Crazy in a good way: student section rocks

It’s a sight to behold on a Monday night at The Pit.

A cardboard cutout of Bill Gates’ mugshot is waved fervently. A student in a Venom costume taunts Max Abmas, Oral Roberts’ star guard. A whiteboard with a simple message – “SEND BEER” – flies around excitedly.

Seven rows higher, a DJ occasionally pumps music into the arena. Big shots on both sides lead to big reactions – boos, chirps, screams, cheers.

Across 12 rows of barely-controllable chaos, it offers a jumbled, disjointed, eclectic sight. And a welcome one for many fans.

It’s been some time since The Pit had a student division to complement a successful basketball team. This year it has both, with a 16-2 UNM roster and an ever-growing group known as the Howl Raisers.

UNM Senior Nolan Murphy takes center stage. A native of Albuquerque, Murphy is a graduate of Sandia High School. He studies finance at UNM and works as a student assistant in the sports department.

Nolan Murphy is a senior finance major at the University of New Mexico and has led the Howl Raisers student fan group since January 12, 2023. (Courtesy of Nolan Murphy)

Serving as the “doorstep” to Lobo Athletics, Ryan Berryman, Senior Associate Athletic Director, and Madison Baumann, Executive Director of the Alumni Lettermen’s Association, were quick to recognize Murphy’s outgoing personality and passion for UNM athletics.

In particular, Berryman’s conversation with Murphy about a book the senior wrote about 1960s Sandia star and UNM recruit Gary Suiter (he never played for the Lobos) made him sure Murphy was the right man to turn to a longstanding goal of achieving student division back this season.

The only problem? Murphy didn’t want any part of it.

“He just didn’t want to work,” said Baumann. “He thought no one would show up.”

Berryman and Baumann urged Murphy to try — at least go to a game and see what he can do. Ironically, a season opener 85-53 show shellacking by Division II CSU-Pueblo gave Murphy the possibility for the future.

“In the end, his love for the Lobos shone through,” Berryman said.

So Murphy started organizing. UNM graduates Baumann and Berryman brought him into contact with pit traditions of the past, from simple staples like the “You, You, You!” chant to after a UNM player was enticed to more elaborate ventures like B. crumpling up issues of the Daily Lobo before the tip or writing the Howl List, essentially a “junk talk sheet” for students to use.

Howl Sheet highlights from last Monday’s game against Oral Roberts: Connor Vanover resembles an ogre from ‘Lord of the Rings’. Trey Phipps “can’t shoot a three, doesn’t want to shoot at all.” Oral Roberts is a “cult university.”

“I just love watching people’s reactions,” Murphy said. “Either they laugh or they show it to their friends and then throw it in their bags and take it home.”

Murphy only dug deeper and asked for donations from local businesses. Fatheads – large cardboard cutouts of UNM players or characters – were donated by Academy Reprographics. ThetaPoint contributed hot dogs and drinks. Sonic, Whataburger and the Paleta Bar stepped up and provided more items to entice students to head to the home game area.

“I was running around here at a game handing out hot dogs and people were looking at me like I was crazy,” Murphy said.

New Mexico started 3-0. Then 7-0. 10:0 14-0. As interest grew around the team, Murphy was there every step of the way to fill and energize a student section with approximately 1,100 tickets.

“In some games he was there with 50 people. Some games he was 500 in,” Berryman said. “To me that’s half the battle of finding a leader to take over the student department because they have to go through thick and thin.”

Murphy shows up two to two and a half hours before the tip and finds unexpected satisfaction in managing something he didn’t know he wanted.

“I just love it, I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “When I’m typing the Howl List, the newspapers are getting ready, every moment of it, I just suck it up. Because I’m part of the foundation of something that’s going to be really good one day.”

It’s an especially sweet development for Berryman. A former student manager under Steve Alford and Craig Neal, he later served as operations manager at UNM Basketball before taking up a full-time position in the athletic department.

For him, bringing the section back runs deeper than any perceived home advantage.

“I just love Lobo basketball,” he said. “I’ve seen it at its best and I know what it can be. There are a lot of us in the[Sports Department]that have seen that and just want to keep going, whether the team (16-2) is the way it is right now – which makes Nolan’s job easy – or they’re struggling or rebuilding .”

