This article was updated on March 1 at 6:04 p.m.
Fans in Pauley Pavilion were on their feet for the final possession.
The arena filled with a deafening roar as soon as senior guard Larry Drew II hit a game-winning jumper at the buzzer against Washington.
From the alumni section of the arena, the cheers brought George Wade back to his days as a UCLA student.
That night, Pauley Pavilion had an “electrifying” atmosphere that hasn’t appeared often in recent years, Wade said.
Wade, who graduated in 1979, began going to basketball games as a student the year after John Wooden retired. Back then, UCLA students expected to win every game, and they would pack Pauley Pavilion every night, he said.
Thirty years later, the student experience at Pauley is a significantly different one – a fact UCLA Athletics, alumni and students often agree on. Over time, growing UCLA Athletics involvement in the student section, coupled with shifting student interest and fewer student seats, has resulted in a student section that lacks its former vigor.
Some students said they have not noticed diminished energy in Pauley, but that the atmosphere lacked the excitement of other college arenas.
But Wade said that occasionally the old energy fills Pauley once again.
“Being at the (Washington) game, it felt like what the old Pauley used to feel like,” he said.
Post-Wooden era energy
In the years following coach Wooden’s retirement, it would sometimes take four nights of camping out for a student to get into Pauley Pavilion for a basketball game, said Larry Davis, who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degree from UCLA in the late 1970s.
Based on the opponent, students would wear costumes and come prepared with specific cheers for each game, alumni said. Sometimes, the student section would form a human pyramid in the stands of Pauley, with someone balancing on top while doing UCLA’s signature 8-clap cheer.
“Back then, we did our thing and we cheered for our team,” Davis said. “It was sort of a free-for-all with the student section.”
Denis Rosenberg, who didn’t miss a single home basketball game in his time at UCLA in the early 1980s, said the sheer size of the student section could invigorate the whole arena during his college years.
When Rosenberg was at UCLA, the student section encompassed the lower and upper level seats and stretched between the hoops. At that time, there were about 4,000 student seats, about one-third of Pauley’s capacity, said Ken Weiner, senior associate athletic director of business operations.
Decreasing interest of student fans
This was the first season many UCLA students could cheer on the basketball team at its home arena.
With the re-opening of Pauley Pavilion in fall came some renewed vigor in the student section. For the sold-out opening day game on Nov. 9, hundreds of students gathered hours in advance.
But the empty student seats at a number of home basketball games this season haven’t gone unnoticed.
In the decades since the Wooden Era, the enthusiasm in the student section has waned. Student interest has changed, but so has the nature of the student section, representatives of Athletics and some alumni said.
Some point to the success of the basketball team as a factor in student excitement and attendance at games.
“When the team is successful, the fans are passionate,” said Mollie Vehling, UCLA’s Spirit Squad director and alumna. “When the team is struggling and they need their fans the most, unfortunately, that is when the fans are less connected.”
Despite the recent unpredictable performance of the basketball team, fan attendance at rivalry games or games against ranked opponents is usually high, said Scott Mitchell, associate athletic director and director of marketing and business development.
But three decades ago attendance was high, regardless of the opponent.
As student attendance at basketball games declined following the 1980s, Athletics gradually reduced the around 4,000 student seats by about half.
The demand for that many student seats just didn’t exist.
“At some point, you have to stop reserving seats that are being unused,” Mitchell said.
Weiner estimates that there are up to 2,000 student seats in renovated Pauley, but there is less actual seating available to regular students. Portions of the arena designated as student sections are reserved for the band.
While Pauley’s student section was a single section in the 1970s, it was gradually separated as the number of student seats decreased. Students currently sit in three different areas of Pauley: behind one basket, on the lower-level sideline across from the team benches and in the upper levels.
Original plans for the renovated Pauley included a unified student section that stretched from the lower to the upper levels behind one basket, similar to the arrangement at Arizona and Oregon. But students and alumni rejected UCLA Athletics’ proposal in May 2011, because they preferred a sideline student section to a single section behind the hoop of the original arena, according to Daily Bruin archives.
This division of the student section over the years has led to a disjointedness in student engagement at games, students and alumni said.
“If I sit in the upstairs section, then I usually can’t hear the chants from below,” said Lauren Bjel, a fourth-year linguistics and psychology student. “It doesn’t feel like it’s part of The Den.”
More organization, but less spontaneity
The changing student section, combined with increased involvement from the Athletics department, has reduced impromptu spirit and unity within the student section.
Jay Ornellas, a former Yell Crew leader who graduated in 1974, said that with the former, cohesive student section, it was much easier to lead coordinated cheers in Pauley.
“We did more cheers back then because we could communicate with the whole student section,” Ornellas said.
Through the Yell Crew and The Den, UCLA Athletics has exerted a greater influence on the student section’s traditions and cheers over the years.
There are a handful of cheers the Yell Crew uses regularly, including the 8-clap, “Bruin spell-out” and “U-C-L-A” chant. The Athletics department trains the Yell Crew in appropriate cheers to limit foul language and bad sportsmanship, Mitchell said. In the past, Yell Crew had more leeway with their chants.
Additionally, the “Roll Call” cheer – where students shout the names of each UCLA player as they warm up – is now officially sponsored by State Farm to raise additional revenue for Athletics. The cheer, which was originally started by students, doubles as a commercial opportunity.
Lee Schwartz, who, as a student, often came up with original cheers for every game with his friends, said he has noticed a decrease in the originality of student cheers at recent basketball games.
“The cheers now seem cookie-cutter, and they don’t have individuality,” said Schwartz, who graduated in 1978. “It’s made the experience kind of sterile.”
Some students, however, said they see no problem with the student sections’ cheers.
“I think (Yell Crew) does a good job of pumping up the students,” said Johnny Trinh, a second-year chemistry student.
The Den, which organizes camp-outs, was created by UCLA Athletics about 15 years ago to provide structure to the informal group of students that would camp out before games, Mitchell said. Before The Den existed, camp-outs for games had less oversight and a more “organic” atmosphere, some alumni said.
While some said they feel the involvement of UCLA Athletics is hindering student creativity, the department is also trying to increase energy in the student section.
This year, for the first time in decades, students have been allowed to bring signs to basketball games. This change was made to foster more excitement and creativity from the student section, Mitchell said.
All posters brought into Pauley Pavilion, however, require prior approval from the UCLA marketing department.
Despite the decreasing passion of the student section over the decades, high-profile match-ups often inspire a more excited student crowd. As the Bruins prepare to take on Arizona on Saturday for ESPN’s College GameDay, Mitchell said he thinks students will unite in the stands again.
“Everyone wants the same thing for this game,” he said. “We want to have a loud, boisterous crowd, and we want to do what we can to provide that home-court advantage.”