When this season’s college basketball schedule was released in the summer, Orange fans everywhere highlighted one game in particular: On February 27, 2010, the Orange would take on preseason Big East favorites Villanova, who were ranked No. 5 in the nation to start the season.
However, this was not just a big weekend home game against a name opponent—the Carrier Dome faithful are used to those, in the Big East they are played multiple times a year—this game would also be the scene for College GameDay, the weekly pregame show/university pep rally that puts one school and one game in the forefront for all of the nation to see, as ESPN previews the weekend matchups.
This game was going to be big.
The entire season seemed to lead up to this game. Out of conference play, Villanova only dropped one game, at cross-town rival Temple.
However, it was Syracuse who made the big splash onto the scene and into the polls. The Orange, led by Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim and stud Iowa State transfer forward Wes Johnson, defeated No. 13 California and No. 6 North Carolina in back-to-back nights at the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.
The two teams felt a little more adversity as they waded through the rugged Big East conference. Villanova lost at Georgetown and Pittsburgh, and were upset at home against Connecticut, while Syracuse dropped games to Pittsburgh and Louisville, with both games taking place at the Carrier Dome.
By the time the polls were released on Monday, February 22, the final polls before the matchup, Syracuse was all the way up to No. 4 in the nation, with Villanova just four spots below them at No. 8, and the two schools topped the Big East standings.
Syracuse University has the benefit of playing in the largest on-campus basketball arena in the country, and when a matchup like this comes around, the central New York community pounces on it.
On March 5, 2006, for Syracuse legend Gerry McNamara’s final game, 33,633 Orange fans filled the Dome to the brim, breaking the NCAA on-campus attendance record. As the Villanova game approached, and both teams found themselves in the top five spots in the polls, a similar phenomenon occurred: Everyone wanted a seat.
Syracuse’s athletics department decided to let this game sell out, and once again, break the attendance record. Thirty-four thousand, six hundred and sixteen tickets later, they announced the game to be sold out.
Fans would be sitting in the uppermost corners opposite the game, where Andy Rautins and Scottie Reynolds would appear to be mere specks on Jim Boeheim Court.
This game was going to be really big.
An hour before the 7 pm tipoff of the women’s basketball game between Syracuse and undefeated No. 1 UConn on Wednesday, Feb. 24, over a hundred Syracuse students anxiously lined outside of Gate C at the Carrier Dome.
However, most of them were not here to see a showdown between Nicole Michael and Maya Moore, although many of them would stay. They were here to enter a raffle for the ability to choose the seats of their choice for the game.
The Syracuse student section, Otto’s Army, generally picks seats on a first-come-first-serve system, which is run by a a system called "The List", where each group of up to four members has to have at least one representative at the Carrier Dome’s Gate E (lovingly known as Boeheimburg by Otto’s Army members).
For small games, like an out of conference matchup with a team like Robert Morris or Oakland, the first group may show up a few hours in advance. However for big games, students may camp out in the harsh Syracuse winter for days on end in order to claim their seats.
For a normal game, there might be a dozen groups camping.
This was not going to be a normal game.
In recognizing the safety issues that go along with potentially hundreds of students sleeping in below freezing temperatures and the impending snow that would come to Syracuse that weekend, the Carrier Dome staff decided to bar any camping until that Wednesday, before the women’s game. Because of the utilization of a start time, a lottery was set up that would include every group present at exactly 6 pm.
Over 80 groups arrived.
The groups wrote on cards and were randomly drawn, and then put in order onto the List. One student, who was lucky enough to draw the fifth spot on the List, did not realize that he could not add non-season ticket holders to his group, and also, that he needed his group represented at all times at the Carrier Dome.
He reached an impasse: Leave and give up front row seats to what would be literally the biggest basketball game on any college camps, ever, or stay in the Carrier Dome from 6 pm on Wednesday the 24th until the Villanova game ends late at night on the 27th.
The choice was not as hard as it would seem. He remained in the Carrier Dome with just his laptop in tow, for about 83 hours straight.
