Entering the circle drive that filters into the campus of Oakland University during the winter semester, an observer will notice a slew of banners hanging on light posts, a familiar sight on any campus. "Coming Home," they read; a reminder of the month's Homecoming festivities. For a school without a football team, Homecoming was developed around the basketball season of the Golden Grizzlies, created out of a need to connect alumni to the still young university and the nascent Division I era of the school's athletics program.
The problem with the slogan is that very few people consider Oakland University their home. For most of the 19,000 current students, it is merely a place they stop between their lives at home and the jobs they work. Our growing residential population that peaks at 2,000 students has helped change the culture, but even a majority of these students have The Commuter's Mentality. The university's graduates are not much different. A majority of the alumni aren't even Golden Grizzlies; they're Pioneers. They come from an era where the mascot was Pioneer Pete, and the athletics teams competed against schools like Lake Superior State and Northwood, colleges even students at directional schools look down upon.
In some ways, the university itself is still trying to find a home. We are wedged between two of the epicenters of economic downturn: Detroit and Flint. Here you are a Chrysler, Ford or GM person; endorsing a car company with a vowel at the end of its name is as taboo as declaring oneself a Buckeye fan. We know hardship. We know how to get back up. We know tough odds.
As a basketball program, we're just as misplaced. Eighty four miles west of us lays a perennial powerhouse, dressed in green and white, in one of the biggest conferences in the United States. Each year this school pays us money to come and tune them up for their inevitable run at a national title. Roughly 60 miles southwest of us lies an equally large and reputable university, one that many hoops aficionados believe OU has supplanted in the state's basketball ranks. Success, however, does not always translate into dollars at our level. So even though basketball is somewhat of an afterthought on the campus of the maize and blue, their basketball coffers would beg to differ.
Nationally (when we do get mentioned) we are better known as a school from the Bay Area, despite the fact that we are thousands of miles away from the nearest ocean. If one took a road trip through Hoops Nation, most folks would consider Oakland a member of the California Bus League. To avoid confusion, the national media outlets have to include a parenthetical four-letter classifier at the end of our name. The (Mich.) helps Kansas and Syracuse fans know that they didn't just win a guarantee game against a team named after one of the most dangerous cities in California, but one named after the wealthiest county in the state of Michigan. It feels like we are the Barry Bonds of basketball: everything we do has an asterisk.
For OU, pride is a fairly new concept. But even pride comes with an asterisk. "I like Oakland*, but I'm a Michigan football fan," one will hear. Or, "OU is cool*, but I'm just here until I can transfer to State." And then there are the students who are more apt to support the idea of having a football team than a real, live basketball team. The advent of Homecoming, however, is helping to grow pride in Oakland and, more specifically, its basketball program.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
A decade removed from The Transitional Years, a whole slew of twenty-something alumni are embracing the chance to come home. They know the significance of acronyms like IUPUI and ORU. They know what Pierre Dukes meant for the program. And they know about Greg Kampe, the man who has guided the Oakland University men's basketball program for 26 years.
Those of us who are contemporary Oakland fans know that Derrick Nelson, Jonathan Jones, and Keith Benson are great, but there are fans coming back to their alma mater who also know the contributions of Rawle Marshall, Mike Helms, and Courtney Scott. The former trio is currently trying to accomplish something the latter troupe did in 2005: achieve an elusive NCAA Tournament berth.
The road to an automatic bid goes through the Summit League, or in the parlance of this website, The Badlands Conference. This league is a strange collection of misfits, the compost heap of Hoops Nation. Everything has been thrown in, no matter the elevation, location, or religious affiliation. Even schools with nicknames like Leathernecks, Thunderbirds, and Kangaroos have found a home here. Geographically, our conference is the 21st century version of Manifest Destiny. Perhaps eventually Summit League officials will attempt to court Long Beach State and Maine to join our league. Truthfully, though, a home is all these schools have wanted as most have come here as D-II transitionals or independents. For Oakland University, it has been the one home that feels right.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Although most rivalries span generations and are filled with colorful traditions whose origins are long since forgotten, rivalries in the Summit League are seemingly random (with the exception of the Dakotas). Who would have thought that a public university just north of Detroit would have a seething hatred for a Pentecostal university from Tulsa, Oklahoma? But this is what happens when you have two consistently strong teams at the top of a 10 team league, all vying for one ticket to the biggest dance of them all.
For the Golden Grizzlies, the rivalry with Oral Roberts has contributed to the growth of institutional pride. When ORU comes to town, members of the community and the university staff know to save the date. Students, however, have been slower to catch on. The knowledge that OU-ORU is a "must attend" has been spread on a grassroots level. Year by year, at least in our years spent here, it has grown from simply attending a basketball game to something greater, a sort of collective experience. No doubt this transition was inspired by the creation of a bona fide student section, The Grizz Gang, a few seasons ago. We went from having no place in our own house, to finally having a home behind the visitor's bench, a place to rest bounce our feet. Our voices went from the scattered jeering of officials and opposing players, to a uniform message that the O'Rena is not a place where the Golden Eagles - or any opponent - are welcome.
This year's version of the rivalry game turned out to be a seminal moment in the timeline of Oakland basketball and an apex of pride for our school. It all began at midnight the night before when a dozen diehards gathered around the Grizz statue, one of many recent additions to the campus to inspire pride in the student body. It was a cold night, but we were committed to guarding the Grizz from the imaginary force that was the Oral Roberts student following. The night mostly consisted of us planning on how we were going to coordinate our efforts and strategize as a student section. We dreamed of a larger Grizz Gang than ever before but were braced for a letdown. Our outlook did not prevent us from the ritual of destroying a piñata embedded with the ORU logo. We left the scene, waiting for the day's coming events with equal parts hope and apprehension...and maybe a bit of frost bite.
The next day seemed to fly by, with the morning being filled with going to local party stores to buy black face paint and sneaking into alumni tents for some free food. Most of the Grizz Gang members who desired prime seating locations for the men's game at 6:00, put in their time at the women's game which started at 3:30. When the tip off finally came, many of us who had experienced years of student apathy began to realize this was a momentous occasion. The full and enthusiastic crowd which had materialized was evidence of this. The student section was the sixth man, for once. It extended beyond the normal confines that our unit typically identified with, stretching beyond the always supportive band into the previous uncharted territory of the bleachers behind the basket.
It may appear that one game with an abnormally large student section does not mean much, but when taken in the context of how far the program has come over the years, it certainly represents a large step forward. Not only did we protect our house, but we contributed to the fundamental building of pride. Pride in the basketball team, yes, but also in the university itself.
That it came on Homecoming, a day when both casual and hardcore alumni were in the building, made it a time when graduates truly felt at home. That it came on the same day in which nearly the entire sell-out crowd stayed to watch the honoring of the first ever Division I team helped to connect all generations of Golden Grizzlies. And that it came on the day where so many new Golden Grizzly fans were converted - the asterisk removed - displayed that the future of the fanbase is bright.
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Perhaps one of the most beautiful things that results from a rabid fanbase is friendship. Basketball games start out as something to do with others, something to join together and stand behind. But then it evolves. The game inspires students to get together on 10 degree nights to protect something purely symbolic, to paint their faces with school colors, and to dissect the seemingly insignificant moments that transpire. It is these moments that will transcend our four (or five) years here, enough so that when it is our turn to "come home," the bonds will quickly reform, as if never broken.
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