View From the Press Box
by Rick Brewer, Sports Information Director Emeritus
CHAPEL HILL - When Notre Dame outlasted Louisville in five overtimes recently, it brought what has become the expected response in college basketball--a pouring onto the playing court by spectators.
The same thing had occurred earlier that day at Wisconsin when the Badgers scored a dramatic win over Michigan.
To many, this may seem a trivial matter. After all, one of the purposes of college athletics is to serve as enjoyment and an outlet for students.
However, I'm not so sure storming the court every time the home team wins a game is really doing that. The outlet for students should be the excitement of the game itself, not piling all over players and themselves when the game is finished.
Certainly, a dramatic win is a cause for celebration. Fans see players jumping with excitement and want to join in the moment.
It seems that people everywhere want to be a piece of the action. It may be that spectators have seen courts being stormed in other arenas or a few students reach the floor and then decide to follow. Some now seem to think this is part of the game.
I'm not necessarily against students pouring out of the stands after a really dramatic win such as those at Notre Dame and Wisconsin. I can also understand that occurring after an upset over a top-ranked team. However, it is happening too much when there is really no reason for it.
Fans can enjoy a victory while staying in the stands. More importantly, it's not safe to be out on the floor. Schools simply cannot find enough security to keep a large number of people off the court if they charge it at a game's conclusion.
Carolina has been fortunate no one has suffered any major injuries in these post-game "celebrations." That goes for fans, players, coaches, the opposition, officials or members of the media. The first time I can recall the court being flooded with people here wasn't even at a game's conclusion. It was the 1974 Duke game in Carmichael Auditorium when the Tar Heels rallied from an eight-point deficit in the final 17 seconds of regulation. Walter Davis hit a long jumper from just over mid-court as time expired to force overtime. It was such a dramatic play that fans poured on to the court in excitement.
Tar Heel coach Dean Smith said afterwards that he at first was so confused by what happened that he thought maybe he had been looking at the scoreboard wrong in the final moments-that maybe the shot by Davis had actually won the game.
That wasn't the case and the floor was cleared as the teams huddled for overtime. After Carolina eventually won, 96-92, the celebration wasn't anything like it had been when Davis had tied the game.
Like most arenas it was difficult to keep fans off the court at Carmichael, just as it is at the Smith Center. But, in Carmichael, teams could easily get to their own locker rooms by exiting behind their benches. Even if crowds did pour on to the floor there weren't players there to be mobbed.
Big celebrations on the court by spectators only happened occasionally at Carmichael-- such as the stunning comeback win against Virginia in 1983. That's when Michael Jordan made the big plays down the stretch as Carolina scored the game's final 16 points in a 64-63 victory.
Sure, there were some fans that raced out onto the floor after other games. But, one thing that helped was Smith's old rule that as soon as a game was over his team had to "sprint to the locker room." The purpose was to keep players from having problems with fans when the team was on the road. Even after a big homecourt win the Tar Heels were off the floor quickly. That fast exit also helped prevent any mob scenes here.
However, in the 1990s it became a post-game ritual for opposing players to shake hands after games. The idea was a good one in theory--to promote sportsmanship. Carolina was criticized for not initially taking part in this and Smith finally agreed to do so, dropping his idea of getting his players off the court quickly and out of any potential trouble.
But, that also left them out on the floor where home court fans could mob them. So rushing the court became more noticeable here. Plus, a loss on the road meant staying out among the home team's fans much longer than needed.
Certainly fans can get caught up in a tight game, one with a huge comeback or a game won on a last-second shot. That's why athletic officials know the pouring on the court needs to be anticipated.
However, there is always the possibility of someone getting hurt in scenes such as that or confrontations between fans and opposing players. People can come to games and enjoy themselves without getting involved in post-game celebrations on the floor.
The Smith Center presents a special problem that Carmichael didn't. Opposing players have to directly cross the court, right through any celebrations, to get to their locker room. Security personnel try to offer as much help as possible and fortunately there haven't been any major altercations. Some coaches and team are escorted out behind the Carolina bench and down the Tar Heels' exit tunnel to avoid fans.
The NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference do an excellent job of preventing such problems in their tournaments. It's a little easier there since each school's fans are generally seated together and extra security can be located in one area.
Unfortunately, individual schools are simply outmanned since their courts are surrounded by their own fans. It is more often becoming a problem without any easy answers.