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In the past year, University of Colorado athletic director Rick George and his department have engaged in a fight they have yet to win. When the battle on the gridiron or the hardwood ends, their fight begins. The goal: keep thousands of rowdy CU fans off the playing surface and away from the players and coaches.
Field storming and its basketball counterpart, court storming, are having something of a moment at CU Boulder. In recent years, surprising wins have resulted in the Colorado faithful rushing out of the stands to surround their team in celebration. Most recently, fans pushed through a wall of security guards to cheer with the Buffaloes basketball team as they pulled off an improbable upset of a highly-ranked Oregon team.
The increased frequency of these events is causing major headaches for George and the athletic department, who face increasing fines from the Pac-12 with every occurrence. They’ve tried numerous tactics to prevent or lessen postgame invasions. So far, none of them have been effective.
To understand this situation fully, one must take a deep look at the history and factors that make this phenomenon so prevalent in Boulder.
A perfect storm
Over the past decade and a half, fans of the Colorado Buffaloes have not had much to cheer about. In both football and basketball, the Buffs suffered through countless losing seasons and constant placement at the bottom of the Big-12 rankings. Aside from a surprise win over the Sam Bradford-led Oklahoma Sooners in 2007, fans never got many reasons to celebrate, let alone take to the field. Things only got worse when CU joined the heavyweight Pac-10 (now the Pac-12) in 2011.
But after a few years, a renaissance started to emerge in CU athletics. It started with head basketball coach Tad Boyle and his team of talented young players that quickly got the Buffaloes back to the NCAA tournament.
In 2013, a packed crowd at Coors Event Center swarmed the floor to congratulate the Buffs’ Askia Booker on nailing a buzzer-beating three-pointer to push the Buffs past the sixth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. It was at this point that Colorado’s modern era of rushing the court began.
In 2016, the football team turned around its fortunes too. Under head coach Mike MacIntyre, the Buffaloes transformed from a last place team to contenders in the Pac-12 championship in one season. Fans at Folsom Field couldn’t resist the chance to rush the field after several notable wins, including the Pac-12 South clincher over Utah.
The rapid turnaround of these teams is what’s truly to blame for the increase in stormings. When you’re so bad for so long and suddenly become good so quickly, every big win feels like an upset worth going crazy over. Beating conference powerhouses that once treated a trip to Boulder like a bye week creates an energy that is hard to contain. Add alcohol to the mix and the student section can become an unstoppable force.
But all of this success comes right at a time when sports leagues are pushing to end invasions of the playing surface. In 2013, a disabled North Carolina State fan was nearly trampled after having his wheelchair tipped over during a court rush. In 2015, Kansas basketball players and coaches found themselves surrounded by a mob of Kansas State fans pinning them against the scorer’s table. Later that year, a journalist covering an Iowa State basketball game had his leg broken in the postgame chaos.
These are only some of the incidents that led conferences to crackdown on stormings, citing safety and liability issues. While the majority of the NCAA introduced fines, the Pac-12 became the only power-five conference to not have any regulation. That wouldn’t last long, and Colorado might have been the reason why.
The Sean Miller Incident
Things came to a head in late February 2016, as the No. 9 Arizona Wildcats came to Boulder for a crucial Pac-12 matchup. In front of a packed house, the Buffaloes held their own against a highly talented Arizona squad and survived a nail-biting final few minutes to come away with a narrow 75-72 victory. The upset practically assured CU a spot in the NCAA tournament and excited fans wasted no time flooding onto the court to celebrate.
Though no injuries or altercations occurred, not everyone was thrilled to see students and fans on the hardwood. In his postgame press conference, Arizona head coach Sean Miller was livid: not because his team had lost, but because he had to witness yet another court rush. At that point, the Wildcats had seen stormings in 10 of its last 11 road losses. Apparently watching the CU student section swarm after the buzzer was the final straw.
“[E]ventually what’s going to happen in the Pac-12 is this: an Arizona player is going to punch a fan,” Miller told the press after the game. “And they’re going to punch the fan out of self-defense. And when it happens, only when it happens, will everybody take a deep breath and say, ‘We have to do something to protect both teams,’ so when the game ends, we have a deep breath to be able to leave the court, or at least shake the other team’s hand, and then get to our locker room.”
Critics (and Buffs fans) took Miller’s rant as the ravings of a sore loser. Others argued that the coach had legitimate concerns for the safety of his players and staff. The event turned into a highly publicized affair and Pac-12 officials took notice.
Miller’s comments likely contributed to the conference unveiling a new system of storming fines for the 2016-17 academic year. As the Pac-12’s website states, schools will be fined $25,000 for a first offense, $50,000 for a second and $100,000 for a third.
Guards, Golden Minutes and Failure
This new decree from the conference put George and the CU athletics department in an awkward spot. On one hand, the university didn’t want to put a damper on the spirits of its passionate fans and take away the chance for students to have a memorable experience. On the other hand, understandable concerns about safety and liability underscored the conversation. The department also had to pay up if it didn’t control its fans.
The rules state that fines would result if fans rush the game surface within 60 seconds of the game’s end. Thus, CU embarked on an awareness campaign with the hopes of getting students to adopt the “Golden Minute.” Through emails and social media, George begged fans to stay in their seats until one minute had passed.
The procedure’s first real test came during football season on homecoming weekend, when the Buffaloes trounced the visiting Arizona State Sun Devils 40-16. Fans promptly ignored the 60 second countdown, hopping the walls moments after the game’s end. CU received the $25,000 first offense fine as a result.
In the Buffaloes’ last two home games, the golden minute was ineffective yet again. Wins against Washington State and Utah capped off an amazing turnaround season and placed Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game. This spawned an excitement in fans who simply could not wait a minute to celebrate. The back-to-back stormings triggered the second and third offense fines, putting CU’s total for the season at $175,000. Oddly though, the Pac-12 chose not to levy the fine on the Washington State game, meaning Colorado only owed $75,000 total. The conference did not elaborate on why they made this decision.
As basketball season began, CU abandoned the golden minute. Instead, they decided to prevent court stormings with stern PA announcements and security guards who would line the court. The new system worked in the Buffs’ upset win over Xavier, but it also benefited from low attendance: the game occurred in the week before final exams.
When the Buffaloes shocked highly-ranked Oregon, the team of 15 or so neon-clad guards were not as lucky. With over 9,300 people in attendance, the guards were outnumbered by the hundreds of students that pushed through with ease. The university will likely face another $25,000 fine for its first basketball offense.
Where does it end?
So far, nothing has worked. The golden minute was an unrealistic goal and proved too difficult to enforce. Additionally, students simply don’t care about fines that cost the same as tuition, especially when they aren’t paying for them. George has found out the hard way that he can’t rely on fans’ patience nor their financial sympathy. He also can’t risk increasing game security to the point where violence is waged on fans.
So what can be done? Well, George can hope that the work he’s done as athletic director will help Colorado teams become consistently good. In theory, a consistently good team rarely celebrates big wins as chaotically as a perpetual underdog does.
Until then, he will have to experiment with better ways to convey the need for safety to the CU public. Reaching out to fan groups like the C-Unit to get input on an agreeable policy may help. He’ll have to do something, or else risk field and court rushes becoming something of a CU tradition. Containing the passion of Colorado fans is no easy task, and George will definitely have hard work ahead of him.
It’s difficult to say how this chapter of CU sports history will end. One thing that’s certain: it was fun for those who got the chance. Field and court rushes will likely phase out, but the memories of those wins at Folsom and Coors never will.
To end with an oft-used quote, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
Contact CU Independent Sports Staff Writer Kyle Rini at firstname.lastname@example.org.