Old Dawgs Teach New Pack

SEATTLE - Zoe Gano could see it; Lorenzo Romar could hear it. Alex Akita felt a part of his past coming back to life. There was nothing extraordinary about Washington’s nine-point win over Tulane on December 22nd except for one small thing that made a big difference - the Washington student section was completely full.

The ‘Dawg Pack’ - the name given to the normally hoops-crazy students that fill the section between the team benches - had breached its normally comfortable confines, packed to the hilt with current students mixed in with Dawg Pack alumni. It was part of an effort to boost dwindling numbers in the time during the break between fall and winter quarters.

That simple invitation could lead to much bigger things for the once proud Pack.

Gano, who graduated from Washington in 2013, was one of those passionate Dawg Packers who stood in line for eight hours at a time and sat in the front row for every game. Basketball was a big part of her U-Dub experience.

To help get herself a little closer to the action, Gano started working her junior year as an intern inside the athletic department and kept working her way up the food chain until she became the Assistant Director of Marketing and Game Day Experience in 2013. In short, she produces everything that goes into a Men's Basketball game day. What Romar takes care of on the court, Gano is in charge of off of it.

She had been there for the last significant stretch of UW Hoops, one that saw the Huskies barely lose to North Carolina in a 2011 NCAA second round game and then made it to the NIT semifinals in New York. Her class was one that contained the last great group of Dawg Pack members.

Alex Akita had been a Husky during the heyday, the times when the Hoop Dawgs were getting to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis. He witnessed some of the great moments of the Romar tenure; a win over then No. 1 Stanford in 2004, an NCAA No. 1 seed the following year.

But it wasn’t always that way. Akita, who was a freshman in 2003, remembers going to his first UW Basketball game just because he was a hoops junky and had always followed Washington growing up. There may have been frenzied UW student sections before he arrived on campus, but it was his class and the couple behind him that really put the Dawg Pack in orbit as one of the best student sections in the country.

“When the Dawg Pack is loud, the rest of the arena is loud,” said Gano. “People want to come to the games to see the Dawg Pack. It used to be a force to reckon with.”

During Akita’s days, the local student presence was palpable. It was a grass roots movement waiting for its time and place. With Romar taking charge on the court, the Dawg Pack followed suit. And in 2004, things really took off.

“That first year it took a while to get going,” said Akita, who runs the popular Seattle Sportsnet, arguably the top independent Seattle Sports Fan blog. “But once they got things going about mid-season - they had a big win over Arizona - that really triggered things. From that point on, every game was a big event. You’d have a line wrapped around the Graves building all the way to the IMA, the students trying to get in.”

Akita used to wait 90 minutes at the IMA just to get a pickup game in those days. Push forward to today, and the scene is completely different.

“There’s empty courts, no one’s playing ball,” he said. “Just that alone is a pretty good indicator of how the dynamic has changed with the students.”

With competition toward admission at an all-time high, Washington’s student body makeup is much, much different than it was even 10 years ago. Gone are many of the local students who would have been accepted into school, replaced by ones with few ties to the region.

“You’ve got a school that admits a ton of kids from out of state and international students, as opposed to in-state,” said Akita. “I’m not so sure I’d get into U-Dub now. That changes things. When I was growing up, I was always a U-Dub fan, whether it was basketball, football, whatever. I feel there’s a lot of people here like that. If you’re from out of state or international, you’re just not going to embrace this like somebody else who is from here might.

“I remember the day they upset Arizona, I didn’t go to class the next day. It was just one of those things. We had a lot of fun back then. We still managed to go to class and get our work done too. This was something you wanted to do; it was easy to get to. For a lot of us, we can go to school and still live at home. A lot kids here can’t do that, especially during the breaks.”

Akita had noticed it for years; two months ago Gano created a plan that would act as a bridge for current and former Dawg Pack members to boost waning attendance. She was in a meeting with Dan Erickson, Washington’s Director of Events and Guest Services. They were talking about those very issues when Erickson came up with a brainstorm - a Dawg Pack ’Throwback’ Night.

“That’s what sparked it in me,” she said. “He came up with that name so I was wondering what we could do. I threw out the idea of letting old Dawg Pack members wear their shirts to get in for free admission the games on the 17th, 22nd, and 28th. My hope would be that, not only would it get more bodies in the students’ section, but it might help bring back some of the spirit and legacy of the old Dawg Pack from the days when I was there and before that, when everyone was constantly cheering and constantly jumping.”

For the last couple years, there had been sporadic connection made between old Dawg Pack members and current students looking for help, but nothing concrete. With Gano and her 2013 group gone, it was up to some new Dawg Pack members to get it done. Gano knew with the team playing well, all the new group needed was an infusion of old blood. It had happened before with Akita’s group.

“Once we got going the Athletic Department worked with us to make it happen,” Akita said. “When we wanted to do camp-outs they made sure we had electricity and access to bathrooms in the stadium. It was a give and take; we were out here supporting the team and they wanted to do right by us for offering that support. It was really cohesive back then. There was good connection between the students and the administration. I feel like that might be a little bit lacking now compared to how it was. I feel like they could do a better job getting people involved, especially students.”

Gano is hoping that will change with incentives to bring the old guard back to shepherd the new Pack. “It didn’t cost us a thing to be here, so there’s no reason not to be here - right?” said Akita. “This is one of the things people will want to come back to if they can get it back moving in the right direction.”

When Romar was at Pepperdine and Saint Louis, he would actively recruit Greek Row because they couldn’t get people to come out to their games. He firmly believes that if the team does well, the students will return.

