Milwaukee doesn’t have a hospitable winter climate, and the arena was a mile away from our dorm. Didn’t matter. The team was just above .500. Didn’t matter. Games were often on weeknights, with tests and papers due the next day. Didn’t matter. We painted our faces, donned our gold (under multiple layers of fleece and thermals), and made the trip – usually on foot, even though there were shuttles available – yelling the whole way. Men’s basketball was a unifying factor on campus, part of the reason I picked my school, and the source of some of my fondest undergrad memories.
I had been very active in my high school, and while I didn’t play varsity basketball, I went to every game. We all did – that was the culture in our corner of Indiana. Everybody went to every game (and every play and every convocation) – there was an expectation that we would be engaged, and we learned that when we were, we would get more from the experience and we’d just have more fun. It’s not surprising that when I was looking for a college I wanted a school that would also have that spirit. I found it at Marquette. There’s something about that shared experience of cheering on your college sports team that brings people together like nothing else. We were all proud of our school and of going there, and that pride and identification went far beyond anything the men’s basketball team was doing on the court (thankfully, because the years I was there were pretty lean), but the outward manifestation provided by MU’s sports culture, specifically around basketball, reinforced our shared experience.
Conversations at breakfast about lineups and our chances of winning that night’s game; professors mentioning the upcoming game in opening remarks on a lecture; examples from basketball coming up in physics and sociology classes – it all built towards a hallmark feature of campus culture: school spirit. And I would argue that it didn’t end at basketball. There were reservoirs of shared behavior and expectations of participation that could be tapped for other endeavors, like Hunger Cleanup, the student run outreach program to assist in hunger and homelessness issues in Milwaukee, or Habitat for Humanity. Would Marquette have developed into the kind of a place that got ranked in the top 10 most “Activist Campuses” without men’s hoops? Impossible to know, of course. But men’s hoops gave us all a place to attach our pride in our school and to wear it, literally and figuratively, on our sleeves.
Recent trips to campus to visit my nephew, a 2013 alumnus, have convinced me it’s as true as ever now. Just do a quick web search for “Vander Blue Winning Shot Davidson” and watch the students’ reactions – or those of nearly any school in the tourney (or from any other sport) as students watch their team pull out a thrilling win. They are invested.
If your college search includes some schools with a sports tradition, around any sport, try to attend a game to see if that experience is what you’re looking for. You’ll get real insight into the culture of the college, and you’re likely to have a great time. And bring on March Madness! Marquette isn’t in it this year. Doesn’t matter. I’ll be engaged. That’s a lesson from the campus culture I grew up in – it’s just too fun not to be.