Crazy in a good way: UNM student section rocking - Albuquerque Journal

Crazy in a good way: UNM student section rocking

The Howl Raisers, the name of the UNM student section, cheer on the Lobos during a Jan. 9 game in the Pit against Oral Roberts. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
On a Monday night at The Pit, it’s a sight to behold.

A cardboard cutout of Bill Gates’ mugshot is waved fervently. A student in a Venom costume jeers Oral Roberts’ star guard Max Abmas. A whiteboard with a simple message – “SEND BEER” – flies around in excitement.

Seven rows up, a DJ pumps music into the arena in between play. Big shots on either side lead to big reactions – boos, chirps, screams, cheers.

Across 12 rows of barely controlled chaos, it’s a jumbled, disjointed, eclectic sight. And for many fans, a welcome one.

It’s been some time since The Pit boasted a student section to complement a winning basketball team. This year, it has both, with a 16-2 UNM squad and a steadily growing section known as the Howl Raisers.

At the center of it all is UNM senior Nolan Murphy. An Albuquerque native and Sandia High School graduate, Murphy studies finance at UNM and works as a student assistant with the athletic department.

Nolan Murphy is a senior finance major at the University of New Mexico and heads the Howl Raisers student fan group as of Jan. 12, 2023. (Courtesy of Nolan Murphy)

Serving as the “front door” to Lobo athletics, senior associate athletic director Ryan Berryman and executive director of the Alumni Lettermen’s Association Madison Baumann picked up quickly on Murphy’s outgoing personality and passion for UNM athletics.

In particular, Berryman’s conversation with Murphy about a book the senior has been writing about 1960s Sandia star and UNM recruit Gary Suiter (he never played for the Lobos) made him sure Murphy was the right man to achieve a long-standing goal of bringing the student section back this season.

The only problem? Murphy wanted no part of it.

“He just didn’t want to put in the work,” Baumann said. “He thought nobody was gonna show up.”

Berryman and Baumann prodded Murphy to give it a shot – at least go to one game and see what he could do. Of all games, a season-opening 85-53 exhibition shellacking of Division II CSU-Pueblo sold Murphy on the possibilities going forward.

“In the end, his love for the Lobos shined through,” Berryman said.

So, Murphy started to get organized. UNM alums Baumann and Berryman put him in touch with Pit traditions of the past, from simple staples like the “you, you, you!” chants after a UNM player is fouled to more elaborate ventures, like crumpling issues of the Daily Lobo prior to tipoff, or writing the Howl List, essentially a “trash talk sheet” for students to use.

Howl Sheet highlights from last Monday’s game against Oral Roberts: Connor Vanover resembles an ogre from “Lord of the Rings.” Trey Phipps “can’t shoot a three, won’t shoot at all.” Oral Roberts is a “cult university.”

“I just love watching people’s reactions,” Murphy said. “Either they laugh or they show their friends and then throw it in their pockets and take it home.”

Murphy only dug in deeper, soliciting donations from local businesses. Fatheads – large, cardboard cutouts of UNM players or figures – were donated by Academy Reprographics. ThetaPoint contributed hot dogs and drinks. Sonic, Whataburger and the Paleta Bar have stepped up and provided more items to entice students to get to the section for home games.

“One game, I was running around here giving out hot dogs and people were looking at me like I was crazy,” Murphy said.

New Mexico started 3-0. Then 7-0. 10-0. 14-0. As more and more interest surrounded the team, Murphy was there every step of the way working to fill and energize a student section allotted approximately 1,100 tickets.

“Some games, he was there with 50 people. Some games, he was there with 500,” Berryman said. “To me, that’s half the battle in finding a leader to take over the student section because they gotta be there through thick and thin.”

Showing up two to two-and-a-half hours prior to tip, Murphy finds an unexpected satisfaction managing something he didn’t know that he wanted.

“I just love it, I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “When I’m typing up the Howl List, getting the newspapers ready, every moment of that, I’m just soaking it in. Because I’m part of the groundwork for something that’s gonna be really good one day.”

It’s a particularly sweet development for Berryman. A former student manager under Steve Alford and Craig Neal, he later served as UNM basketball’s director of operations before taking on a full-time role within the athletic department.

To him, bringing back the section goes deeper than any perceived home-court advantage.

“I just love Lobo basketball,” he said. “I’ve seen it at its best and I know what it can be. There’s a lot of us in the (athletic department) that have seen that and just want to keep that going whether the team’s (16-2) like they are right now – which makes Nolan’s job easy – or whether they’re struggling or rebuilding.”