“We had a couple of mediocre seasons, and a lot of the students now have no idea what it was like when we won 32 straight games here,” he said. “Some of the alumni that were here were organizing, involved. They were into it, but they weren’t into it until we started winning. Once we did, it was one of the top student sections in the country.

“At this point, we’re a little more successful, so I’d like to see it get back to where it was.”

Akita knows first-hand the lengths Romar will go to show his appreciation for what the students do to help the team win games. When the Pack was really rolling, after the last home game of every season Romar would give a speech to the Dawg Pack on the court. “A couple years he had all the senior students come down and join the players on the court because it was that important to have them as part of the program,” Akita said. “He brought us into the fold; he wanted to get us involved. I know he was always willing, and I doubt that’s changed.”

Gano promises even more creativity and access to resources for the Dawg Pack as they fight to regain their relevance. Free admission to Pack alumni was just a start, and it’s clear that the move paid off handsomely; for the Grambling game 92 former Dawg Pack members showed up, but by the Tulane game the word had gotten out - there were over 300 alumni jumping and screaming, reclaiming a bit of their youth in the process.

“If there was a lasting impact, we’d be seeing it right now - to be perfectly honest,” said Akita. But the fact is it has been a point of contention this year, the empty seats acting as an unwelcome sidebar to what has been a fabulous narrative for UW Hoops so far this season.

“When you have a good thing and you lose ‘em, it’s twice as hard to bring them back,” he added. “It’s a lot easier to lose your fans than bring ‘em back. You never want to cross that line, if you can help it.”

Washington hasn’t crossed that line, but they have been flirting with it for far too long. Akita hopes his alma mater will look to how the Seattle Seahawks have embraced the 12s as a roadmap to get the Dawg Pack headed back in the right direction. A lot of his former Dawg Pack friends have since become Tyee members and season-ticket holders because of their positive student experience. But will this current generation of students feel the same way?

“Everybody’s out to make money,” he said. “They are willing to water down the game day experience for fans if it means making more cash. For someone who’s experienced the good like I have here, it’s unfortunate. You see the NCAA out-pacing pro sports in that regard. You look at a team like the Seahawks; they’ll do everything for their fans. They want the fan environment to be the focal point of CenturyLink Field. Why can’t a university like U-Dub do that too? Why can’t we be the Seahawks of the NCAA?

“U-Dub is an academic school first and athletic school second, and that’s the reality of the situation.”

If there’s a middle ground to be had for Men’s Basketball, Gano is intent on finding that sweet spot that provides students with all the support at their disposal, yet also provides the new Dawg Pack autonomy to find their own footing, their own voice.

“We just want to lend a helping hand while not trying to overtake the process, letting them know we’re here to help them make that connection if they need it,” she said. “We’re taking baby steps and hoping the new Dawg Pack will take the initiative, with the support of the athletic department on the side.”

In short, if the Pack needs to freshen up those sombreros for Mexican Heritage Night, the athletic department will be there for them.

Gano hopes that her previous involvement with the Dawg Pack will allow her the insight necessary to bring the students back with a newfound passion and belief in Husky Basketball. She is buoyed by the initial results the Dawg Pack Alumni Nights brought and knows it can be the beginning of a special relationship.

“That was awesome to see it pay off like that, and you could feel it,” she said. “I could see it on Romar’s face. He looked over and acknowledged the Dawg Pack a couple times when they were super pumped up. It was nice to have them back and have them rub off some of their spirit onto the new generation of Dawg Pack. We’re hoping it catches on, since the team is doing so well.”

“To me, it’s like when you bring the alumni back to play against our team,” Romar added. “The guys say, ‘Oh whoa!’ Our guys learned from them. I think the same thing with the alumni here. When they came out I kind of forgot that was going to happen; at the outset I felt a different energy. Wait a minute, I remember that! Right away you could sense that energy and it carried out. It was great to have them back.”

Akita doesn’t feel like UW has to reinvent the wheel, because ultimately the future of the Dawg Pack will lie in the hands of students like him, kids that loved basketball and wanted to share that passion with the rest of the school.

“We had friends who were willing to be nuts just like we were and it became something awesome,” he said. “And it can happen again. If you have the right kind of support and the right people behind you that want to be a lunatic like you, it’s going to be a lot of fun. You just have to be willing to meet new people and come here and go crazy. Most of us are 30 years old now and we’re willing to put on shorts and jerseys and look like idiots for two hours and do it on TV - and we don’t care. You have to put your ego aside and just be a kid again for a little while.”

Gano promises that support for the new Pack as they learn their tricks from the old Pack. Her focus now is starting to figure out ways for ticket pricing for conference games to get students to the Washington State home conference opener January 10th. Obviously the Dawg Pack Alumni will be used as a resource.

“Our hope is that if people come and have an amazing time at that game and the atmosphere is out of control that they’ll continue to come back for the rest of the season,” she said.

Next year, a ticket plan with changes to student pricing will be unveiled in the hope it will make a ’pretty solid impact’ on the Dawg Pack going forward, Gano added.

Romar has been closest to the program’s ups and downs, and knows that with more wins comes more fans. He’s realistic, but he also knows how crucial the Dawg Pack has been in the past. There is no bigger supporter of the Dawg Pack than Lorenzo Romar, and he’s hoping by doing his part they will once again do theirs.

“People want to cheer for someone that’s successful so we have to keep doing our part,” he said. “But it was like you were hearing a voice from a long lost friend. It was great, and our guys fed off of it.”

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