Leading the Oakland Zoo: Students take charge of the section

By Lauren Kirschman

J.D. Schroeder, vice president of the Oakland Zoo, strolls into the lobby of the Petersen Events… J.D. Schroeder, vice president of the Oakland Zoo, strolls into the lobby of the Petersen Events Center and holds up his ink-stained hands. He smiles as he rubs them together in an attempt to rid them of the black stain.

“We’re papering the whole Pete,” he explains. “Everyone’s hands look a lot like this.”

He gives up trying to clean off his hands as he walks through the lobby of Pitt’s on-campus basketball arena to an elevator that will take him back to the basketball floor. There’s still more than three hours before the Pitt men’s basketball game against South Florida will begin, but the arena is already filling up with about 30 members of Pitt’s student section, the Oakland Zoo. The students are working to place custom-made newspapers over each of the more than 12,000 seats inside the arena.

The leaders usually just place newspapers in the 1,100-seat student section but, in honor of senior night, newspapers with the faces of honorees Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson have been spread throughout the arena.

Since its inception in the winter of 2001, the Oakland Zoo has become one of the most recognizable and praised student sections in the country. The Zoo has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and this season, ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan and Dana O’Neil selected the Zoo as the nation’s No. 2 student section behind Duke’s Cameron Crazies.

“It’s always fun,” O’Neil said about the Petersen Events Center in a podcast. “There’s always huge energy in there … [The Zoo] takes it very seriously and I do think they make a difference having talked to players and stuff there.”

Brennan noted the adoption between the program and the student section, citing the Oakland Zoo logo on the back of Pitt’s jerseys and team members warming up in Zoo T-shirts before the game.

“They’re one and the same at this point,” Brennan said in the podcast. “That’s really impressive to me.”


The newspapers contain rosters for both teams, and students hold them up during the opposing team’s introduction so that the “Let’s Go Pitt” printed on the back is clearly visible.

The six Oakland Zoo leaders — Schroeder, President Eric Haybarger, Vice President Joe Lassi, Jordan Shoup, Mike Tam and Cortney Spertzel — normally take care of papering the student section, but Schroeder and the rest of the Zoo leaders brought friends and loyal members of the student section as reinforcements to help with the increased responsibility for the South Florida game.

On normal nights, Zoo leaders arrive at 3:30 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game in order to handle pregame responsibilities. It usually takes 30-45 minutes to place newspapers on the student section seats. But with more than 11,000 extra seats to decorate, Zoo members arrived an hour earlier for the February game against South Florida. The students work efficiently and, by 3:30 p.m., they are ahead of schedule.

They’ve already papered the entire arena — save a few seats in the top rows — and Schroeder sits in the front of the student section to look around at the dark blue seats plastered with gray newspapers. A section over, many of the Zoo members are already relaxing in the first few rows of the student section, spreading homework and books across their laps to study until it gets closer to the start of the game or pizza arrives.

The Zoo leaders’ pregame routine doesn’t end with preparing the student section. Schroeder said that before every game, the leaders have to find out how many students will be arriving, how many newspapers to lay out and any information they need to know about the players or events of the day. Sometimes, the leaders will use computers to look up information on opposing players that they incorporate into chants or to write on the whiteboards they hold up from the front row.

They watch the players warm up hours before tipoff and often take a trip to the line of students that forms in the lobby before games to see if their classmates have any questions.


The lines in the Petersen Events Center were slightly shorter this season and for the game against South Florida, just four sections of the Oakland Zoo were filled. The men’s basketball team — which had strung together a decade filled with 20-win seasons and Big East Championships — limped through this season.

After starting the season 11-1, the Panthers dropped sevenstraight games in the Big East. Although the team looked like it was getting back on track with four consecutive wins after the return of injured point guard Tray Woodall, Pitt would lose to South Florida for the second time this season and then lose three out of its final four games.

The Panthers won a single game in the Big East Tournament and then, on Selection Sunday, when they are normally waiting to find out their seeding for the NCAA Tournament, the team wasn’t even given a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.

Instead, Pitt played in the College Basketball Invitational, a 16-team post-season tournament. The Panthers hosted four games at the Petersen Events Center in front of less than 4,000 fans and about 60 students for each game.

“We thought more students and fans would come out to support the team,” Schroeder said. “But there seemed to be an underlying feeling of dislike that people were even in the tournament.”

