
Look at this fact as a measure of the team's buzz on campus. Because this team has struggled more than it has in a long time, the student body at large simply doesn't care about it.
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So what does this mean? In some sense, it says that Duke students are fair-weather fans, supporting the team when things are going well. And that would certainly be a fair criticism of the lagging support during last year's basketball season. But can you really blame the average student for not attending a game when starting center Josh McRoberts looked like he didn't want to be there, either?
There will always be the diehards in every sport who will stay with a team through thick and thin and give up nights of homework or socializing to sleep outside and watch Duke take on Albany. But when Cameron doesn't fill, it's the 300 casual fans who aren't coming. It's these basketball fans who will be the first to tell you that they pay attention when there's buzz about a team or a program or when the team is good.
The most obvious example does not take place in Cameron but in Wallace Wade six or seven Saturdays every fall. Blue Devil football games are notoriously unattended by the student body not because of any dislike of football or lack of support for the program. Students don't go because it's not fun to root for a team while it is getting throttled.
If head coach David Cutcliffe is able to build a program, the students will come. We all remember how the student body celebrated Duke's lone victory of the last two seasons against Northwestern.
It doesn't matter what policies Joe Alleva or Larry Moneta or any other member of the administration attempts to implement to drag students from the Blue Zone to Wally Wade-they'll go if the games are close. Just as the ludicrous validation policy had no real impact on student attendance, no future initiative will change the fan culture surrounding football. The only way to get those non-diehard students in the stands, the ones that make Cameron the best environment in college basketball, is to win. Plain and simple.