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Al Featherston On The Cameron Crazies!

I'm not quite sure when the Cameron Crazies got their distinctive name.I've tried to research the issue and while it appears that the term came into widespread use about 1986, it's not clear exactly when and where it originated. It may have been used on earlier occasions, but in reading a number of articles about Duke's crowd behavior in 1984, the term "Cameron Crazies" was not used.

But while chasing the origins of the name is interesting, I'm more interested in another question:  how and when did Duke's Cameron Crazies become the standard by which all other college student rooting sections were judged?

The Duke-haters will try to deny it, but The Cameron Crazies have become the gold standard in the game today. Yes, the Izone at Michigan State is terrific. So is the Orange Crush at Illinois. Stanford, Pitt, Maryland, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Florida ... all have loud, enthusiastic and at times clever student sections. You frequently hear claims that such and such group is as good or better than the "overrated" Cameron Crazies. And, you know what, there are times when that might be true.

That doesn't change anything.

Baseball researcher Bill James was talking about the historical debate as to the greatest Negro League pitcher of all time and he addressed the issue of Satchel Paige, the player widely assumed to be the greatest of all time. He agreed that some researchers have made good cases for other Negro League pitchers Bullet Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith, Leon Day, especially. But he pointed out that every one of those researchers has to start out by comparing his candidate with Satchel Paige. It's not that Paige is necessarily the best but James points out, he is the standard all potential candidates have to measure themselves against.

The same applies to the Cameron Crazies. When some new group of fans achieves notoriety, they don't run around comparing themselves to the Oakland Zoo at Pitt or the Grateful Red at Wisconsin their target is the Cameron Crazies. Duke's crowd may or may not be the best student rooting section ... but it is the standard by which all others are measured.

How did that happen?

The Duke crowd was very good in the 1960s and in the late 1970s, but I don't remember anybody suggesting at that time that it was the best in college basketball. I'm not even sure there was a general consensus in that era that Duke's crowd was any better than the Wolfpack fans at Reynolds or that the atmosphere in Cameron was any better than what existed for UNC in Carmichael.

That all changed in the mid-1980s at just about the same time that the Cameron Crazies were named. I believe two factors helped separate the Duke fan base from their rivals at UNC and N.C. State:

(1) Duke started winning a lot more than N.C. State. Just as Coach K's program took off, the Pack's proud program collapsed. There was a very small overlap in the late 1980s, when both teams were good, but the probation at N.C. State, Jim Valvano's resignation and the uproar over Peter Golenbock's ridiculously inaccurate book all conspired to take the life out of the N.C. State basketball program. The crowds at Reynolds could still get very loud and enthusiastic at times, but with the program losing, those times became fewer and farther between. And with the Pack slipping from the national radar, fewer N.C. State home games were nationally televised, reducing the exposure of the Reynolds Rowdies (nobody ever called them that, but it would have been a good nickname) even when they were good.

(2) North Carolina moved from Carmichael to the Smith Center. Old-timers will confirm that Carmichael Auditorium, which opened for the 1965-66 season with a seating capacity of about 9,000, was a terrific place to play. A wall of students lined the sidecourt area behind the benches and the scorer's table and occupied one end zone. The fans on the other sidecourt area and in the other end zone were loud and demonstrative. Carmichael was, quite frankly, a great atmosphere for basketball.

The Smith Center is very imposing at first glance and it did provide room for UNC's growing legion of fans. Unfortunately, to raise money for construction, the school had to sell out its students. Not only that, the facility might be the worst-designed basketball arena I've ever seen. Check out the old Charlotte Coliseum or even the RBC Center --  those arenas put 20,000 fans on top of the action. The seats at the Smith Center climb upward at such a gentle rate that those in the upper deck might as well by in another county. And designed as an octagon, the Smith Center has as many seats in the corners and in the end zones as side court.