But Schroeder said that all of the Zoo leaders would agree that the games were “as much fun as any game at the Pete this year, if not more.”

“I’m not sure if it was because it was mostly diehards, but I know the Zoo had more fun heckling, making jokes, laughing,” he said. “It was just simply a fun and laid-back atmopshere.”

And when Pitt won the CBI championship over Washington State on Friday, sophomore team member J.J. Moore ran the CBI banner over to the Oakland Zoo in celebration.

Schroeder said that Pitt gained experience in the close games, such as an overtime semifinal game with Butler, and also showed who will be at the core of the team next season.

The students filled the Zoo for the contest before South Florida — a game against rival West Virginia. The members of the student section cheered and bounced with so much pregame energy that the lower bowl of the arena shook. But as the Mountaineers pulled away in the second half, the student section’s energy began to fade.

“It’s hard to get people motivated,” Schroeder said. “When you have a top-five team coming to the Pete, we really don’t need to do much. When teams like Providence come in, it’s really hard to get students motivated.”

“The Zoo is definitely something I know people find one of the most enjoyable parts about the University. That’s one of the best things to come out of Twitter, just to be able to talk to so many people at once.”

Not every student who enters the Petersen Events Center is as passionate as the leaders, but D. Randall Smith, an associate professor of sports sociology at Rutgers University, said that some students in the Zoo will come to games just for the social aspect.

“One of the sociological perspectives on college sports is that they facilitate social integration and school spirit,” Smith said in an email.

The Oakland Zoo has more than 7,300 Twitter followers and is the largest known student section account. Purdue’s student section, the Paint Crew, ranks second with roughly 6,300 followers. Schroeder, who handles 90 percent of the account’s tweets, said that the Zoo account was run by a former leader until Pitt’s loss in the NCAA Tournament last year. The day after the Panthers’ loss to Butler, the account added more than 2,700 followers.

Schroeder uses the account to boost morale, encourage students to attend games and even send out information on the opposing teams and players.

“It’s gotten to the point where Eric [Haybarger] and I can’t check our phones during games because the Zoo’s Twitter keeps blowing up,” Schroeder said. “Two or three people are tagging us a minute saying things like we sound awesome on television.”

Although the Zoo has failed to fill the section for every Big East game this season, the student section reached over 90 percent capacity for several games, including West Virginia, Georgetown and Villanova. But attendance fell off noticeably against South Florida.

Smith said some studies show that fans tend to identify with their team more when it wins.

“You can see this on campus when students are more likely to wear school colors (t-shirts, sweats, baseball caps and so forth) after a ‘big’ win,” Smith said in an email. “On the other hand, some behaviors (such as parties) may happen whether or not the team wins a given game.”

Schroeder noted that some student sections — even those who support top-10 teams — struggle to fill all their seats.

“I watch other schools’ student sections and obviously Duke has been well-documented,” he said. “They are having trouble filling a student section for a top-10 team. It says something about the Zoo’s commitment when we can fill it for an almost sub-500 Villanova team.”

Haybarger also keeps an eye on competing fandom.

“We are definitely one of the top ones,” he said. “Duke supposedly was number one, but if you’ve seen any articles, you see that their students don’t really show up for the game anymore.”

Lassi added that many student sections will jump for five minutes and then become lackluster.

“When [Pitt] is having a great season, and even this year, [the Zoo] definitely is as good as any in the nation,” Lassi said. “We have as much energy day in and day out.”

Schroeder said the job of the Zoo leaders is to keep students motivated. Haybargar added that this is attempted not only through tweets, but also through Zoo emails. The leaders tried to stay optimistic this season by setting goals, such as continuing the winning streak when the Panthers seemed to be turning the season around.


Schroeder and the other leaders not only go back and watch Pitt games to see how their cheers sound on television, but will also watch other teams’ games to observe student sections from across the country.

The leaders — who sit in the front row for each game — run through a list of four rotating cheers during each Pitt game. Depending on the tempo of the game, they’ll move through one or two cheers on each offensive possession.

“We’re trying to get two or three more cheers in so it’s not so repetitive,” Schroeder said. “I’ve gotten a couple of ideas from some student sections.”

Haybarger said the leaders don’t discourage other non-Zoo leaders from starting cheers.

“If you want to start chants, cool, but try to make sure that it’s not one that we just did,” Haybarger said.