The groups entered the Dome and watched Syracuse hang strong with the absolutely dominant UConn women, but to no avail, as the Huskies would extend their winning streak to 67 games. Afterwards, they headed to the concourse outside of Gate P inside the Dome, where they would line up and begin the campout.
Students began to stock their campsites. Extension cords littered the floor, and laptops were everywhere. Some students brought TVs, Xbox's, and did their best to recreate their dorm rooms in their new locale.
By 11 pm, when the extra members began to head home and leave their group representatives for the night, over 80 groups lined the concourse, ready for the next few days.
On Thursday, Syracuse got over 18 inches of snow. The storm was bad enough to warrant Syracuse University to close classes for snow for the first time since 1993. Dome patrons quickly found out what happens when two feet of snow rests on the Carrier Dome—the Dome gets heated to melt it.
As more and more groups entered the Dome to start their camping and their weekend, they were hit with a wave of heat, a very uncomfortable feeling for students bundled up in their heaviest winter jackets, boots, gloves, and ski pants.
Thursday saw about another fifty groups enter the Dome, braving the elements outside to reach the arena, and the elements inside once they got there. By Friday morning, the snow had melted, and the Dome’s temperature had returned to normal.
Friday was the largest day for the camp-out. Students who stayed in the Dome for the afternoon were greeted by a few surprise visitors, when most of the Syracuse basketball team came by to sign autographs, take photos, and for forward Kris Joseph, play a few video games.
The team wanted to let all of their fans know how much they truly appreciate the incredible fan support they had from the students all season.
Although the Dome staff originally planned to lock the doors and stop admitting groups at 6 am on Saturday, no one could foresee the incredible groundswell of interest on Friday night. By 11 pm, 208 groups lined the concourse, and the camp-out officially spanned more than half of the Carrier Dome.
For security reasons, as over 700 students could potentially be in the Dome with only a handful of guards on hand, the doors close and new groups were not admitted.
The night saw dozens of students in and out, heading to Marshall Street or Euclid Avenue for the normal Friday revelry, as well as an incredible number of delivery people beckoned to the Dome to bring the campers dozens of pizza pies and hundreds of wings.
The campers were afforded a few hours of sleep on the cold concrete, but by 6 am everyone was awake, and taking shifts to bring all of their camping supplies to their various dorms, apartments, and houses.
By 8 am everyone was back, getting ready for the GameDay broadcast by feasting on the donuts and Capri Sun juices supplied by the Dome staff. Past editions of GameDay at the Dome were not very successful, with only a few hundred students coming out to support the University.
That amount was topped just by the students who camped in the Carrier Dome, and by 7 am, a few hundred more students were lining up outside Gate E, all the way into the campus quad.
Syracuse’s GameDay crowd was not going to disappoint.
Most Syracuse students had never seen College GameDay live, and they took full advantage when ESPN decided to bring their show to the ‘Cuse for this game. With the numbers being fortified by a few local fans, over 7,000 fans showed up to see Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas, Bob Knight, and Hubert and Rece Davis preview the day’s games, and most importantly, talk about their beloved Orange.
GameDay was a very interesting production. Digger Phelps was the first analyst to come out and greet the fans, and he calls many of the directorial shots that involved the students, cheerleaders, and the band.
When Digger calls for a cheer, he gets that cheer.
When he called for a song, Sour Sitrus Society played that song.
When he wants to dance, no one can stop Digger from dancing.
One thing that Digger did need was a leader. When he called for someone who knew the student section inside and out, a student who could rally his 7,000 peers, one name began to resonate through the students, until finally, the chants broke out.
“Gumby! Gumby! Gumby!”, thousands of the students roared, until finally, the man himself emerged from the middle of the section and stepped onto the court.
Ryan “Gumby” Henry, a SUNY ESF Senior from Augusta, Maine, is one of the most visible and vocal leaders that Otto’s Army has. Donning his iconic white 2006 Eric Devendorf jersey, Gumby immediately broke out into a powerful rendition of “Let’s Go Orange!” With him, the entire student section erupted into the chant, the Sour Sitrus drummer began to provide the backbeat, and GameDay had begun.