Sam Cassell's famous declaration that UNC had a "wine and cheese" crowd was, to my mind, more a condemnation of the Smith Center than the UNC fans. I believe their students and their normal fans were just as loud and just as enthusiastic as they had been in Carmichael. It's just that with so many of them so far away and the court insulated by fat cat boosters who often couldn't be bothered to cheer the arena came to embody the worst in college basketball atmosphere.

I think North Carolina has taken some positive steps in the last few years to improve the atmosphere in the Smith Center including creating student end zone section that is a carbon copy (even down to the pre-tipoff bouncing) of the Cameron Crazies.

Duke emerged as the standard for college crowds simple by not changing Cameron Indoor Stadium. The arena, designed by a black, Paris-trained Philadelphia architect, emerged in the 1990s as a last relic of a by-gone age an age when the student was at center-stage and the fat cats watched from above. True, there are other historic facilities left the Palestra in Philadelphia was actually the model for Cameron they weren't on ESPN every other night. Al McGuire and Dick Vitale deified the Cameron Crazies because they were in the right place (Cameron Indoor Stadium) at the right time (as Mike Krzyzewski's program took off).

But was there ever anything special about the Duke fans, before or after they earned their distinctive nickname?


It's hard to find laudatory press reports about the Duke fans in the first decade of Duke Indoor Stadium.

Writers loved the new arena. It was a showplace regarded as the finest basketball facility south of the Palestra. N.C. State, looking to build a new on-campus arena, designed a carbon copy. The Southern Conference (which included almost all the teams that would break off in the early 1950s to form the ACC) moved its tournament to Durham in 1947 and stayed there until the Pack's new arena,  redesigned by Everett Case to be larger than Duke Indoor Stadium, was ready to take over in 1951.

I can only judge the fan base indirectly -- the Duke fans never provided enough support to help the Devils in the Southern Conference Tournament. Ironically, Duke won its last Southern Conference title in 1946, when the tournament was held in the Raleigh Auditorium. The Devils reached the Southern Conference championship game in two of the four years the tournament was held in Durham, but lost both title game matchups to N.C. State. The Devils would also lose to the Pack in the first two title games played in Reynolds Coliseum.

I'm also bothered by the fact that Duke Indoor Stadium was well short of capacity for the 1952 Duke-UNC game. That was the final home game for All-American Dick Groat, the school's first great player. A crowd listed at 7,500 good, but more than 1,000 less than capacity, saw Groat drop 48 on the Tar Heels.

The first real evidence I can find that Duke's crowd was anything special dates back to Dec. 18, 1956. On that night, Adolph Rupp brought No. 7 Kentucky to Duke Indoor Stadium and the heavily favored Wildcats built a 15-point lead. But guard Bobby Joe Harris sparked a frenetic comeback that saw Duke rally to take an 85-84 lead. When Kentucky missed a potential game-tying free throw in the final seconds, the Duke students rushed the court.

More importantly, after the game, Rupp ranted about the behavior of the Duke crowd and vowed that he'd never again bring a team to Duke Indoor Stadium. But as wild as the crowd must have been that night, I don't think the Blue Devil fans sustained that level of enthusiasm game after game.

Vic Bubas became Duke's head coach after the 1959 season and one of his first priorities was to energize the Blue Devil crowd. Bubas, of course, played and coached under Case at N.C. State. The Gray Fox was justly celebrated as the greatest promoter ACC basketball has ever had. There's no question that in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, N.C. State's fan base was the area's most celebrated.

Bubas helped change that. He not only copied Case's most successful innovations, but added a few of his own. The Duke crowd, I believe for the first time, became something special under his tutelage. It was not just the great moments such as the Carolina games or the 1963 visit by West Virginia or the December, 1965 visit by No. 1 UCLA. Duke Indoor Stadium was a terrific place even for the ordinary games. Of course, those games could turn extraordinary, like a 1967 visit by Penn State, when Bubas suspended four starters and the crowd had to cheer Bob Verga and four scrubs to an amazing 89-84 victory.