Schroeder, Haybarger and Lassi didn’t know each other before they got involved with the Oakland Zoo and Smith said that finding a connection through mutual fandom isn’t uncommon.

“A recent study found that the more a person bonds with fans of his/her college team, the less likely he/she is to have connections with others who aren’t fans,” Smith said in an email. “So there are social connections that can be formed between the fans of a team.”

Students aren’t voted into a leadership position with the Zoo. Instead, passionate fans are often noticed and brought into the role by current leaders.

“We were loud and enthusiastic and very involved,” Schroeder said. “We know who is here every game. The reason we don’t do something like a vote is because it would turn into a popularity contest. That’s the reason it’s kind of a hand-picked thing.”

He added that the current leaders keep track of students who come to every game. Once students become leaders, they have to learn the rules.

The Zoo leaders receive a three-page document detailing what they aren’t allowed to do with recruits — like offer a free Oakland Zoo T-shirt — due to NCAA rules. The leaders also aren’t permitted by the athletic department to write a specific player’s or coach’s name on the whiteboards or swear. Some cheers — such as a USA chant that broke out against West Virginia — drew the ire of fans. Many complained about the USA chant directed toward a foreign Mountaineer player because Talib Zanna, a sophomore forward for the Panthers, is Nigerian.


The leaders have several ideas for improving the Oakland Zoo for next season. Schroeder wants to try and bring back an annual bus trip to an away game while Haybarger mentioned students’ request for buddy passes into the Zoo. For Panther football games, students can buy buddy passes so friends who don’t attend Pitt can join them in the student section. But since there are fewer basketball tickets and usually more of a demand, the same offer hasn’t been made for the Oakland Zoo.

Schroeder suggested that if students build up a certain amount of loyalty points — credit students earn for attending games — they should get one buddy pass. Haybarger added that Pitt could open up tickets for guests for contests that take place over holiday breaks.

“You should be able to bring as many friends as you want [over winter break],” Haybarger said. “A couple games we [had] like 30 students.”

Schroeder, Haybarger and Lassi all said they want to see the Pitt and West Virginia basketball series continue. With West Virginia moving to the Big 12 next season, the fate of the historic rivalry is in doubt. Schroeder suggested that keeping the Backyard Brawl could help student attendance for both schools over Thanksgiving or Christmas break.

“Put the WVU game during either school’s break and you have an instant sellout,” Schroeder said. “It’s hard to come back for New Hampshire or whatever, but come back for West Virginia and the Brawl.”

Smith said that there is a “symbolism attached to besting another school.”

“Long-standing rivalries are extreme examples of this,” he said in an emaiil. “One thing a lot of people can talk about is sports and this is one reason why sports can facilitate social integration among segments of a population in general or on a particular campus. But remember, this works best when ‘your team’ is winning.”


Schroeder and Lassi traveled with friends for the game at West Virginia this season and watched as the Panthers defeated the Mountaineers on their home court. The trip just reinforced their desire to continue the Backyard Brawl.

“A lot of people talk about their fans but we honestly didn’t have any problem,” Schroeder said.

“I got yelled at,” Lassi said. “I stood up during the negative chants they were doing.”

“Joe is normally even-keeled,” Schroeder said. “But in West Virginia he was in his element.”

Schroeder and Lassi will both return to the Zoo next year, while Haybarger is still considering where he will attend graduate school. All three have fond memories from their time in the Oakland Zoo.

Schroeder remembers Zanna’s breakaway dunk near the end of Pitt’s game-opening 19-0 run against Syracuse last season.

“Literally, my ears were ringing,” he said. “I was yelling at [my friend] next to me and he couldn’t hear a word I was saying … I just have this fleeting memory of Talib pounding his fists and the whole arena was up. It was just a fantastic thing.”

Haybarger said the loudest he heard the Petersen Events Center was during the Panthers win over No. 1 Connecticut during his freshman year in 2009.

“My head started to hurt because it was so loud and it was just amazing,” he said.

Lassi also placed the Syracuse win from last season on his list and recalled the triple overtime win against West Virginia during his sophomore year as well as Gibbs’ buzzer beater to defeat Providence during the same season.

The three said they believe the Oakland Zoo plays a major part in Pitt’s home-court advantage. Even with seven losses on their home floor this season, the Panthers are still 159-19 all-time at the Petersen Events Center and 12-0 against top-10 teams.

“We’re like a family,” Schroeder said. “Whether they do bad or do good, we’re behind them.”