Oakland Zoo intimidates visiting basketball teams

By Greg Trietley

An hour before a February 2011 home game between the Pitt men’s basketball team and its Backyard Brawl rival, West Virginia, a Pitt student dressed in a gold shirt, navy gym shorts, high white socks and a headband stood behind a row of courtside seats. He intently watched the Mountaineers’ warm ups. An hour before a February 2011 home game between the Pitt men’s basketball team and its Backyard Brawl rival, West Virginia, a Pitt student dressed in a gold shirt, navy gym shorts, high white socks and a headband stood behind a row of courtside seats. He intently watched the Mountaineers’ warm ups.

He paraded a mock-up of Joe Mazzulla’s mug shot and shouted Mazzulla’s name in an attempt to taunt him. Much to the student’s surprise, the West Virginia guard, who has had several run-ins with police, came over, signed the mug shot and then resumed his warm up. Both walked away with a grin.

Three minutes into the game, Mazzulla headed to the free throw line. One student behind the rim danced in a neon pink windbreaker. The rest of the section raised its arms to the left and swung them to the right as he attempted his shot — except for a few stragglers whose arms went in the opposite direction.

“Wait, are we going left to right or right to left?” one student asked.

This is the Oakland Zoo, Pitt’s 1,500-seat basketball student section known for being one of the loudest, most creative and most intimidating in the nation.

“Come game time, it’s 40 minutes of intensity,” former Zoo president Dave Jedlicka said. “You’re not going to find too many other basketball venues outside of Pitt and a few other top schools that are going to cheer from the tip of the ball until the final buzzer sounds.”

Jedlicka, the Zoo president from 2006 to 2009, has since graduated, although he and other Zoo alumni briefly returned during Pitt’s College Basketball Invitational run this past spring.

As the Oakland Zoo’s name implies, some of its members dress in animal costumes. Others bring giant cardboard cut-outs of the heads of players and head coach Jamie Dixon. For most Pitt students, though, the wardrobe is simple: a gold Oakland Zoo T-shirt.

“When you put that shirt on, you are truly a part of something,” said J.D. Schroeder, one of the Zoo’s leaders last season. “For most games, of the 1,500 kids in the student section, maybe 20 are not wearing Zoo shirts.”

The group started in early 2001 when Pitt alumni Matt Cohen and Zach Hale, wanting to re-invigorate a lackluster student section at the Fitzgerald Field House, gathered some friends to form what they dubbed the Oakland Zoo. The Zoo adopted gold T-shirts and grew exponentially, eventually moving with the team into the Petersen Events Center in 2002 and becoming an official University student group that same year.

Today, it’s one of the largest student groups at Pitt, and the official Zoo Twitter account has more than 9,000 followers.

The Zoo begins behind the rim by the home bench, wraps along one sideline and continues along the baseline near the visitors’ bench, encompassing nearly three full sides of the court. Pitt’s pep band resides within the Zoo in the corner next to the player entrance.

“You are right on top of the action the whole time,” Schroeder said. “It’s one of the unique experiences of a Pitt student’s time at the school.”

Many students arrive several hours before a game’s opening tipoff to secure the best seats in the general admission Zoo — especially for Big East games. Tickets for students cost $5 and can be purchased through the my.pitt portal lottery system.

“The Zoo isn’t just about everything during the game, but it’s the pregame stuff as well — people showing up early, camping out,” Jedlicka said. “In 2009, we played UConn when they were No. 1, and it was a noon tipoff on a Saturday. I got there around 7 or 8 in the morning on Friday, and I didn’t leave the Pete until the next day when the game was over.”

Dedication to basketball resonates with many who fill the Zoo. In early 2011, Pitt student Evan Gombos attended an 89-81 win over Marquette the day after he tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his right knee.

“Crutching all the way up to the Pete in snowy conditions was a feat,” Gombos said. “My two roommates carried me part of the way like you see when an athlete gets hurt. I jumped up and down on just my left leg for two hours.”

It’s almost always worth it. Despite last year’s disappointing season, which concluded with a CBI championship, Pitt boasts an impressive 164-19 all-time record at the Petersen Events Center.

“When you’re playing some of the smaller schools that aren’t used to the big-time atmosphere, those are the teams that really get shaken up,” Jedlicka said.

But the bigger schools also struggle when traveling to Pittsburgh. The Panthers are 9-0 against Top 5 opponents at home in the Zoo era.

“The Oakland Zoo is where Top 5 teams come to die,” Schroeder said. “9-0 against Top 5 teams is unbelievable, and the team always points to the Zoo as one of the reasons for that record.”

Schroeder said that the Zoo helps the team rally when it needs motivation. He recalled Pitt’s thrilling come-from-behind 98-95 triple-overtime win over West Virginia in February 2010 as an example.

“You can literally feel the Zoo affecting the way the game is going,” he said. “When WVU was ahead with 30 seconds to go with the ball, the Zoo turned around and got everyone in the stadium to get up and make noise on the play. Result: ball stolen, made 3-pointer by Pitt. Tie game.”

The winning atmosphere has helped cultivate the Zoo’s routine. Newspapers that contain both teams’ lineups and directions for first-timers to the student section rest on each seat before the games, placed there by Zoo leaders.

During pregame introductions, Zoo members act like they’re reading the paper as the opposing lineup is announced and shout “sucks!” after each player’s name. After the coach’s name, they shout, “He sucks too!” Then, the papers are crumbled and tossed into the air as the lights dim, a siren blasts and everybody starts jumping for the announcement of Pitt’s starting lineup.

That jumping continues into the game every time the opposition has possession of the ball.

A fan-favorite chant occurs when an opposing player fouls out. The Zoo chants his steps — “LEFT … RIGHT … LEFT …” — as the fouled-out player walks back to his bench and yells “Sit down!” when he takes a seat. Players have tried to throw off the Zoo by running in place or by faking sitting down. Once, a coach instructed his player to stand for the rest of the game.

As silly as some of the Zoo’s antics are, the student section’s popularity and enthusiasm have made it a valuable football recruiting tool for the University.

Redshirt senior Shayne Hale attended a 2007 basketball game against Oklahoma State, and by the end of the first half he had left his seat next to then-football coach Dave Wannstedt and donned a gold shirt with the Pitt students. He committed to the school less than a month later.

Zoo members had former Pitt running back and current Philadelphia Eagle LeSean McCoy check a box next to his name on a poster — signaling that he would be the next athlete to commit to the University — when he sat with the Zoo on a similar recruiting visit that year.

“These kids in high school, these juniors and seniors, they want to see they’re going to go to a school that can have some fun. They want to be with the other students,” Jedlicka said. “If they can jump around and let loose for a while, that’s really what they’re looking for. It worked for guys like McCoy, Hale, Henry Hynoski … all these big-time recruits.”

Hale recently won Pitt’s Ed Conway Award for most-improved defensive player at the conclusion of spring practices. McCoy rushed for 1,309 yards for the Eagles last season, and Hynoski won a Super Bowl in his rookie year with the New York Giants.

The growth of the Zoo has also brought celebrities into the fray. Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers frequently attend Pitt games, and former Panthers wide receiver and current Arizona Cardinal Larry Fitzgerald also makes appearances.

“One of the things that makes the Zoo so effective is the show of unity,” Jedlicka said. “When you wear the shirt, you become a part of something. You’re saying, ‘I go to Pitt. I’m a part of the Oakland Zoo. That’s me in my seat jumping around on TV all of the time.’”