What the Hell Happened to Bud Walton Arena – and What Can We Do to Fix It?

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“It used to be one of the loudest places in the country.”

So said ESPN play-by-play man Dave O’Brien midway through the second half of the Razorback basketball game against Syracuse on Friday night as he described how quiet the crowd was yet again at Bud Walton Arena.

That comment stung – much more than the 91-82 loss to the No. 6 team in the nation.

As the clock hit 43 seconds left with Arkansas down by only seven points to one of the best teams in the country, rather than the announced crowd of 19,259 being so loud that the Jim Robken noise meter would stick at the top, many fans had already exited and the arena was silent other than the squeaks of Nikes across the court and the thud of the ball hitting the rim.

Earlier in the game when Mike Anderson’s Hogs cut the Syracuse lead to five, rather than the crowd working itself into a frenzy, it sounded more like the Orange were up by 20. With no fan intimidation, Syracuse’s response was to come down and calmly hit two three-pointers to take back control of the game.

This is no kind of home-court advantage for the relaunch of Hawgball.

The UA athletic department coerced the fans into a whiteout gimmick for this game by providing white T-shirts to the first 10,000 in attendance, and all it really did was accentuate how the red seats were emptying out in the final 5 minutes of the game.

Razorback basketball doesn’t need whiteout gimmicks. It needs the kind of redout that gives the opposing players and coaches a headache when they walk in the building – the kind that once prompted Texas coach Abe Lemons to describe playing in Barnhill Arena as being like “parachuting into hell.”

O’Brien’s comment especially hit home because Razorback basketball games used to have one of the best atmospheres in the country, and we were once again reminded in this nationally televised early season matchup how far it has fallen.

A decade removed from the misguided firing of Nolan Richardson, Razorback basketball has yet to recapture the passionate spell it once held on people across the state.

The chance to go to Razorback basketball games for four years was the primary reason I picked the University of Arkansas over my second choice of TCU when I was choosing where to go to college, but I hardly doubt it plays any role in a high-school student’s decision these days.

I was fortunate enough to have a third-row seat in the student section (hey, I got in line early but not as early as some other basketball-obsessed students) for the start of the Nolan era from 1987 to 1991, which included the great teams led by Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, and Oliver Miller.

The student section back in those days, as it was in the Sutton years prior and another decade after, was a rowdy place. For many of the big games, the student section was at capacity by 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. weekday game and would heckle the opposing team when they came in for their shoot-around at 4 p.m.

Imagine this setting: Missouri, Texas, or name your opponent used to come into Barnhill Arena expecting the typical quiet environment for an afternoon shoot-around only to find a jam-packed and vocal student section in an otherwise empty arena. That is how you create a home-court advantage.

These days, Bud Walton Arena is frequently lucky to have that much noise (and sometimes that many fans in the seats) in total. The preseason Red-White game a month ago, for example, had fewer people in the stands than many practices I attended during Nolan’s early years.

And in the cases when there are actually people in the stands, like Friday’s game against Syracuse, it has turned into a pretty conservative crowd with maybe one too many Bentonville princesses and Bella Vista retirees occupying the good seats.

The traditionally great enthusiasm from the student section is still there, but it has been relegated to only a small army in the Trough.

I feel sorry for the students at basketball games these days because some of them were not even born when Scotty Thurman hit the shot to win the national championship, and they have no concept of what the passion of Razorback basketball used to be like.

But if we are to return the spirit of Barnhill to Bud Walton, as cavernous as it may be compared to the Cameron Indoor setting we used to have, it must start with the students.

Have you seen a game at Duke lately? Those students don’t just show up to the games, they get wild, they wear costumes, and they are organized. At the Duke game televised on Wednesday, there was one student dressed like the guy in the yellow suit from the “Gangnam Style” video, and that is just the kind of enthusiasm and craziness that Bud Walton Arena needs.

The students must lead. It should be their house.

But they need the encouragement and support from the UA administration to be as crazy as they want to be. If they want to camp out a week in advance of a big game, let them. If they want to get their seat five hours before game time, let them. If they want to bring bags of confetti into the arena and unload after every basket, let them.

If they want to chant, “WE’RE GONNA BEAT THE HELL OUT OF YOU,” let them! If they want to start an official student council to help organize student-section chants and cheers, let them. It wouldn’t hurt to give them better seats, too.

If the students set the tone, the rest will eventually follow their lead.

It also wouldn’t hurt to return the slobbering Hog to its rightful place at half-court instead of the uptight and cleaned up Razorback that replaced it and somewhat serves as a symbolic representation of the change in the atmosphere.

Do we want to get Hawgball restarted or not? Mike Anderson does.

Now it’s up to the fans to take the next step.

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