Former student-section leaders have lauded Murphy’s efforts as well. Current season-ticket holder Mackenzie Bishop was one of the core members of Section 26, a mid-to-late 2000s iteration of the UNM student section that established many of the traditions Murphy’s brought back.

As Bishop recalls, Section 26 came to fruition when UNM moved the designated student section from above the Lobo Level to its current floor-level spot in 2007. Prior to the move, he said the section was more of a “social scene” than anything else.

“(It) had just gotten really watered down and the students were very far from the action – certainly not in a place to influence the game,” he said.

The move to Section 26 and Steve Alford’s hiring as head coach changed that.

“Literally, from then on, it really got a lot of momentum,” Bishop said.

UNM fortunes improved under Alford with NCAA Tournament appearances in 2010, 2012 and 2013. Section 26 grew in stature and dedication. Word of mouth spread. T-shirts were sold.

Section 26ers even camped out overnight for tickets, a phenomenon only seen at traditional blue-blood programs and rarely anywhere else.

“If you camp out and if you sleep overnight in 25-degree temperatures for four or five games worth of tickets, you’re going to those games,” Bishop said, laughing. “And now, we’ve made it almost too easy.”

The chants, crumpling of the Daily Lobo and precursor to Howl Sheets?

It all started with Section 26 – with one glaring difference from then and today.

“Back then, the athletic department was not supportive at all,” he said. “We were kind of a nuisance, a necessary evil I guess.”

But after years of raucous behavior, things gradually declined. Bishop cited a $60 million renovation to the arena in 2009 that diminished attendance and changed section identification from numbers to letters as the beginning of the end for Section 26.

Jason Tomberline – literally – had a front seat to it all. Estimating he’s missed roughly 20 home games in the past 30 years, the Tomberline family has had floor-level season tickets since the Pit opened in 1966.

“It’s our family badge of honor that, even my grandmother, was threatened to be thrown out by a referee – just because it gets so intense down there,” Tomberline said with a laugh.

With prime seating, he remembers the intensity of the Section 26 era as well as anybody and Bishop in particular as a “natural leader.” He also recalls the drop-off following Alford’s departure for UCLA. Promising, then lean years under Craig Neal and Paul Weir.

Watching from afar, Tomberline is appreciative of Murphy’s dedication.

“He works so hard to get everything prepared,” he said. “He’s doing such a great job trying to regenerate interest…what he’s done has been awesome, but he can’t do it all by himself.”

Talk to anybody about the glory days of The Pit student section and strong memories come rushing forth. For instance, Tomberline fondly remembers a late Darington Hobson foul on San Diego State’s D.J. Gay in a SDSU-UNM game on Feb. 6, 2010.

Down 78-76, Gay stepped to the line for three free throws, an Aztec win hanging in the balance.

Naturally, the student section made sure he felt the moment.

“I saw Gay shaking,” Tomberline said.

Gay missed one and hit two to tie it at 78 at the end of regulation. Hobson later posted eight points in overtime, including a pair of free throws with 2.7 seconds left to flip the script and secure an 88-86 Lobos win.

For Bishop, it was when front-row benches in the section collapsed under the weight of students manically jumping on them in an 86-77 win over No. 9 BYU on Jan. 29, 2011.

“The students, without skipping a beat because they didn’t want to miss the game, grabbed these 40-foot long bleachers and just passed them up the section all the way to the top,” he said. “I mean, it was insane. Those were the days.”

And Berryman? A 20-point demolition of No. 11 UNLV on Feb. 18, 2012 remains fresh in his mind, not for Drew Gordon’s 27 points and 20 rebounds, but Tony Snell’s baseline drive for a dunk over Chace Stanbeck that blew the roof off the Pit.

We gotta get back to that,” Berryman said.

These days, making more of those memories starts with a surging UNM squad and Murphy’s efforts. Sellouts like Jan. 7’s UNM-UNLV game before the start of the spring semester make Murphy and others feel like a reinvigorated tradition can be the start of something new.

“These things are gonna go on whether or not we’re here, and to pass the torch and teach the next generation what you’re about,” Berryman said. “Now (Murphy’s) got to look around that section and see who’s at every game that he can pass the torch to.”

And for anybody with doubts about joining in? Murphy will tell you what he was told back before the season.

“Sit in the student section for one game,” he said. “Cheer for one game, like just one. We need 4.76% of undergrad students to come here to sell out the student section every game. That’s it.”

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