Burlington Basketball and Wildcat Woes

Mike Moffett

MIM and Eric Cofiell
Weirs Times sports columnist Mike Moffett with Erin Cofiell of ABC-TV’s WVNY Channel 22 before the UNH-UVM basketball showdown in Burlington last week.

 by Mike Moffett
 Weirs Times Columnist

Back in 2005 I drove a van full of sports management students back into the USA after a weekend sports conference in Montreal. It was this time of year—March Madness—and talk in the van naturally turned to basketball. Some bantered about the University of Vermont’s men’s basketball team, which had just upset Syracuse in the first round of the NCAAs. Led by Taylor Coppenrath, the Catamounts would next take on Coach Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans.
It was Sunday and we found a sports station on the radio and we heard Izzo acknowledge that “Everyone in the country is rooting for Vermont. We hate to be Bambi-killers, but WE want to win too!”
As we hurtled south on I-89 it occurred to me that we’d pass through Burlington, home of UVM, just as the Catamounts and Spartans would be tipping off. Always wanting to expose my students to diverse sports cultures, I suggested we find a pizza place and experience some March Madness right at the very home of the Catamounts.
The students unanimously agreed and we pulled off the interstate and onto the UVM campus—which seemed strangely quiet. Turns out it was spring break. Still, we headed toward a pizza place and saw a huge crowd on Church Street.
“Aha! Must be a rally for the basketball team,” I opined, as I parked the van. We could see many in the crowd holding signs. “Let’s mingle with the fans and then watch the game at the pizza place.”
But as we approached the crowd we realized that it was a political demonstration, not a sports rally. The theme was “George Bush Sucks!”
Ah yes. Burlington. Home of Bernie Sanders. Berkeley East, if you will. We turned around and went into the pizza place. The food was great. The basketball was not. Michigan State romped. Soon we were back on I-89 heading south towards our beloved Granite State.
I thought of this 2005 visit when I returned to UVM last week to watch the UNH Wildcats take on UVM in an America East Conference semifinal basketball game. Both teams finished the season with 11-5 league records, and I had a feeling that this MIGHT be a break-out year for Coach Bill Herrion’s Wildcats, who hadn’t won at UVM’s Patrick Gymnasium since 2000. It was the 14th time in 15 years that UVM had made the semi-finals.
But a UNH win was not to be. UVM led all the way before a packed house to easily advance to the finals against Stony Brook.
The energized crowd naturally made me long for some similar March Madness in N.H. someday. But while Vermont had won its opening playoff game at home by demolishing Maine before another packed house, UNH had advanced by beating Binghampton before a modest crowd of 1500 fans at Lundholm Gym—a fraternal twin to Patrick Gym.
Once upon a time the UNH sports folks wanted the Wildcat hoopsters to play at the 6000 seat Whittemore Center. Indeed, UNH did play some games at that venue, but before 600 fans, not 6000. So back to Lundholm went the Wildcats.
Vermont’s larger hoop fan base is energized by a tradition of success. The only men’s hoop tradition in Durham is one of under-achieving. Will that ever change? Herrion’s had some winning seasons of late, but until UNH can beat UVM, team records won’t mean much.
I noted UNH’s 12-man roster included seven Texans and no Granite Staters. Interesting. But Vermont’s roster had no Green Mountain Boys either, although they did have some studs from Connecticut, which IS a bit more local than Texas.
So will New Hampshire EVER experience March Madness first-hand, the way they do in Vermont? Who knows? UNH men’s basketball reminds me of the Chicago Cubs.
“Any team can have a bad century.” Or two.
As in 2005, I left Burlington feeling a bit blue.
But at least there were no “George Bush Sucks!” signs this time.

Sports Quiz
How many times has the UNH Wildcat men’s basketball team made the America East Tournament championship game, since the league began play over 34 years ago? (Answer follows)

Born Today …
That is to say, sports standouts born on March 17 include baseball star Chris Davis (1987)

“Urban Meyer cites Wikipedia” – sign held by fan outside college football bowl game. (Meyer is head coach at Ohio State.)

Sportsquiz Answer
UNH has made the America East finals zero times.

Michael Moffett is a Professor of Sports Management at Plymouth State University and at NHTI-Concord. He recently co-authored the critically-acclaimed and award-winning “FAHIM SPEAKS: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back” (with the Marines)—which is available through Amazon.com. His e-mail address is mimoffett@comcast.net.