For Eric Musselman, there’s a Pack fan born every second says Joe Santoro
Lawlor Events Center just might be the best kept secret in college basketball.
“It’s up there,” said Nevada Wolf Pack forward Caleb Martin, who has played in college basketball entertainment palaces such as North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, Notre Dame and Louisville in his career. “I can feel it starting in the warm-ups.”
You could almost feel it throughout Northern Nevada this past Saturday night. That shaking under your feet you might have felt Saturday night wasn’t part of the earthquake swarm that has jostled northern Nevada lately. It was the 11,164 who stuffed themselves into Lawlor’s cement walls to witness and take part in the Wolf Pack’s 74-68 win over the Boise State Broncos.
“Look at the atmosphere,” ESPN announcer Adrian Branch said on the air at the beginning of the broadcast. “You can feel the energy.”
“This place is going crazy,” Branch’s play-by-play partner Steve Quis screamed midway through the second half when a Jordan Caroline 3-pointer gave the Wolf Pack a 50-47 lead.
Forgive the ESPN announcers for sounding a bit like a 4-year-old on Christmas morning. The electric atmosphere, sold-out arena and intensity they felt at Lawlor isn’t something they normally experience outside of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, North Carolina’s Dean Dome or Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse.
“Big thanks to all of the Pack fans and students that came out tonight and made Lawlor such an unbelievable atmosphere,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman posted on Twitter around midnight Saturday night after beating Boise.
Athletic director Doug Knuth didn’t wait that long. About a half hour after the game Knuth tweeted, “Thank you Wolf Pack fans. What a night at Lawlor. Great crowd.”
Make no mistake, the crowd — the 11th largest in Lawlor history — didn’t beat Boise State on Saturday. The Wolf Pack is in complete control of the Mountain West this morning at 18-3 overall and 7-0 in conference because a talented, well-coached and determined group of young men wearing its ninth different uniform combination this year pounded out a tough victory.
But don’t tell that to Boise State coach Leon Rice. Rice admitted the Lawlor crowd might have played a part in the Wolf Pack victory. Boise trailed just 70-67 with 16 seconds to play and had the ball. Rice called a timeout. Nobody heard him. Boise’s Alex Hobbs, thanks to the long arms of the Pack’s Lindsey Drew and Hallice Cooke, then ended up dribbling the ball off his knee and out of bounds.
“I was trying to take a timeout on that last play when Alex drove,” Rice told the Idaho Statesman after the game. “But it was just so loud the guys couldn’t hear me. The refs can’t give it to you. A player has to call it. But it was so loud.”
It’s a wonder Musselman and Knuth didn’t tweet their appreciation to the crowd at that precise moment.
“Other places I’ve been it was just the student section that was loud,” said Caleb Martin, who came to the Pack last year after playing two seasons at North Carolina State. “But it’s the whole building here. All of the fans are into it as much as the students are.”
Duke has its Cameron Crazies. The Wolf Pack now has its Lawlor Loonies. It’s time the Wolf Pack marketing department honors the Pack’s true Sixth Man and hands out t-shirts with a Wolf Pack logo and a big number 6 on them to each fan who passes through Lawlor’s gates.
“The crowd definitely helps to maintain that energy,” Caroline said. “At one point I was dead tired but the crowd was into it so it kept me going.”
The crowd on Saturday didn’t allow the Wolf Pack to get tired. It didn’t allow Boise State to extend its 12-0 run at the start of the second half and take control of the game. It reminded the Wolf Pack Boise wasn’t going to come to Lawlor and steal a victory, even after the Broncos took a 63-60 lead with 4:38 to play.
“There was a lot of emotion in every play,” said senior Kendall Stephens, who played in front of some of the most intense crowds in the nation with Purdue for three years before coming to the Pack. “Every loose ball and hustle play you could hear the (crowd’s) echo and how loud the gym got. It was a fun environment to play in.”
Lawlor wasn’t always that way. The first year the Pack played at Lawlor in 1983, the team’s average attendance dropped from 5,235 in 1982 to 4,158 in 1983. The Pack didn’t average as many as 7,000 fans a game until 1998 (7,084). The next year (1999) attendance dropped to 4,379. After averaging 8,903 a game in 2007, the end of a four-year NCAA tournament run, attendance fell to 4,628 just four years later (2011) . It was just three seasons ago (2014-2015) Lawlor was as crowded as the Reno-Stead Airport a week after the National Championship Air Races left town. The Wolf Pack’s average attendance for the 2014-15 season was just 5,497. That season completed an eight-season stretch when only two crowds of more than 10,000 fans dared to venture into Lawlor Events Center.
