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Shi: Deconstructing the Stanford basketball student section

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What can the Sixth Man do for Stanford basketball? Some might argue: quite a lot.

I’ve never seen Johnny Dawkins more animated than when Stanford beat Cal a few weeks ago. He was working the crowd, and the fans were responding. The students loved it.

You always love beating Cal, but particularly so when the team goes through the trials it has dealt with this season. Beset by inexperience and crippling injuries, Stanford was only 9-6 at the time. Its tourney hopes were already looking bleak, but if only for a moment, you could imagine that Dawkins had finally reached a turning point with the fandom that he’s struggled to connect with for so long.

In fact, you could almost immediately understand why he was so happy. As head coach at Stanford, I doubt you get very many opportunities to feed off the crowd like Dawkins did in the Cal game. It must be vexing. Demoralizing, even. It’s a lot easier for the team to play well if the fans are rocking. It speaks well of the fans, of the coach and of the program.

The problem is that it’s very easy to take the inverse of that fact as gospel and blame Stanford’s fans for Stanford’s losses.

Let’s lay out the case for the prosecution.

Stanford fans don’t rock very often: In fact, they rock at all the wrong times. Frustratingly for a coach, Stanford brings the noise only when the team is playing the very best opponents or in-state rivals, at least two of which historically haven’t been able to run with the Trees. As a typically midrange Pac-12 squad, the Cardinal needs the Sixth Man the most for similar midrange teams like Arizona State or Washington – but these are also the teams that excite the fans the least. On the other hand, in my four years, Stanford has never brought a weak house for Arizona – but it’s also evident enough that athletically, Stanford has rarely belonged on the same court as the ‘Cats.

This year, Cal – which has previously lacked the horses to compete with Stanford – brought a solid team to Maples Pavilion. And for once, Stanford’s standard UC crowd made a difference.

You could see Cal’s players getting flustered by intense and unrelenting crowd pressure. It was just a three-point game with under a minute left, and one might even argue that Stanford wouldn’t have won that game if it weren’t for the intensity of the fans. Every budding coach searches constantly and desperately for those little sparks of hope and progress. Every coach wants to move forward, and in the midst of a difficult season, Johnny Dawkins needed to be reminded that there’s still something left. That’s why he was so happy that night.

But you still can’t blame the fans for the games when Stanford doesn’t win.

While it’s part of Dawkins’ job to get Stanford interested in the team, I’m not sure how much Stanford can rely on Maples to carry it forward. Stanford’s students can help Stanford win a few more games. They aren’t going to make it a better program.

Are the fans really the people that will rebuild Stanford basketball? To argue that the fall of the Sixth Man costs Stanford one or two home games a year is fair; perhaps it even loses Stanford a good recruit or two on the side. Still, it’s a lot to ask fans to come out in force, particularly in a season when four of the eight home games during the school year aren’t even on weekends or Fridays!

Stanford schedules its basketball games to maximize television exposure and not fan involvement. It really shouldn’t be surprising that the students prefer to watch the games on television, if they watch them at all.

And at the end of the day, Stanford shouldn’t forget what every athletic administrator knows: Fans come because the program is good, not the other way around. You can call Stanford fans bandwagoners. Is that really going to make students care? I want Stanford to do well. But I still acknowledge there are a lot of interesting things on campus that the basketball team has to compete with.

This is a university capable of intense, almost ludicrous basketball fandom if the games are an event. Stanford students used to camp out for tickets, Duke-style. That sort of interest isn’t necessary. I think the team would just settle for a student section that looked full.

Nevertheless, the program still has to earn the respect of the fans.

I mentioned that after the Cal game Stanford looked like it had reached a turning point. The team proceeded to lose five out of the next six. Stanford is now 12-11 and 5-7 in conference play. It’s so far out of NCAA consideration that it would have to go 5-1 to close out the season and win at least one game in the Pac-12 tournament in order to even be on the bubble.

As Stanford makes its last case for the Big Dance, the Cardinal might read hope in the schedule, and in the same fashion explain any losses for the same old reasons. Stanford closes out the home slate with USC and UCLA, two rivalry games where the talent looks similar for once. You could argue that a passionate crowd that weekend could push Stanford onto the NCAA tournament bubble. You could blame the absence of such a crowd for a Stanford loss.

But there are so many other reasons why Stanford is no longer competing for conference championships. Faced with these reasons, are a couple of crowd-aided wins going to make Stanford a qualitatively better brand? Will Stanford start beating Cal for top recruits again? Will Stanford be set up for greatness if a raucous crowd boosts the Cardinal against the SoCal schools? I don’t think so.

Stanford basketball can’t rely on the fans to push it over the top. And Stanford can’t use bad attendance as an excuse for infuriating losses. In the end, it’s all about the team.

 

Winston Shi can be found camping out alone outside Maples the night before basketball games. If you want to give him some company, let him know at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.