Gumby followed Digger’s cue as he began a litany of “Let’s Go Orange”, “Who’s House? ‘Cuse House!” and “Go! Orange!” chants that supplied the loud background for the SportsCenter cut-ins and the entire one hour GameDay broadcast.
The Orange fans, and their army of big heads and witty signs, were all energy for the two or more hours they were on display, cheering Jim Boeheim’s presence when he came out to the show, and any Syracuse mentions, booing rivals Georgetown and Villanova, as well as commonly hated programs like Kentucky and Duke, and letting their thoughts be known towards every comment made by the analysts.
After the production had ended, the groups lined up back in order, and marched back to Gate P, where they would remain until 3:30, when preparations for the big game would get underway.
By 5 pm, everyone had arrived back at the Dome and met up with their groups, had been counted, swiped in, and wristbanded for the game, and eventually made their way down to the seats. By 7, two hours before tip-off, the student section was virtually full.
However, this was not the only game on the mind of Syracuse fans, and for good reason.
By 4 pm, No. 2 Kentucky had dropped their game at the streaky Tennessee Volunteers, and No. 1 Kansas was losing at Oklahoma State.
This situation, coupled with the fact that No. 3 Purdue was without their best player, Robbie Hummel, for the rest of the season and could likely lose the next day against Michigan State, brought one thought to the forefront of each Orange-minded fan in the Dome:
The thought of being the nation’s number one team.
Syracuse had not been No. 1 in the nation since their 2003 national championship, and not in the regular season since 1990, before most Syracuse freshmen were born.
As they sat in their seats or wandered the backcourt area of the Carrier Dome, students kept checking Mobile ESPN on their phones, or in some cases, watching the game live with applications on their iPods, iPhones, and Blackberries. As Kansas came closer and closer to losing, the reality of the situation started to really kick in.
As the time ran down, the student section erupted in excitement.
The sold-out game, a game that would see 34,616 fans in attendance, just somehow got bigger.
As the general public entered, it became very apparent that the crowd was going to live up to that vaunted number. Orange stretched as far as the eye could see. As tip grew nearer and nearer, the energy in the Dome became palpable.
The national anthem went along, and as the singer hit the line “gave proof through the night/that our flag was still there”, thousands of students put up giant “Os” with their arms. As the letter was sung, the students erupted, following the deafening boom of the “O” by loudly singing the rest of the song.
As the "Star Spangled Banner" reached its conclusion, it was apparent that this game was going to live up to the hype.
Syracuse went down early, but the crowd never let up, and much like they willed the Orange back from the 14-point deficit that opened the Georgetown game at the Dome a few weeks before, Syracuse took a lead late in the half and went into the locker room up 10, 46-36.
The second half saw the Orange surge ahead to a large lead that they would maintain for the rest of the game.
However, it was not a typical Syracuse blowout win.
Where fans will often start to file out of the Dome with a few minutes left, on this day, everyone stayed and got their money’s worth. The noise level rarely dipped; the crowd was all energy to the final buzzer, being measured at around 115 or more decibels, a level of noise comparable to a rock concert or a construction site.
Where usually only a few Syracuse students stay to sing and sway to the alma mater, after this game the section was bursting with pride. Almost the entire lower level remained in their spots, standing on the bleachers, swaying to the cool tones of the Syracuse alma mater, until “…to thy memory!” rang through the bleachers.
The students, many of whom had been there for thirty or forty hours in the last few days, did not want to leave.
Some may call the Syracuse students crazy, say it’s not worth sleeping on concrete just for a seat to the game. However, on Monday at noon when the latest polls were announced and Syracuse became the number one team in the country, not one person who was there would tell you they would do things differently.
This team is special, and the student body recognizes it this season.
Also featured on the Official SU Athletics Blog: http://suathletics.blogspot.com/
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