By David Villavicencio
CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Student support is an integral part of college athletics.
Beyond a team's success on the field or court, a program is often recognized for its loyal fan support.
College basketball fans recognize Duke's Cameron Crazies as much as they recognize the program's four national titles. College football fans knew about Texas A&M's 12th Man well before they had ever heard of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
At Miami, the student body's support of athletics has not always matched the university's success in various sports. But that trend of fair-weathered student support at "The U" is beginning to change.
"We got off to an awesome start with the Bethune-Cookman game," said, Brian Bowsher, Miami's digital media strategist. "I was pretty blown away with the student turnout for that."
The students followed the season opener with several other strong showings. They were out in full force on Oct. 20, as the Hurricanes hosted in-state rival Florida State. More than 9,000 students (9,800) cheered on the Canes against FSU, setting a student attendance record for Sun Life Stadium.
The increased fan support continued during basketball season, with students flocking to the BankUnited Center to support the Canes in big wins over Michigan State (1,290 students) and Maryland (1,227 students).
"The growth that we've seen from today going back to the early stages of the season has been big," Bowsher said. "Walking into the building for the first couple of games, you felt like 'this is a nice arena with decent crowds but not a lot of life.' But what we saw at the Maryland game and the Michigan State game and what we're expecting for Duke is incredible. Hopefully the students have a great time. For those who can't get in, hopefully they can experience it for the Florida State game."
Javier Hernandez, 21, is a junior at Miami and he has seen the fan support grow exponentially since he first enrolled at Miami three years ago.
"It's night and day, from freshman year to now, it's completely different," Hernandez said. "I remember in my freshman year, even the games where there would be high attendance just didn't feel like a college basketball game."
This year, Hernandez has seen a student section that is engaged in the on-court action and is actively supporting the Canes from the opening tip until the final horn.
"I'm really excited about what's going on now," Hernandez said. "It's no longer a situation where students only go to the games sometimes, and when they are there, you barely notice them. Now, they go to games and they are active participants. They are very involved and most importantly they're loud."
Miami's student section has a long way to go before it develops the same reputation as Duke or Texas A&M, but Hernandez is confident that the student body will become a consistent supporter of Hurricane athletics.
"Miami is always going to be different just because it's Miami," Hernandez said. "We may never have the same vibe as schools in traditional college towns, but I think what we're seeing now is the Miami twist to the college town vibe. People here still plan on going out, but now they are planning to go to the game and support the team first. I think there is some of that college town feel. I've started to notice the buzz around campus on game days and I think it will only grow in the future."
Wednesday's game against No. 1 Duke is already sold out and there are fewer than 300 tickets remaining for Sunday's match-up against Florida State. Only 1,300 students will be able to attend the Duke game with complimentary admission and that has sparked a unique experience for Miami basketball.
Students will be allowed to line up on the "Larranaga Lawn" adjacent to the BankUnited Center at 10 a.m. on Wednesday in the hopes of gaining one of the coveted student section seats. The university anticipates having more than 1,300 students in the building for just the seventh time in BankUnited Center history.
"Hopefully, Maryland is just step one and we continue growing," Hernandez said. "I think the basketball team winning definitely helps. But, I think now that the atmosphere is in place, students are going to want to go just for that."
With the Hurricanes sitting atop the ACC heading into the Duke game, Bowsher feels Wednesday's match-up against the top-ranked team in the country will be huge for building fan tradition at Miami.
"Obviously the success that Coach L has put on the court has helped tremendously," Bowsher said. "I feel like the students have rallied behind that, seeing the effort that our student-athletes are giving, and they're coming out to support. Hopefully, one feeds the other and it snowballs to create something special here in Coral Gables."