The gameday experience at Duke is the most unique of any in the country. Fueled by the famous Cameron Crazies, the atmosphere in and around Cameron Indoor Stadium is filled with excitement and unmatched spirit.
The Crazies are among the most innovative, passionate and sometimes intimidating fans in all of sports. They are copied, but never matched. The Duke student section – both graduate and undergraduate – that surrounds the lower bowl of the arena is a spectacle in itself.
Lines form early for entrance into a game, which is one of the toughest tickets in college athletics. For many years, the Crazies have taken it to another extreme. Nowhere else in college basketball will more than 1,200 brave the elements throughout the season in a tent city erected outside of Cameron Indoor Stadium – known as Krzyzewskiville – just to get a seat at a Blue Devil game.
The name “Cameron Crazies” is believed to come into widespread use about 1986 but it is not clear exactly when and where it originated. Local and long-time Duke beat writer Al Featherston explains well why Duke’s student section is the gold standard in the game today.
“When some new group of fans achieves notoriety, they don’t run around comparing themselves to the Oakland Zoo or Pitt or the Grateful Red at Wisconsin, their target is the Cameron Crazies,” Featherston stated in an article on the Crazies, published on Duke Basketball Report in January 2007. “Duke’s crowd may or may not be the best student section ... but it is the standard by which all others are measured.”
Featherston explains that the crowd at Cameron was very good in the 1960s and in the late ‘70s, but it was not widely considered the best in college basketball. “Duke emerged as the standard for college crowds simply by not changing Cameron Indoor Stadium. The arena emerged in the 1990s as a last relic of a by-gone age when the student was at center-stage and the boosters watched from above,” Featherston explained. “True, there are other historic facilities left, but they weren’t on ESPN every other night. Al McGuire and Dick Vitale defined the Cameron Crazies because they were in the right place (Cameron Indoor Stadium) at the right time (as coach Mike Krzyzewski’s program took off).
Long before the now widely accepted notion of being among the most creative fans in sports, the Duke students made headlines. Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp criticized the students for rushing the court after a one-point Blue Devil victory over the No. 7 Wildcats in the 1950s. Most people know Duke’s fans invented the “Air Ball,” and that was before they were branded as the Crazies, but as the student section began to build momentum into what it is today, they weren’t always accepted as model fans. NBC came to Cameron to do the first national telecast from the arena on Jan. 28, 1979, and insisted on a time-delay so the crowd could be censored if necessary.
The height of negativity came early in the Coach K-era, when Maryland standout Herman Veal came to Cameron. While one or two cheers, chants and signs could be considered clever, nearly all were over the top. That incident led then Duke president Terry Sanford to write a letter to the students, stating: “Resorting to the use of obscenities in cheers and chants at ball games indicates a lack of vocabulary, a lack of cleverness, a lack of ideas, a lack of class and a lack of respect for other people.” Sanford suggested change, urging students to “think of something clever but clean, devastating but decent, mean but wholesome, witty and forceful but G-rated for television, and fix it for the next game.”
The Washington Post was especially critical of the Crazies that night, and rightfully so, but the next game when N.C. State came to Cameron, the normal placard declaring, “If you can’t go to college, go to State,” had an addendum: “If you can’t go to State, write for the Washington Post.” It wasn’t long after that the students started gaining notoriety for the uniqueness and cleverness of their behavior.
“It’s always tough to play there,” former North Carolina center Sean May said. “One, it’s hot, and two, because of the fans. They aren’t the most brutal; they’re just the most clever.”
Former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins once told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “They’re my favorite fans in the league. They do things so creative. I had a jacket with patches on the sleeves that I got from a tournament. They destroyed me.”
Along with inventing the “Air Ball” chant, there have been countless memorable moments from the Crazies. UNC guard Jeff Hale, who had suffered from a collapsed lung, heard “In-Hale, Ex-Hale” all game and when Roy Williams made his debut as UNC’s coach at Cameron in 2004, many students dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz and set up a makeshift yellow brick road outside the opponent locker room to let Williams know he wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
ESPN.com’s Page 2 staff compiled a top 10 list of Crazies’ exploits in 2002 that include the Hale chants among others including yelling “Urkel, Urkel,” as a skinny Lehigh player with knee-high socks and goggles went to the free throw line. Shaquille O’Neal was a target of several chants on his visit to Cameron even Grant Hill’s parents weren’t above the cheers when the Crazies begged them to have “One more kid.”
Other than those in trouble with the law, another favorite target of the Crazies are the shorter players on other teams. The “Webster” chants have been yelled at several players and likely started with 5-3 Muggsy Bouges from Wake Forest. A 5-7 player from the Australian National Team during an exhibition contest heard “Shrimp on the Barbee” chants.
Cremins’ was far from the only opponent coach to be the focus of the Crazies and they often times take the brunt of the attack. Some coaches throughout the years have figured out ways to get in good with the crowd. When Jim Valvano’s N.C. State team was being investigated by the NCAA, the early-arriving Crazies chanted “Down with Valvano,” but the charismatic coach won over the students by squeezing between the crowd and yelling “Down with Packer” when TV analyst Billy Packer took the floor. Duke alumnus and long time Maryland coach Lefty Driesell would work the crowd, too, one time leading the Crazies in a round of Simon Says and another time taking out a comb and running it over his bald head, mocking the students who routinely wore skin caps to games when he coached the Terrapins.
Excepts here taken from “Al Featherston On The Cameron Crazies,” posted on DBR, Jan. 29, 2007, The Encyclopedia of Duke Basketball, by John Roth, Duke University Press, 2006, and Cameron’s Craziest, espn.com, page 2 staff, 2002.