Big crowds, fan support give Toledo women's basketball a home court advantage
Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 13:01
Prior to the start of each home game, the University of Toledo women’s basketball team trots onto the court and partakes in one of the more unique traditions found in college athletics.
Hundreds of dedicated and boisterous Rocket fans line the court to form a human tunnel for the players to run through. The sea of Midnight and Gold begins at the players’ entrance, runs along the baseline, continues down the sideline and curls around to the basket at the opposite end of the court as the band plays the Toledo fight song.
That’s just one of many reasons why Savage Arena has become an intimidating environment for UT opponents.
“Our fan club came up with that idea and I think it’s really been a good thing,” Cullop said. “The thing that’s really unique about women’s basketball that you don’t really see as much on the men’s side is just the access to our players.”
Players from most teams run through the postgame handshake line after the final buzzer sounds and head back to the locker room.
Not the Rockets.
After each home game, Cullop sends some of her players into the stands to thank fans for coming outand lending their support.
“That’s a big deal because there are a lot of people who pay a lot of good money for personal entertainment and they choose us to spend their entertainment dollar on,” Cullop said. “We want to make sure those people know how much we appreciate everything that they’ve done for us. The home court advantage they provide has really paid dividends.”
Those dividends — to be exact — amount to a sparking 64-9 home record under Cullop in her four and a half years at the helm.
It’s no secret that winning and large crowds go hand-in-hand.
Despite being labeled a “mid-major” school, the Rockets are currently 22nd in the nation in home attendance and average 3,866 fans per game, according to the NCAA’s first round of calculations that were released Jan. 14.
It’s the first time UT has cracked the top 25 under Cullop.
“It’s definitely been a goal for a very long time, but we couldn’t do it without the amazing support that we get from our administration and also from the Toledo community,” she said. “I was told when I took the job that Toledo fans were sports nuts and that if you won, they would come, and they have. They’re very loyal, they’ve stuck through thick and thin.”
Perhaps the best indicator of how basketball-hungry UT fans are was the team’s run to a WNIT championship in 2011.
The NCAA uses home attendance to determine where each game in the tournament is played and sure enough, the Rockets played all five games in the friendly confines of Savage Arena.
Auburn, Alabama, Syracuse and USC were among the teams that found out how difficult it is to leave Toledo victorious.
Cullop feels that title helped to attract even more support from the Toledo community.
“I think a lot of people were introduced to our program that maybe never had a chance to sit and watch a game before and once they do, they get hooked,” she said.
The Rockets have been atop the Mid-American Conference in home attendance for 22 consecutive years, a streak that seemingly has no end in sight as UT has seen an increase at the gate every year under Cullop.
They were 46th nationally in 2008-09 (2,674 per game), 48th in 2009-10 (2,720), 37th in ‘10-11 (3,078) and 28th last season (3,748).
“The home winning percentage that we have, you can definitely attribute some of that to the intimidating environment that our fans provide,” Cullop said. “To know that you’re going to get that many people who appreciate how hard you’re working [is fun to be around]. They know they’re just as a big of a part of it as we are.”
Toledo also led the entire state of Ohio in home attendance last year, especially impressive considering they had to beat out schools such as Ohio State, Cincinnati, Dayton and Xavier for that honor.
Cullop emphasizes these figures to gain an advantage on the recruiting trail.
“I think any time you can do that — especially when you have a Big Ten school and some A-10 schools in your home state — that’s a really big deal, so we definitely sell that,” she said. “Players would love to go play somewhere where fans appreciate the game and they’re supportive. We have one of the best budgets in the league and we have the best fan support in the league and it is a very attractive program to a lot of recruits because of those two things.”
The Rockets have become so dominant at home that they have started to run into trouble finding teams who are willing to play them during the non-conference schedule.
After a game earlier this year, Cullop said her staff mapped out all the teams who refused to travel to Toledo and it ‘looked like a bomb was dropped on the Midwest.’
Toledo had to get creative.
Former assistant coach Todd Mitmesser came up with the idea of hosting in-season tournaments, which eventually led to the creation of the Glass City Tournament and the Toledo Invite which both started this season.
Teams who compete are assured of a neutral court game in addition to the possibility of playing Toledo should they advance.
“We’ve had a lot of people hang up on us when we’ve called them about scheduling,” Cullop joked. [But] we were able to attract some teams through the use of the tournaments that maybe we couldn’t get head-to-head.”
Hampton, Prairie View A&M and St. Bonaventure — all NCAA Tournament teams a year ago — were among the notables who agreed to compete in those tournaments.
After playing four of six on the road to start MAC play, the Rockets return home Thursday at 7 p.m. against Ohio and host Western Michigan Sunday at noon.