Former student department heads have also praised Murphy’s efforts. Mackenzie Bishop, a season ticket holder, was one of the core members of Section 26, a mid-to-late 2000s iteration of UNM’s student section that started many of the traditions that Murphy’s brought back.

As Bishop recalls, Section 26 came into being when the UNM moved the designated student section from above the Lobo level to its current location on the floor in 2007. Before the move, he said the section was more of a “social scene” than anything else.

“(It) had just been very watered down and the students were very far from the action – certainly not in a place to affect the game,” he said.

Moving to Section 26 and hiring Steve Alford as head coach changed that.

“It literally picked up a lot of momentum from there,” Bishop said.

UNM fortunes improved under Alford with NCAA tournament appearances in 2010, 2012 and 2013. Section 26 gained in stature and dedication. Word of mouth spread. T-shirts were sold.

Section 26ers even camped out overnight for tickets, a phenomenon seen only on traditional Blue Blood programming and rarely elsewhere.

“If you’re camping for four or five tickets’ worth of games and sleeping in 25-degree temperatures overnight, go to those games,” Bishop said, laughing. “And now we’ve made it almost too easy for ourselves.”

The chants, the crumple of the Daily Lobo and the precursor to Howl Sheets?

It all started with Section 26 – with a striking difference to then and now.

“Back then, the athletic department wasn’t supportive at all,” he said. “We were kind of a nuisance, a necessary evil I think.”

But after years of rough behavior, things gradually took a turn for the worse. Bishop spearheaded a $60 million arena renovation in 2009 that reduced attendance and changed section identification from numbers to letters as the beginning of the end for section 26.

Jason Tomberline had – literally – a front seat to everything. Estimating he has missed about 20 home games in the last 30 years, the Tomberline family has had floor-level season tickets since the Pit opened in 1966.

“It’s our family badge of honor, even my grandmother was threatened with expulsion by a referee just because it gets so violent down there,” says Tomberline with a laugh.

With prime seating, he remembers the intensity of the Section 26 era as well as everyone and Bishop in particular as the “natural leader”. He also recalls dropping out after Alford left for UCLA. Promising then lean years under Craig Neal and Paul Weir.

Tomberline watches from afar and is grateful for Murphy’s devotion.

“He works so hard to prepare everything,” he said. “He’s doing such a great job trying to generate interest … what he did was great, but he can’t do it alone.”

When you talk to someone about the glory days of The Pit’s student division, powerful memories flood up. For example, Tomberline fondly recalls a late foul by Darington Hobson on San Diego State’s DJ Gay in an SDSU-UNM game on February 6, 2010.

Trailing 78-76, Gay came to the line for three free throws, an Aztec victory hanging in the balance.

Of course, the student section made sure he felt the moment.

“I saw Gay shaking,” Tomberline said.

Gay missed one and hit two to keep it at 78 at the end of regulation. Hobson later scored eight points in overtime, including two free throws by 2.7 seconds to turn the script and secure an 88-86 Lobos win.

For Bishop, it was when the front-row benches in the section collapsed under the weight of the students, who maniacally jumped on it in an 86-77 win over No. 9 BYU on Jan. 29, 2011.

“The students would grab these 40-foot bleachers and just reach them all the way to the top without skipping a shot because they didn’t want to miss the game,” he said. “I mean it was crazy. Those were the days.”

And Beerman? A 20-point demolition of No. 11 UNLV on February 18, 2012 is fresh in his memory, not for Drew Gordon’s 27 points and 20 rebounds, but for Tony Snell’s baseline drive for a dunk over Chace Stanbeck, who took the roof off Pit blasted .

“We have to get back to that,” Berryman said.

Today, creating more from those memories begins with a burgeoning UNM squad and Murphy’s efforts. Sellouts like the Jan. 7 UNM-UNLV game ahead of the start of the spring semester give Murphy and others a sense that a revived tradition could be the start of something new.

“These things will continue whether we’re here or not, and to pass the torch and teach the next generation what you’re about,” Berryman said. “Now (Murphy’s) needs to look around that area and see who’s on each game that they can pass the torch to.”

And for anyone who has doubts, join in? Murphy will tell you what he was told before the season.

“Sit down in the student section for a game,” he said. “Cheer for a game like just one. We need 4.76% of the students coming here to sell out the student section every game. That’s it.”