Setting: Bruin Arena, a random fall Thursday, 6:55 p.m. The clock is winding down in a tense second half of college basketball, and the SLCC Women’s Basketball team trails by three points to Scenic West Athletic Conference (SWAC) rival College of Southern Idaho (CSI). They’re on their home floor, the Bruins have the basketball, and they really need a score.
The shot goes up, the buzzer sounds, the lights come on behind the backboard and bang—SLCC’s latest freshman standout knocks down a three-pointer to send the game into overtime. The few SLCC students in the student section cheer wildly, but the vastness of Bruin Arena is missing one key element. It’s missing a lot more of the 60,000-plus students who make SLCC the largest school in Utah.
“I would love for students to feel about the Bruins the way I feel about the Chicago Cubs,” said SLCC Women’s Basketball Head Coach Betsy Specketer. “I’d really like to see the loyalty, the love and that sense of pride in SLCC—that people just can’t wait to get in the stands and cheer for these Bruins because of who they represent.”
The people that Specketer speaks of representing are the very people reading this publication–the students and faculty of one of the nation’s finest two-year institutions. Though the athletes in SLCC’s Athletic Department proudly represent the student body, it seems to the Bruin coaches that students are missing out on seeing that pride—and missing out on a lot of fun.
“To me, it’s an awareness thing,” said SLCC Volleyball Head Coach Sue Dulaney. “I also feel that once people realize what we do have here, how successful we are and how much fun our games are, they’ll want to be on board because this is a great place to be.”
Though crowds at SLCC home games have gotten slightly larger in the last two years, there aren’t nearly as many people as one would expect at games of this caliber. The atmosphere at a Bruin home contest is nothing like that of the venomous, loud arenas SLCC athletes have to face out on the road at SWAC rivals CSI or even against in-state rival Snow College.
“Every year when we go to CSI I hear the fans yelling things at me personally. It’s not like I tune into it, but I can hear it sometimes,” said Specketer. “They’ve been brutal, to the point where I even almost wanted to go up and punch somebody for what they said to [former men’s basketball] coach Norm Parrish. We don’t have that here. We have a really nice crowd, and sometimes I wish they weren’t so nice.”
To be fair, CSI, Snow College and North Idaho College (NIC) have an obvious advantage in terms of atmosphere and attendance draw. CSI is based in Twin Falls, ID, Snow College is in Ephraim, UT and NIC is nestled in beautiful but small Coeur d’Alene, ID. All three cities are small markets with far less competition for attention than the Bruins face.
As a result, the CSI Eagles, Snow Badgers and NIC Cardinals have rabid, engaged and invested fan bases that show up en masse to root on their teams, especially when they play against Salt Lake. SLCC’s Bruin Arena is easily twice the size of any other in the SWAC, but the glass is half empty, so to speak.
“We could have the same amount of fans in our stands, and it will seem like fewer because the venue is just bigger,” said Specketer, who enters her 17th year coaching the Bruins. “It’s just not as loud—our fans aren’t as boisterous, they’re not as nasty.”
It’s not an unusual occurrence to have nearly as many visiting fans in the arena as there are Bruin faithful, and CSI even travels its entire cheer squad for road games at Bruin Arena. The coaches, administrators and student-athletes of SLCC Athletics want badly to take their home court advantage back.
“With all the students we have at this school, it’s crazy to me that attendance isn’t better,” said SLCC Men’s Basketball Head Coach Todd Phillips. “The excitement that a good crowd can bring—and we’ve had it at bigger ballgames, is a fun environment to be a part of whether you’re a player, fan or a coach.”
In collegiate athletics, culture is the mother of a packed house. SLCC continually puts highly competitive teams on the floor, a solid product to watch considering there’s no charge for student attendance.
The administrators, coaches and student-athletes of Bruin sports hope to gradually erase the stereotypes often associated with junior college athletics. The Bruins aim to squash the stigma that athletes at this level are sub-par, that no one will attend games at a so-called commuter campus, and that the universities in and surrounding the Salt Lake Valley wash out any splash the Bruins might make.
“I know we can change that culture here, and get the students more involved. I wish they could see what we face at CSI, Snow and NIC,” said Specketer. “I’d like to show them that this is what we have to go and play against. Let’s give these schools a taste of their own medicine—payback time!”