And, maybe my memory is warped, but I have never seen a better atmosphere at Duke than for the 1968 triple-overtime victory over No. 2 North Carolina the famous "Freddie Lind game".

Jeff Mullins, who played for Bubas from 1962-64, paid tribute to the fans of his era on the night his jersey was retired in 1994, he said:

"I would like to be the first to say that the next thing to be put up in Cameron should be something about the Duke fan. I'm not talking about the Duke fan of today that gets tremendous recognition, but primarily for the fans of the sixties, who were every bit as good, every bit as creative, had every bit as much fun, but just didn't get the national attention." [Quote from John Roth's "Encyclopedia of Duke Basketball"]

Certainly I can attest from personal experience that the crowd at Duke Indoor Stadium was every bit as good in the Bubas era as it has been in Mike Krzyzewski's tenure. When UCLA visited in December of 1965 after winning two straight national titles, the noise level was astonishing. And the perfect description of the Duke crowd at its best was provided by Jack Marin, after a 1964 game with Michigan:

"One night, I heard the loudest noise I've ever heard in my life. We were playing Michigan and we were behind and started catching up. The fans got behind us and began roaring and the noise was incredible. It was like a jet engine."


Unfortunately, there's no direct line between the excellence of the Duke crowd in the Bubas era and today's Cameron Crazies.

In between Bubas' retirement in 1969 and Duke's revival under Bill Foster in the late 1970s, the behavior of the Duke crowd slumped as badly as the performance of the Duke team. Indeed, it's almost as if the frustration with the team's struggles pushed the crowd over the fine line that separates the best edgy humor into mere viciousness and obscenity.

Don't get me wrong, there were still some delightful moments. The Duke students did a wonderful job mocking Lefty Driesell during that era. Students would show up wearing bald skullcaps (sometimes with an empty gas gauge on the forehead) and dressed as the Maryland coach with his ugly ties and his too-large sports coats. One year when Driesell broke his ankle and arrived wearing a cast, half a dozen of the Driesell look-alikes also showed up sporting casts.

It was during this era that the students pulled off one of their greatest stunts. A male student in drag took centercourt to sing the national anthem before a game against N.C. State mocking Norm Sloan's wife, who used to sing the national anthem before the Pack's home games. It was a great stunt because it so clearly infuriated the hot-tempered Sloan, who responded by labeling the Cameron Crazies as drunken louts. The next time N.C. State showed up in Cameron, the students passed around huge,inflatable beer bottles and sang, "100 bottles of beer on the wall ..."

But the great moments in that era were outnumbered by the sheer ugliness of the crowd. Obscenity, rather than cleverness, became a staple of the Duke crowd. Many loyal Blue Devil fans (including my own father) gave up their tickets in disgust with the constant barrage of vulgarity.

The situation improved as Foster brought winning basketball back to Duke in 1977-78. That's not to say the Duke students totally cleaned up their act, but they did focus more on the positive than the obscene. That's when students first began camping out before big games, although Fostertown was never as elaborate or as celebrated as Krzyzewskiville would become [Quick aside: Bryan Strickland was wondering: If Foster had stayed and built a dynasty at Duke, would the Cameron Crazies now be known as Foster Kids?]. It was the Foster-era Cameron crowds that came up with the "Air Ball" chant after UNC went scoreless in the first half of the 1979 game in Durham -- and Rich Yonaker failed to draw iron on his two first-half shots.

Still, I think it says something that when NBC came to Cameron to do the first national telecast from the arena --the Duke-Marquette game on Jan. 28, 1979 -- that the network insisted on a time delay (a quarter century before Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl led to widespread sports time delays) so that any particularly outrageous actions by the crowd could be censored.

