The sudden run of success by the UMBC men's basketball team has been a revelation even to the students on the Catonsville campus. "I've probably talked myself to 50 students who had never been to a UMBC athletic event in their lives," junior Jake Steel said yesterday by phone between classes.
Maybe it's the novelty of basketball fever at the state university branch acclaimed for its academics. Why else are the student fans showing up at the RAC Center this season and acting in such a civilized, mature manner? They don't know any better.
Quick, Maryland fans, show these eggheads how to really support their school. Wave signs questioning an opposing player's sexual preference. Conk a player's mother in the head with a water bottle. Shout some form of the word "suck" 12 times before the opening tip. (Literally. Count it at the next game at Comcast Center.)
No thanks, said Steel, who holds two distinguished titles at UMBC: assistant director of athletic awareness for the Student Government Association and "spirit czar."
"The [UMBC] students have to understand that to participate in athletics at this school is not a right; it's a privilege, for the athletes and the fans," Steel said. "It's another part of ownership of the school, taking pride in it, representing your school properly."
Retrievers fans, instead, are asked to adhere to a code of conduct outlining how to act, and how not to act, at a school sports event. This weekend, as many as 200 of them will be asked to sign one before they board buses chartered by the SGA to Binghamton, N.Y., where UMBC will play a quarterfinal game in the America East tournament.
The code, Steel said, covers the basics: No profanity, no racial or sexual remarks, no confrontations with game officials, opposing players or coaches or fans. Feel free to be clever and creative, of course, and loud, but ...
"There's a fine line between being intense and being out of line," Steel said. "The fact that they have to sign something as an individual basis means they agree to be accountable, not just to themselves but to all the other students.
"It's going to be an exciting situation up there," he continued. "But we've stressed this all season. I don't think there will be a problem."
That would be a refreshing change, because, as an article in The Sun pointed out Sunday, this has been a particularly reprehensible year in the stands at too many on-campus arenas.
Sports Illustrated made the same point in last week's issue. Prominently displayed in both stories were accounts of the vile treatment heaped on UCLA's Kevin Love and his family by the student section at Oregon, and similar actions by Illinois fans when Indiana's Eric Gordon played there.
In both stories, this state's flagship campus was referenced, another reminder of the lousy national reputation it has earned in a very short frame of time. It's a reputation UMBC isn't interested in having.
In fairness, though, Steel did not use Comcast Center as an example of what not to do, and he praised Maryland for exemplifying how great sports teams can raise the academic profile of a school.
"I saw how the [grade-point averages] and test scores and entrance standards rose when they started competing for the national championship," said Steel, who tended bar near campus during a hiatus from college before re-entering this year.
Under president Freeman Hrabowski III, UMBC has strived to raise the bar of success for its athletic programs while maintaining the high academic standards. Now that it is happening, Hrabowski said yesterday, keeping the school's public image clean as the spotlight on it grows -- going national if the Retrievers earn the conference's automatic NCAA tournament berth -- is an additional challenge.
But, he said, the students themselves met it. "The students were the ones who were saying, 'How should we support the team and support the university, and what is our responsibility as representatives of the university,' " Hrabowski said.
"From my perspective, it's students using their education and applying it to their support of the basketball team."
It kind of sounds like what colleges, and college sports, are all about.
And like what other colleges ought to consider enforcing. If they don't think that acting like well-educated adults in public "sucks."
Listen to David Steele on Tuesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).