Wednesday, March 14, 2007

March Madness

I don't follow college basketball like I used to.

I was an undergrad at Duke University from 1975 to 1979. Nowadays, Duke is bigtime basketball, but it wasn't always so. The Duke Blue Devils' record in conference play my first three years there was 7-29, and they pretty consistently finished at the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But I was a fan. I bet I didn't miss more than a handful of home games.

And then in my senior year, the team turned things around. After six seasons of not winning a single ACC tournament game, the Blue Devils swept the tournament. As conference champs, they went to the NCAA tournament and kept winning until the final game, which they lost to the University of Kentucky.

We loved our team. Duke is a small school. My freshman class had about 1200 students (Kennesaw's total enrollment is close to 20,000), so we knew these guys. And they had taken us from the bottom to the top in one season.

Things are different at Duke now. A whole generation of students has come to think of winning as almost a birthright. For us, winning wasn’t a birthright, but that doesn’t mean we were any less enthusiastic than the current “Cameron Crazies.” At many schools, students get game tickets ahead of time. At Duke, there were no advance tickets; we lined up outside Cameron Indoor Stadium, and when the doors opened, we flashed our student IDs and went in. After waiting outside in the cold for a few hours, doing whatever we could to stay warm, we weren’t inclined to be especially friendly to the opposing team.

And since students got every seat in the lower level--the wealthiest and most generous alumni had to settle for good seats above--the noise on the floor could be deafening.

Not long after I graduated, the students began to get out of hand. Their chants, which had begun to cross the line from fanatic to obscene, prompted Duke president Terry Sanford to send a letter to the student body about the growing problem. “Crudeness, profanity, and cheapness should not be our reputation,” he said, “but it is.”

I was so proud to hear that at the very next game--against arch rival University of North Carolina!--Duke students, instead of chanting “Go to hell, Carolina, go to hell [clap clap],” as we did, held up signs that said “Welcome Fellow Scholars.” And the first time the ref blew his whistle against the Blue Devils, instead of the usual obscene chant that was all too audible over the radio and television, the students chanted, “We beg to differ! We beg to differ!”

After my time at Duke, I moved down the road to Chapel Hill for two more degrees. I loved Chapel Hill--everything except Tar Heel basketball. I tried, Lord knows I tried, but I just couldn’t make myself do it, and after a season or two I gave up the effort.

I shared this story with Ralph Luker, who is also of both Duke and UNC, and readers of my old newspaper column a few years ago, but I think again about those years every time March rolls around.