Then Musselman came to town in March 2015. And the fans followed. Taking a page out of his father Bill Musselman’s book, Musselman started selling Wolf Pack basketball from the first moment he stepped on campus. And Wolf Pack fans and the community responded, making Musselman the Pied Piper of the Pack the struggling program so desperately needed. Bill Musselman, one of the greatest showmen and salesmen in the history of college basketball coaching, doubled University of Minnesota attendance in his first year in 1971-72, from 8,000 a game to 16,000. Eric is out to do the same at Nevada.
“When I got here, the health club I go to, none of them were season ticket holders,” said Musselman, who replaced David Carter in March 2015. “Now everybody in there is a season ticket holder and wearing Nevada shirts. Every day at 8 a.m.”
There was a brief feeling out period between the new coach and Pack fans thanks to an awful non-conference schedule in Musselman’s first year that included Portland State, Holy Names, Fresno Pacific, Drake and Santa Clara. The Pack averaged just 5,430 fans over the first five home games of the Musselman era. Two Mountain West games against Wyoming and Boise lifted that average to 5,862 after seven games but the doldrums of the Carter era (Carter’s teams averaged 5,726 over six seasons) were still prevalent at Lawlor. Carter’s six Wolf Pack teams produced just one Lawlor crowd (against UNLV on March 8, 2014) of more than 10,000 fans.
It took Musselman eight home games to get a crowd of over 10,000.
The turning point at Lawlor took place exactly two years ago on Jan. 23, 2016. A stunning crowd of 11,341 showed up to watch the Pack beat UNLV in thrilling fashion, 65-63. That night Musselman likened the Wolf Pack crowd, the way it started showing up around the arena two and three hours before the game, to one he witnessed at Rupp Arena at Kentucky when he was a LSU assistant the year before. Nobody ever dared to compare Lawlor to Rupp Arena before. Musselman sounded a bit like a slick, big-city salesman trying to sell fake Rolex watches in small-town Mayberry that night.
Well, it turns out those Rolex watches were real.
The crowd Saturday night is the eighth of more than 10,000 in the Musselman era. Last year the Pack set a program record with six crowds of 10,000 or more on its way to a record average attendance of 8,923. Last year the Wolf Pack ranked 50th in the nation in average attendance, another school record. The highest the Pack ever finished in the 2004-07 NCAA tournament era was 61st in the country in 2007 (average crowd of 8,903).
“My son (Matthew, a high school basketball player in the Bay area) bused with us from San Jose (where the Pack played last week),” Musselman said. “He’s been around town and he said, ‘Dang, Dad, I can’t believe how popular Nevada basketball is right now.”
Again, that’s just not Musselman selling us a fake Rolex. The Wolf Pack hasn’t quite reached Rupp Arena levels just yet but keep in mind that last year the Pack’s average crowd was larger than Cal, Notre Dame, Florida State, Georgia (take note Mark Fox) and LSU among others. The Wolf Pack enjoyed the fifth largest increase in attendance last year in the entire nation, a jump of 2,368 over the 2015-16 season. The jump over the final year of the Carter era just two seasons before was 3,426.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve had great fans and it just continues to grow,” said Musselman, who can thank the loyal fans for his now seven-figure annual salary.
Why has Wolf Pack fever spread across northern Nevada, embracing Musselman and his Wolf Pack basketball team as if it was the biggest thing to hit town since the Reno Arch, neon and dinner buffets? The biggest reason is the team wins. Opponents come to town ready to fight the Lawlor and the Lawlor almost always wins. Musselman’s Wolf Pack is 39-4 at home over the last two-plus seasons. The Pack has lost just once over its last 29 home games. Carter, by the way, lost 22 of his final 35 home games.
“If someone would have told me two-and-a-half years ago that we would have this home record, I wouldn’t have believed you, that it was even possible,” Musselman said.
Everything is possible at Lawlor now. It might be time to add about 5,000 seats to the old, round cement barn on north Virginia Street to house all of those possibilities.
“When we come into the building we’re a confident team,” Musselman said.
That’s because they’re usually greeted by 9,000 or 10,000 friendly faces. Don’t be surprised if the Pack sets another attendance record this year. The Wolf Pack is averaging 8,742 fans this year but Boise State was just the start of the fun. Still ahead on the home schedule is Fresno State (Jan. 31), UNLV (Feb. 7), San Diego State (Feb. 10), San Jose State (Feb. 21) and Colorado State (Feb. 25). The Wolf Pack will need to average about 9,300 fans a game over its final five home games to set another single-season record.
“We got some great games coming up,” Musselman said, taking another cue from his dad by never forgetting to sell tickets, even on a night when more 11,000 fans showed up. “Are you kidding me? Fresno’s coming in here. UNLV and San Diego State. There’s going to be a lot of great games for our fans to still see in this building.”