But the Duke crowd reached the nadir of negative notoriety early in Coach Krzyzewski's tenure. The flash point was a game against No. 5 Maryland on Jan.14, 1984. One of the Terp standouts, forward Herman Veal, had been charged with sexually assaulting a Maryland coed in the preceding week. No formal charges had been filed, but the case had drawn considerable publicity, especially when Driesell called the coed and tried to get her to drop her charges.

That was all grist for the mill of a crowd already notorious for celebrating an opponents' problems. When Tommy Burleson was caught breaking into a pinball machine, the pep band greeted him with a chorus of "Pinball wizard." When Kendall "Tiny" Pinder and Tony Warren of N.C. State were caught switching price tags on underwear at an outlet store, they were showered with BVDs. Lorenzo Charles endured a barrage of pizza boxes after he was charged with robbing a pizza delivery boy.

But the assault on Veal was over the top. Not only was he bombarded with panties and condoms when he was introduced before the game, he had to endure chants of "Rape" and other ugly taunts. The closest thing to anything clever was a sign, "Hey, Herman ... did you send her flowers."

To understand how Duke was castigated in the national press for that performance, all you have to do is to recall the scene at College Park two years ago, when the Maryland students subjected J.J. Redick to every manner of obscene assault from "Fuck you, J.J." t-shirts to some chants that even I blush to remember.

Interesting that both Veal in 1984 and Redick in 2004 responded to the abuse with superb games and led their teams to victory. And both schools, embarrassed by the widespread negative national attention, took steps to clean up their crowds. By chance, Duke's next home game in 1984 was a visit from No. 1 North Carolina. Between the Maryland and UNC games, Duke president Terry Sanford wrote what came to be known as "the avuncular letter" to the students, pleading for better behavior. Perhaps more effectively, Krzyzewski visited student groups and met with fans camped in line for the game, begging for positive support.

When UNC took the court for the game, Duke students were wearing halos fashioned out of coat hangers and covered in foil. They held signs that said, "Welcome, Honored Guests." And the first time Dick Paparo blew a call, instead of chanting "Bullshit", the chant was "We beg to differ."

Alas, the good feelings didn't last. The game was a bitter affair that featured a timeout called by Coach K that he used to stare down a young official. UNC assistant coach Bill Guthridge chased the officials off the court at halftime. And late in the game, with Duke clinging to a narrow lead, UNC's Smith demanded that clock operator Tommy Hunt sound his horn while the ball was in play and when Hunt refused, Smith started pounding on the control panel, trying to sound it himself he missed the horn button, but added 20 points to his team's score and created such a scene that the officials stopped play ... and didn't assess him a technical foul.

After the game, Coach K delivered his famous "double-standard" speech. What has been forgotten is that he was not talking about the officiating in the ACC (although he may have felt that way). Instead, his words were a defense of the Duke fans:

"I want to tell you something," he told the assembled reporters. "When you come in here and start talking about how Duke has no class, you'd better start getting your stories straight because our students had class and our team had class. There was not one person on our bench who was pointing a finger at the officials or banging on the scorer's table. So let's get some things straight around here and quit the double standard that exits in this league!"

Krzyzewski continued to work behind the scenes to improve the behavior of the crowd. He always stressed his desire for the crowd's enthusiasm to be expressed in a positive manner and within the bounds of good taste. Later, he would use his influence to protect certain visitors to Cameron he asked the students to lay off Wake Forest freshman Loren Woods, a kid with acknowledged  psychological problems; and not to harass St. John's standout Eric Barkley for NCAA troubles that Krzyzewski felt were unfair.

While those instances occurred later, his efforts to coach the fans paid off in 1986. In fact, I believe that the Cameron Crazies achieved their special national status during a three week run in February, 1986.

It started on Sunday, Feb. 16, when No. 2 Duke edged No. 14 Notre Dame in a classic game on NBC that ended with Johnny Dawkins blocking a potential game-winning shot by David Rivers. That was when Al McGuire did a pregame segment on the Cameron crowd in which he donned a pith helmet and welded a whip. Less than a week later, No. 2 Duke beat No. 10 Oklahoma in a hard-fought game in Cameron and eight days later, on Sunday, Mar. 2, No. 1 Duke clinched the ACC regular season title with a victory over No. 3 North Carolina.

