So you want to be a GW sports fan, huh? You want to support your Colonials? The old Buff and Blue? Ah, I envy you. So young. So many fight songs to sing. So many nights at the Smith Center ahead of you.
What’s that you say? You don’t even know what the Smith Center is? Aren’t you cute. Well, my friend, get acquainted with that quaint little building at the corner of 22nd and G streets. It’s the center of GW sporting life.
The Smith Center was built in 1975 (it’s about time for a 25th birthday party), and although at first glance, it may look like your high school gym, the atmosphere inside it can be exciting. Although it only seats around 5,000, those seats aren’t usually filled. That’s where you come in. But first, I’ll try to give you a primer on the GW sports scene. Each place has its own story and identity.
First of all, you might notice there is no football team. College football is pretty much a dead scene in D.C. As for GW, we shut down our team in 1966 after spending many decades at old Griffith Stadium (also home to the late Washington Senators) and at RFK Stadium.
You might hear some cockamamie story about Charles E. Smith giving money to the Smith Center on the condition that football be ceased, but the real truth is the football team (which died years before the Smith Center was built) sucked and no one went to the games (it was the late 1960s, after all). If you’re interested, check out the small amount of memorabilia at Gelman Library. I understand GW was awesome in the 1930s.
So that leaves us with basketball. And we love it. But it was not always so. The men’s team was great in the 1950s. If you want to impress a Colonial fan, drop names like Bill Reinhart (GW’s winningest coach) and Joe Holup (arguably GW’s greatest player). But after the 1950s, it just got embarrassing – culminating in a 1-27 record in 1989.
Then Mike Jarvis came to Foggy Bottom. He led GW back to the NCAA Tournament and to the Sweet Sixteen in 1993. In 1997-98, the team won 24 games, tying a school record. Then Jarvis bolted for St. John’s University. When Jarvis left, GW lucked into snagging Tom Penders, who had left the University of Texas under a cloud of controversy. Most fans will tell you we’re better off.
I’ll tell you that Jarvis did a lot for GW, but it was time for a change. Penders is one of the nicest, most charismatic and funniest coaches you’ll see in the game today. When he’s finished at GW (after winning a national championship, he says), he will have quite a TV career ahead of him (think Bill Walton without quite so much sarcasm).
As for rivals, we used to have a thing for Massachusetts because we beat them twice when they were No. 1 in the country (once at home in front of President Clinton and Chelsea – a legendary game).
But I would say, now that the Atlantic 10 – the conference all our sports have competed in since the 1970s – plays a division format (we’re in the West, and UMass isn’t), we’ve found a rival in Xavier.
Two years ago, freshman Mike King buried two free throws with no time left to send a game at home to overtime. Last season, GW defeated Xavier at home on ESPN on Senior Day to finish undefeated and win our first outright A-10 regular season title. And GW just happened to win the game on a three-pointer at the buzzer by senior Shawnta Rogers (honestly, my heart still races as I type this).
As for the recent past, you might hear of Yinka Dare (the Sports Illustrated Freshman of the Year several years ago), Alexander Koul (a seven-foot Belarussian who seemed to wilt a little and is still looking to make the NBA), and two players from last year’s team Yegor Mescheriakov (another Belarussian who can post you up and burn you outside), and Rogers (a pesky 5-4 defender with seemingly unlimited range on his jump shot).
In the past few years, GW men and women’s teams have been dominated by foreign players, but that trend seems to have come to a complete halt with the arrival of Penders.
Back to why the Smithy is still not typically selling out: The student section (which takes up one whole side) has grown a great deal and was packed for many games last year. Penders loves the fans and brought Midnight Madness to GW last season, which helped student enthusiasm.
But as for the paying fans (students do get in free to all events), you will hear GW loyalists complain incessantly about our local profile. But that will change with consistent winning, and the new influx of local talent won’t hurt.
For GW coverage, the Washington Post is okay, the Washington Times is actually pretty good, and of course The Hatchet will always do you right. If you watch the local news for highlights, you’re likely to be disappointed. But again, that will change in time. All our road games are now on the radio (WJFK or the resurgent campus station WRGW), and TV games occasionally pop up (there will be more in the future).
And when you finally get to go to a game, look for season ticket holders Wolf Blitzer of CNN and Red Auerbach, who was recently named the second best coach of the century by ESPN. Auerbach is a GW alumnus. You can also keep an eye out for when the victory cigar makes its appearance.
You’ll hear a lot in this space about the upcoming season, but in short, it’s a mystery, and dare I say, a rebuilding year?. The team is depending on a bunch of Penders recruits whose abilities have not been seen on the college level. In other words, they’re freshmen. Yes, our basketball future and our place in the NCAAs – Penders’ favorite time of the year – starts with you. All the incoming freshmen are highly regarded and several will start, but a starting lineup is impossible to name right now. Outside of your brethren, junior Mike King is a holdover from the recent glory days, and you’ll see a lot of his acrobatics.
Before you think I’ve forgotten, let’s talk about the women. They have dominated the A-10 in recent years and I wouldn’t know where to start listing their accomplishments. Everyone talks about the new popularity of the women’s game and it’s not different here, but women’s basketball has a long way to go before it fills the Smith Center like the men’s team does.
You might hear complaining about the lack of fan support, so I recommend you try to go to at least one game. The women have become regulars at the NCAA Tournament and have never lost a first-round game. You might hear names like Tajama Abraham, who has spent a couple years playing in the WNBA, and Noelia Gomez, who just graduated and was also the A-10 Player of the Year. A returning player to watch is Elisa Aguilar, who with Noelia made up the “Spanish connection.”
The lore of the women’s team includes a trip to the “Elite Eight” in 1997. Coach Joe McKeown is one of the best, and his love of the college game has led him to turn down a few pro offers. By the way, the women do play Georgetown every year (and usually whip `em).
Some of the rest of GW’s varsity sports pose a large problem for GW fans – many sports are played far away at fields that few students have ever seen. The soccer teams have seen some good years and great players, and the baseball team also experienced a record season two years ago, but most could only read about it in The Hatchet. That may soon change. GW’s purchase of Mount Vernon College (far NW D.C. and accessible by shuttle) has given GW new grass it previously had to go to Virginia to find.
Other sports are not so hard to find, though. Crew hosts many competitions which are just a few steps from The Hall on Virginia Avenue. And volleyball, gymnastics, and all the water sports call the Smith Center home. Both volleyball and gymnastics have had great successes in recent years. One could say GW sports are in their Golden Age, with improvement coming each year.
The sporting life at GW can be rewarding. But I leave you with a couple thoughts. First, please don’t be one of those people who says, “I’m a (insert local school that more often than not is also in the A-10) fan for life.” Well, why didn’t you freakin’ go there?! GW has practically no local students and fewer local alu
mni, but you’d still be surprised how many goons come to GW and cheer against their own school. I’ve found it fades with time, but try to get ahead of the game or you’ll spend your last two years wishing you had paid attention your first two years.
Has any of this piqued your interest? Maybe you’d like to write about these sports for the only paper that covers them. It’s not hard. I walked in off the street a year ago and look at me now (actually don’t – I hate that picture). We always need writers and since this is college, you can learn as you go. Just think about it and drop by The Hatchet office in August. Either way, I look forward to seeing you in the stands.