Cheaters sometimes win: Oakland Zoo ups distraction tactics


“Joel! Joel! Joel! Joel, how’s Shannon? Joel!”

“Hey, Marcus! Retweet me after the game! OK? Marcus!”

“Meeks, you suck! You look like the Pillsbury Doughboy!”

Anyone who has ever been in the Oakland Zoo during a pregame warm up knows that strangely personal shouts to opposing players, like these exclamations heard at Saturday’s matchup against North Carolina, are in unfailingly strong supply. 

The Zoo has always had the propensity to get under the skin of players from Boston College to Florida State, yet, this season, one-page “cheat sheets” compiled by Oakland Zoo leaders have strengthened the Zoo’s verbal attacks. These heavily researched lists contain personal information — fears, embarrassing stories or names of ex-romantic partners and family members — about the opposing team’s players. The idea is that shouting and exploiting private information will distract other players and affect their performance. 

The Zoo has been lauded by mainstream media outlets for the past decade as one of the most intimidating student sections in college basketball.

“The Zoo is always a big factor whether we win or lose,” said sophomore forward Sheldon Jeter following Pitt’s 89-76 victory over the Tar Heels. “They always give us some type of edge. North Carolina missed nine free throws today. I give most of that to the Zoo.”

While the players notice the impact of the student section, the zoo members have noted the improvement the enhanced cheat sheets have made. One Zoo member, senior marketing major Mitchell Martin, lauded the cheat sheets’ effects on the game.

“People get behind [the sheets] and get in the players’ heads — it’s a collective CIA effort,” Martin said.

Digging for material on rival teams’s rosters takes hours of research — mostly by Zoo leaders– juniors Ryan Foley, a health information management major, and Nicoletta LePore, an accounting major — starting a week before game day. They later meet up to finalize the sheet, as they did last Thursday at 7 p.m. in David Lawrence Hall. 

Zoo Vice Presidents Eric Floyd, a junior economics major, and Daniel Kulikowski, a senior bioengineering student, as well as Foley and LePore, huddled around Foley’s laptop deciding what should make the cut for UNC’s cheat sheet.

Some information eventually is deemed too invasive. 

For example, Foley discovered North Carolina star guard Marcus Paige’s home address, but he decided the Zoo wouldn’t cross that boundary.

When it comes to the research itself, Foley explained that social media is the key to finding the best information. The hunt goes down on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Vine or, according to Foley.

“We basically just look them up on Twitter and start looking through pictures, because they’ll usually post about a girlfriend. I find their Twitters through directors of basketball operations, because the only people they tend to follow are players.”

LePore handles the Snapchat research.

“I started adding UNC players on Snapchat in October, because it takes time for them to add you back, and you want to make sure it’s them,” she said. “You start with Twitter and search their Snapchat name based on their handle, and then move to Instagram.”

Although there have been some smaller, less-researched cheat sheets in past seasons, Foley and LePore said they plan to make the sheets for every game this season because of the sheets’ popularity and effectiveness — not only with Pitt students, but also with the media.

“[ESPN reporter] Jeannine Edwards pulled a sheet off of a chair and underlined a few things. [ESPN] did a segment and compared the Zoo to the CIA,” Floyd said. 

Some media outlets have gone as far as calling the Zoo’s sheets cold, brutal and ruthless — but the Zoo leaders agreed that any press is good press. 

“I think it’s easy to look at it for the first time and say it’s kind of harsh,” LePore said, “but there’s a lot of filtering that goes into it.”

“The only one that bothered me was the one that said we were trying to imitate Duke,” Foley said. 

Duke is the only other school known to have a cheat sheet, but Foley was quick to dismiss its notoriety. 

“Duke’s is very limited — Coach K. actually yelled at them because he thought it wasn’t nice to put their moms on there. So now they just do very friendly things — it’s not as researched,” he said. “The only person they really go hard on research for is [North Carolina coach] Roy Williams … because they hate him.”

It’s clear that Internet and social media allow prime heckling opportunities for Pitt’s student section. Matt Cohen, who founded the Oakland Zoo in 2001, expressed his jealousy for the sheets, and he said the only jab he was able to take as a student was to prank call challenging players. 

“That was something I dreamed to be able to do,” Cohen said about the cheat sheets. “I was [at Pitt] before Twitter and Facebook. Now they have so much information at their fingertips — they know everything, they know all about their personal lives. It’s fantastic. I love it.”


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