Those three games all three broadcast nationally by established networks -- highlighted Cameron and the Crazies at their best. The UNC game featured one of the crowd's most famous chants. Tar Heel guard Steve Hale had suffered a collapsed lung 10 days earlier in a loss to Maryland. As he watched the game in street clothes from the end of the UNC bench, the two sides of Cameron started a chant: "In-hale ... Ex-hale."

I can't prove it, but I believe it was during that stretch of three nationally televised home games against ranked opponents that the Cameron Crazies were first recognized as the nation's premier fan group. It's a reputation that ESPN has solidified with a half-million national cable telecasts in the 20 years since.


The Cameron Crazies have been lauded so much and so often in the last two decades that it's become almost fashionable these days to take a contrary view. Duke and the Crazies were new and fresh (at least to the nation at large) in 1986. But after Coach K's long run at the top, it's inevitable that a backlash would set in.

Actually, many older Duke fans also believe that the Crazies have lost their edge. One fan I respect, when he learned that I was writing this article, said he hoped I'd blast the current Crazies for their lack of cleverness and spontaneity.

I understand the sentiment. "Cats" might be the best Broadway show ever, but after you've seen it a dozen times and get to the point where you can sing along with all the songs, it does lose something. What was innovative and fresh becomes stale and repetitive when repeated a few thousand times. In a way, that's happened to the Cameron Crazies. A lot of their classic shtick has gotten old. But if you went to Cats and they left out "Memories" wouldn' t you'll feel cheated? And if you went to a Duke game and the Crazies didn't do "Boink .... boink ... pass" or cheer for the Crazy towel guy wouldn't you miss it?

I don't really have an answer to the problem, but let me suggest that if the Cameron Crazies want respect, they must meet the following criteria in the following order to get it from me:

(1) Be there. With all the Duke fans who can't get tickets to the game, it's galling to see the student section one-third empty (as happened earlier this year). It's not enough to show up for Carolina and Maryland; fill the place for Columbia and Holy Cross. No, you don't have to be there two hours early for the Holy Cross game, but be there for tipoff. I don't want to hear around a heavy study load; jeez, if you can't manage to organize your schedule to clear two hours for a basketball game, then maybe you should have gone to State.

(2) Be enthusiastic. That's easy to do when Carolina is there, but if you are going to be a Cameron Crazy, then you've got to put it out there against the patsies too. Even the wine and cheese crowd at its worst would get up for the Duke game. The mark of a great fan base is its performance in the nothing games.

(3) Keep it reasonably clean. There are children and older adults out there who can be offended by too much obscenity. I'm not saying everything's got to be G-rated, but at least keep it PG-13. You owe that to the non-students upstairs.

I would argue that if the current students meet these three criteria, they' re doing an acceptable job. But if they want to be great to be in a class with the great crowds of the past they need to:

(4) Be creative. To me, this is the factor that makes Duke's crowd special. Even in the 1960s and 1970s when the N.C. State and Carolina crowds were just as loud and enthusiastic as the Duke crowds, they were never as creative. Obviously, some of the Cameron antics are legendary the "Mrs. Norm Sloan stunt", the "In-Hale, Ex-Hale" cheer, the "Ed Cota wanted posters." Some are more obscure. I can't explain it now, but I believe the best sign of the 1960s was "Bones McKinney wears Dope Shop ties."

As I mentioned earlier, the best Cameron humor is edgy.

There is an obscure, but little film from the 1990s called "Funny Bones" which likens the comedian to a man walking on the edge of a cliff. If he keeps his footing and does things right, he's a genius. If he takes one wrong step ... splat!

