In the late 1980s, on the front end of a game between KU and Duke, a large banner was placed inside Allen Fieldhouse. It reads, “Pay Heed, All Who Enter: BEWARE Of ‘THE PHOG’”. It is a tribute to the namesake of the arena, Dr. Forrest “Phog” Allen. It also is a testament to the fanaticism that is KU basketball.
In recent days, I had a chance to experience Allen Fieldhouse firsthand. My beloved Texas Longhorns were taking on the KU Jayhawks. We took a break from weekend sports and spent the afternoon in Lawrence, Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. The noise was thunderous. The taunts were fatiguing (and enjoyable). In the end, for KU fans, it was another round of well-known euphoria as they again leveraged home court advantage and carried the day.
In reflecting on the experience, it raised the larger question in my mind: who are the best fans in college basketball? It is, of course, an emotional topic and almost an impossible short list. There are so many iconic arenas from Liberty Hall at Indiana to Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. Fans bring such zeal to their opinion. Rational thinking is hard. I can almost see the comment section now.
Let me light the fuse with my take on the top three venues in the land.
- #3 Rupp Arena: The state of Kentucky is known for two things: horse racing and college basketball. No icon stands out (sorry, Louisville fans) like Rupp Arena, home to the Kentucky Wildcats. Rupp is a big venue compared to some of its other rivals. It holds 23,000. In addition to its rabid fans, it also has a 12,000-pound sound system that the locals call Big Bertha. The student section includes a standing only area called the “eRUPPtion Zone.” They love their basketball and there has been a lot to cheer about over the course of the last decade. Kentucky consistently leads the nation in attendance. They put a major hurt on the Missouri Tigers in recent days and I would guess that they will be climbing the Top 20 ranks as we move through the second half of the season. A key advantage will be the strong support of the Kentucky fans. They turn out and turn it up. They nudge out Syracuse, post-Bobby Knight Indiana and couple of other candidates to take the Number 3 spot on my list.
- #2 Cameron Indoor: They are called the Cameron Crazies. Smart. Fanatical. Funny. They have, in many ways, defined the crowd experience for college basketball ever since Coach K took the Duke program to the upper echelon of Division One. As the ESPN 30 for 30 on Christian Laetner makes clear, these fans, and the players they cheer on, have made some across the country dislike the Duke program. No matter what you think of them, you have to respect their passion and knowledge of the game. Cameron is small and intimate at less than 10,000 seats. The student section surrounds the court. The noise levels are amazingly loud. You may not like Duke. You have to love this venue. It is Coach K’s greatest recruiting tool including a court that bears his name. What D I recruit wouldn’t want to play in front of these fans?
- #1 Allen Fieldhouse: Let me begin by noting that I don’t like KU in any sport they play and, having been to the Texas football games in Lawrence, find their fair weather support of the football program to be an apostasy (My friend Will may be the lone exception to this comment). If I can support TX football after a season like this one, KU fans ought be willing to show up and support KU’s major teams. With that caveat, ESPN named Allen Fieldhouse the loudest stadium in college basketball. I didn’t get a numeric reading, but my experience certainly was consistent with the claim. The introductions were electric. KU looked lackluster in the first half. As they found their shooting range in the second half, the decibel levels continued to grow. It really was amazing. Allen is 16,300 at capacity, was completely full (continuing a more than decade long streak of sellouts) and the student sections on either side of the basket never sat down. This venue is old school. It is college basketball at its best. It was an absolute pleasure to be there.
We are getting ready to enter that awful window after the Super Bowl, but before March Madness and then quickly after that Opening Day. College basketball (and, for some people like my Dad, college hockey) fills the void. I want to thank my host, Cliff Illig, for allowing me to take in this game. It was really awesome. The banner has it right: BEWARE THE PHOG. The Longhorns got a first hand lesson in what it is like to play in what is, in my view, the best venue in college basketball.