As the winter sports season approaches a lot of focus will be on the Cornell hockey team that almost went to the Frozen Four a year ago. Undoubtedly the “Lynah Faithful” will be in full force this season, yelling “sieve” with the best of them. Do not overlook, though, the Cornell basketball team’s evolving “Newman Nation.” Cornell is looking to win its third straight Ivy League championship this season, and with five returning starters, Newman Nation will be an overwhelming force as a “sixth man.”
The effects of Newman Nation in recent years have been well documented. The Ithacan referred to the zealous student section as “shot-altering.” Andrew Pusar of the Harvard basketball squad said Newman Arena was “rocking.” When Penn came to visit the Hill, the Daily Pennsylvanian noted that the atmosphere on the court was “electric.” But it was not always this way.
Alberding Fieldhouse was constructed in 1990 after Cornell decided to make historic Barton Hall into a full-time indoor track and field facility. In 1993, Cornell decided to honor F.R. Newman ’12 and his wife Helen Newman and Alberding Fieldhouse became known as Newman Arena. Prior to 1990, Cornell played all of its home basketball and volleyball games in Barton Hall, which was constructed in 1914 and is older then the Palestra, the legendary basketball arena where Penn still plays its home basketball games.
Barton Hall, which could seat up to 9,000 people for a basketball game, was sold out when Cornell took on Princeton in the 1964-65 season. In that game, the Red impressed the sellout crowd, pulling out a last-second victory against future NBA star Bill Bradley and Princeton. That year, the Tigers went to the Final Four. Yet since the move in 1990, the largest home crowd a Cornell team has played in front of is 4,472. In 2003, the standing room-only crowd, not yet known as Newman Nation, watched as the Red lost to national championship runner-up Georgia Tech, 90-69. But as the Red squad began to improve, the once-calm crowds developed into what is now a boisterous group of fans.
Newman Nation had not always been an animated and spirited force. Since Alberding Fieldhouse was renamed Newman Arena, there has been an obvious trend in attendance and Red success.
In the years before Steve Donahue took the helm as Cornell’s head coach (1993-1999), the average attendance was 1,423. In Donahue’s first year as Red head coach, average attendance plummeted to 955. However, in the nine years Cornell has had Donahue as head coach, the average attendance at Newman Arena has increased to 1,786. Behind Donahue and the Red’s increasing success, Newman Nation has begun to take form.
“It’s really a reflection on the kids and the program,” Donahue said. “Well obviously [the team has] done a terrific job of being competitive and raising the level of play. Also I think it’s a group of guys whose personality really fits well with the kids in this school, who enjoy supporting those guys and in turn we feel very grateful that they enjoy it as much as they do and that turned us into really one of the hardest places to play in the country.”
In 2007-08, when Cornell won its first of two consecutive Ivy League titles, the attendance broke 2,000 (2,957) for the first time since the dedication of Newman Arena. Even more noteworthy is the fact that fans recognized the chance Cornell has to win its first Ivy League title in 20 years, and Newman Nation rose to the occasion, initiating chants, hand motions and general rowdiness that Cornell basketball hadn’t seen in the years before.
“The beginning of sophomore year I noticed that more fans came out,” said senior guard Louis Dale, who credits Newman Nation with doing a good job of heckling and distracting other teams. “There were a lot more fans there. We had high expectations for that season. Preseason we were picked to win the Ivy League and I think people caught on to that and wanted to come out and support the team. As we kept winning people came out to support us more and more.”
According to the NCAA attendance records, the average attendance for Cornell men’s basketball games in 2006-07, the year before Cornell won its first Ivy League title, was 1,340 people. Cornell students took initiative the next season, determined to solidify Newman Nation as an Ivy League version of the Cameron Crazies (the “Cornell Crazies”, if you will). In 2007-08, the average attendance of 2,957 made Cornell No. 10 in the category of “Largest Division I Average Attendance Increase From Previous Year” by the NCAA. With the increased attendance came Newman Nation rituals.
The Nation began using “brick bags” as a way to distract opposing players. Hundreds of hands rose in anticipation and fell with every made free throw. Newman Arena began hearing grumbles of the now commonplace “LOUUUUUUUUUU”, whenever Dale touched the ball. Echoes of “FOOTE, FOOTE, FOOTE” rang through Bartels on the 7-0 center’s every block. And of course, Cornell’s rendition of Gary Glitter made the transition from the ice to the hardwood. None of it would have been possible without the growing number of fans pouring into the see the Red play.
“They just don’t let up,” Donahue said of Newman Nation. “You really do have an impact on the game. It’s such an intimate sport, that you’re that close and you can see the body language and facial expressions of the opponents and how much effect you have on it. I think the Nation feels that. I think it’s unbelievable that they’re into it the whole time and it obviously has a lot to do with how successful we’ve been at home.”