Take the "In-hale, ex-hale" chant. I've heard Carolina fans suggest that it was cruel of the Crazies to mock an injured player. Well, if Hale had been hurt in that game and was laying on the floor, unable to breathe, then I would agree that the chant was inappropriate. But in this case, Hale's injury was 10 days earlier, he was obviously recovering well he would, in fact, return and score 14 points in the ACC opener five days later. There was nothing cruel or insensitive about the taunt in that context.

I can't always explain my personal judgment about a joke. I thought it was funny when a student donned a Bozo the Clown headdress and got in the layup line behind Maryland's Jim O'Brien who looked remarkably like Bozo. I thought it was tasteless when the Duke students honored UNC's Mike O'Koren (who had a major skin problem) as the Oxy-5000 poster child. I thought it was tasteless to label David Rivers "Buckwheat" (although I understand that the reference was to his resemblance to Eddie Murphy's then-popular Saturday Night Live character and not the original Little Rascals character). I thought the sign and chant "Please don't eat me" directed at mammoth Nigel Dixon were both uproariously funny.

That's okay I'm not the ultimate arbiter of taste. If you don't flirt with the line and occasionally go over it you'll never live up to the standard of past Duke crowds.

I think it's too early to condemn the current Crazies for not living up to the standards of the past. The Carolina game is still ahead, and that's where some of the best Crazy stunts have emerged.

I think this year's Crazies have had one truly inspired moment, even though it didn't make ESPN SportsCenter and went unseen even by most Duke fans. It happened back in November, just as the season was starting. Duke was going to play Georgia Southern in the second round of the CBE Classic, but before that game, there was a consolation match between Columbia and Cal-Davis.

There were very few people in Cameron for tipoff of the first game maybe 100 people upstairs and small pockets of visiting fans behind the two benches. There were maybe 30 or 40 Crazies who arrived early to get the prime TV spots at midcourt behind press row. They gathered in an amoebas clump and did their bouncy thing before tipoff.

Then they did something else. For the first four minutes or so of the game (until the first TV timeout), the clump of students moved back and forth along the empty bleachers to stay centered on the ball. As the walked (and sometimes ran) from one end of the bleachers to the other, they kept up their familiar cheers: "Boink ... boink ... pass!"

Again, maybe it's just me, but I thought it was a brilliantly funny idea and worthy of some of the best Crazy moments. So I'm not ready to give up on these guys yet.

Let me finish with a plea for the Crazies to retain their randomness.

Isn't it interesting that almost every other student fan base stresses a dress code? The Orange crush is all in Orange. The Grateful Red are all in Red. Even the Cameron wannabies in the Smith Center all wear Baby Blue t-shirts. I was recently visiting a Michigan State fan site and stumbled onto a debate about the requirements to sit in the Izone. Apparently, you MUST wear an assigned t-shirt or you won't be admitted. Some posters were lamenting the rule, remembering a crazy fan who used to show up dressed as an astronaut and another who used to show up in scuba gear.

To me, that's the beauty of the Cameron Crazies and the thing that still sets them apart from all their challengers. They can unite and act in unison without being uniformed like so many Hitler Youth (Is that in bad taste? I thought I'd flirt with the line). Give me Speedo guy and the TV whores with their oddly painted bodies. Give me the Turban guy and the guy wearing a basketball on his head.

But most of all, give me passion.

Coach K has always had a special bond with the Crazies. He's talked about the sixth man as if they are part of his team. Sometimes he chides them for a poor performance (especially for taking Duke's success for granted) ... sometimes he praises them beyond what I've heard any other coach say about his fans. He won't accept a spotty effort from his team, and if the Cameron Crazies are an extension of the team, as I think they want to be, then a spotty effort from the Crazies is unacceptable too.

The more I think about it, I think Jeff Mullins is right. There should be something in the rafters honoring the Cameron Crazies. The only problem is that Duke only puts a jersey in the rafter after a player retires. And it's way too early to retire the Cameron Crazies.