The decline and rise of the Oakland Zoo

The Oakland Zoo during Pitt men’s basketball’s January matchup with Duke.

Entering Pitt as a first-year in the fall of 2016, I couldn’t wait to be a part of a Division 1 fanbase and watch my first football game as part of the “Panther Pitt.”

The football season didn’t disappoint. There were many great moments that first year — like James Conner making his return to the field after his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Later that season, the Panthers beat Penn State in a thrilling matchup and went on to be the only team to take down the unbeaten Clemson in a back-and-forth showdown on primetime TV. It seemed like a great time to be a fan of Panther sports.

But everything changed when basketball season rolled around.

The Panthers had hired new coach Kevin Stallings and were coming off of an NCAA tournament appearance. There was plenty of hope that the team would do well, since all the players were coming back with another year of experience, but the season did not live up to anyone’s expectations, least of all mine.

The Panthers went 4-14 in ACC play and didn’t make the tournament. Players seemed to have little enthusiasm during games. There were suspensions on the team. It all added up, and little by little the Oakland Zoo — Pitt’s famous student section for basketball games and the one I had been so excited to be a part of — started to fall apart. As it did, the initial enthusiasm for the season quickly turned into disdain. Things became very dreary for Panthers fans because there wasn’t much going on to root for.

The following year was even worse. Four out of our starting five didn’t return — Michael Young, Jamel Artis and Sheldon Jeter all graduated, while Cam Johnson transferred to University of North Carolina. The 2017-18 Panther basketball team was more than disappointing. It was one of the worst in the country.

The fans, understandably, didn’t want to go to wait around watching their team get blown out. Many times Zoo fans would go to the game just to yell “Fire Stallings” or put paper bags over their heads. A once-great student section with articles written about it and which in 2007 was named the “toughest place to play” in the Big East was gone, and looked like it wasn’t coming back anytime soon.

Then, late in the season, Athletic Director Heather Lyke made the move to let go head coach Kevin Stallings and hire Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel as the Panthers’ new head coach. Capel immediately came in with a presence. From his introductory press conference, there was a feeling that things were going to be different on the court.

“I promise you, the fans, the administration, everyone, that I will give you everything that I have, every day,” he said.

Capel was the main recruiter at his previous coaching gig at Duke, so we knew he was going to be able to bring in quality players. After Capel came in, several “top” players from the previous season decided to transfer, but Capel never wavered. He went out immediately and recruited able first-years in Xavier Johnson, Au’Diese Toney and Trey McGowens, all of whom quickly showed their worth as players.

Then came the 2018-19 basketball season — which, to me, was the highlight of Panthers sports this past season. The Panthers started off their non-conference schedule with blowout wins against superior teams, but we had seen that in the years before. But then, the Panthers lost a game against Iowa in the Big Ten and ACC challenge by only one point — a competitive performance against what was, at the time, a top 15 team.

That was the spark, and it brought the Zoo back in a big way. The team had a confidence that had been missing for a couple of years. The Panthers were young, and while they lost a lot of games they had a chance to win that season, the fans could see that players were once again making an effort. Even in a blowout game, you could see they would still fight. That’s why people kept coming back to the Oakland Zoo.

The Panthers won only 3 ACC games — a worse record than the 2016-17 season — but the excitement was much greater. Despite the fact that the Panthers didn’t have a good record, there was a fresh scent to the program. Sitting in the Zoo was exciting again.

And after next year’s court flip, sitting in the Zoo will be an even bigger deal. The section, currently located in front of the court’s floor seats, will now sit behind the benches and be shown on TV. So buy those basketball season tickets. As an incoming first-year trying to navigate classes, living on your own and figuring out a whole new life, you need moments of escape. Our reinvigorated basketball team will give you those.

Those moments might not turn into victories, but they’ll definitely be fun to watch.  

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