By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
They call it “The Oakland Zoo,” Oakland for the area of Pittsburgh in which it is located and Zoo because of the “animals” who inhabit it.
It is located courtside the Petersen Events Center on the Pitt campus and it is celebrating 10 years of being one of the zaniest, wackiest student cheering sections in America, a worthy competitor for the Mountaineer Maniacs of Morgantown.
It is what they call the home-court advantage, and in this case Pitt has a huge one, seldom losing in its own building.
“It’s one of the craziest (student sections),” West Virginia University senior Cam Thoroughman admitted on the eve of yet another trip to the Zoo. “I wouldn’t call it the craziest. Purdue was nuts last year.”
In the Big East, though, along with West Virginia, Pitt is alive with energy created by its student section.
By now the world is well aware of it, having been featured in The Wall Street Journal and on ESPN and having had Dick Vitale sit among the students.
Sports Illustrated did a poll and found it the No. 1 student section in the Big East with anonymous players being quoted as saying “the fans get there early to start heckling you; it’s like a zoo,” and “the student section is next to the court, and the fans there say some creative stuff.”
That, of course, is done everywhere, especially at the WVU Coliseum, but at WVU the student section is on one side of the court and goes up away from the court while at Pitt it goes around the court, more intimate to the field of play.
And you are liable to find anything there from body paint to wigs, to masks or animal costumes such as bears, gorillas and wookies.
At least, I think it is costumes.
The original idea for the zoo came from a Pitt student named Matt Cohen during the Jan. 6, 2001, game against Syracuse when he and Zach Hale decided the student section was too calm. They had a meeting with eight other students and introduced “The Oakland Zoo” on Jan. 13, 2001, in a victory over 15th-ranked Seton Hall.
From then it took off, first in old Fitzgerald Field House, then at the Pete.
Rest assured, the players are aware of it for it really does make a difference, just as WVU’s crowd lifts the Mountaineers at home.
One may wonder, exactly what is a home-court advantage, though, and why is it so strong. Pitt, for example, is 15-1 at home this year. Coach Jamie Dixon’s home record is 131-12 in eight years at the school.
“It’s 12,000 screaming fans and whenever you do something good they’re going crazy for you. It’s just craziness. It does do a lot for you. It can get runs for you. When start making a couple of shots and those people get behind you, you start playing a lot better,” Thoroughman said, when asked to explain the home-court advantage.
“It’s your comfort level. It’s where you practice every day. You have the student section. You know the noise level. You can feed off it. They may help make that extra stop or give the confidence to step in and knock down that open jumper,” senior guard Joe Mazzulla added.
Some players claim not to notice the antics of the fans during the game, but you just know that’s not true. They know, for example, when WVU traveled to Pitt a few years back they were on tall Jamie Smalligan, calling him “Ostrich.”
Mazzulla takes note of the fans.
“We actually look forward to seeing what they do. It’s a great crowd. It’s all in great fun, and it gives you that extra motivation,” he said. “Some of them are creative. ... You notice it. ... You laugh at it a little bit, but at the same time you have to let it go.”
Some teams have to have the comfort of playing at home. West Virginia is not one of those teams. The Mountaineers are quite content to play on the road.
Under Bob Huggins, the Mountaineers are 17-17 in Big East road games. Huggins’ 17 Big East road wins equal the number the team had under veteran coach Gale Catlett and exceed John Beilein’s total of 13.
Overall, Huggins has 51 road victories since coming to WVU and just 46 in the Coliseum.
The road, to them, is a home away from home … except for one rule that they have.
“The only rule is you never walk out of there alone. You always walk out with someone else,” Mazzulla said.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.