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Rowdy W.Va. student basketball fans under fire

By The Associated Press
02.06.10

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The profanity flying out of the West Virginia student section was so loud it could be heard on national television, prompting a university official to warn students to tone down their language at basketball games.

They obliged a week later — technically — during a game against Louisville. But on 10 separate occasions students chanted the name of a woman that Cardinals coach Rick Pitino admitted having sex with outside his marriage.

Members of the Mountaineer Maniacs weren't planning to be much better behaved, at least until after No. 6 West Virginia played No. 22 Pittsburgh at home Feb. 3.

Jonathan Kimble, a sports management major at WVU who attends games in the student section, said he and his fellow Maniacs would tone it down a bit later but that Pitt was an exception.

"Pitt is our rival so we'll probably be using a lot of colorful words against them," Kimble said.

The Feb. 3 game was, in fact, unruly. West Virginia University President Jim Clements apologized Feb. 4 to the University of Pittsburgh, saying he was "appalled and embarrassed" by fans who threw objects onto the court during the game.

Pittsburgh assistant coach Tom Herrion was hit under his right eye with what appeared to be a coin.

Clements joined Mountaineers Coach Bob Huggins in denouncing the behavior. Clements said the university would increase surveillance and security during games and vowed to prosecute violators "to the fullest extent permitted by law."

The level of heckling and boorish antics at college venues is as diverse as team colors. And the tolerance for such rowdiness varies from place to place, too.

In December, North Carolina coach Roy Williams ordered security to toss out a Presbyterian College fan who sarcastically shouted at a Tar Heel player not to miss a free throw.

Ken Gray, WVU's vice president for student affairs, said obscenities aimed at Ohio State on Jan. 23 could be heard across the land. So he e-mailed students a few days later urging them to stop the behavior and handle themselves with "sportsmanship, class and character."

At a Jan. 30 game against Louisville, several dozen members of the Mountaineer Maniacs, the largest student group on campus and part of the Student Government Association, wore T-shirts resembling tuxedos in a mocking play on showing class. Coach Huggins went into the student section before the game to encourage fans to be respectful.

"He knows how passionate we are," said WVU freshman Chris Northrup. "And he doesn't want us to tone any of that down. But he just wants us to keep the f-bombs off TV."

Then came the repeated chant of Karen Sypher's name at Pitino, the result of a note circulated among the student section before the game. Last year Pitino admitted having a consensual sexual encounter with Sypher in 2003. During one of the chants, which occurred during a timeout, Huggins motioned toward the students to quiet down.

"It's wrong that a school organization is encouraging this type of behavior," said WVU student John Terry. "I can understand if it happens, but students shouldn't be encouraged to personally attack an individual. That is just plain wrong."

A headline to an editorial in WVU's student paper, The Athenaeum, read, "Maybe Pitino deserved it: That's still no excuse."

"It wasn't just playful fun to get into an opponent's head," the editorial said. "It was meant to hurt and to punish, which goes beyond what anyone would consider reasonable."

The issues at West Virginia started Jan. 16 against Syracuse when fans threw items onto the court. One Syracuse blogger urged fans for the upcoming Georgetown game to refrain from littering the court: "Let's stay classy. We're not West Virginia fans, right?"

"We would encourage them to be more creative and work on not doing those things that really embarrass and disappoint not only us, but the coaches, the players and other students and fans," Gray said.

WVU has seen its image take a hit from time to time. Visiting football teams have worn their helmets coming out of the tunnel knowing that they're in a flying object zone. A Miami assistant coach was hit in the head with a trash can from the stands after a 1996 game in Morgantown settled a lawsuit with the university. The 2008 film "The Express" about Syracuse star Ernie Davis depicted West Virginia fans shouting racial slurs and throwing trash at Davis and other players during the 1959 season, even though Syracuse didn't play at Morgantown that year. Veterans from both teams say the incident never happened.

There have been positive moments, too. Three months ago, West Virginia earned widespread praise for its fans' outpouring of support toward Connecticut's football team at a game after the shooting death of Huskies player Jasper Howard.

Now some are concerned that fans in the basketball arena are going too far. Student body president Jason Zuccari regularly attends home games. He said fans should balance the intensity required to make West Virginia a tough place to play with the need not to ridicule opponents.

"We realize we've got to keep it clean," Zuccari said.


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