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Rutgers encourages student engagement at athletics games in Town Hall

Head men's basketball coach Steve Pikiell speaks to attending students at a Town Hall event Thursday night at the Student Activities Center on the College Avenue Campus as Athletic Director Pat Hobbs and head women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer look on. – Photo by Edwin Gano

For the second straight semester, Rutgers Athletics held a Town Hall event at the Student Activity Center where students were given the opportunity to engage with Athletic Director Pat Hobbs Thursday night.

The hour-long event featuring Steve Pikiell and C. Vivian Stringer, the head coaches of the men’s and women’s basketball programs respectively, touched on a variety of topics, from the right of collegiate student-athletes to be compensated, the upcoming groundbreaking of the new Multisports Practice Facility on Nov. 1, the first new building dedicated to athletics being built at Rutgers in 40 years, as well as The Alley, the student tailgate section that was shut down after the first two home football games of the season.

“The Alley’s a great thing and we wanna bring that back. We’ve had a lot of conversations around it,” Hobbs said. “The Spirit of the Alley doesn’t just live in the Alley. The Spirit of the Alley has to live with all of you on gameday, every day.”

Translating the type of student engagement the Alley brought to every facet of the school’s athletic programs was main focus of the night, much like the first Town Hall event held in March with head football coach Chris Ash.

Previously the interim athletic director at the Scarlet Knights’ in-state rivals Seton Hall University, Hobbs has been to the Rutgers Athletic Center, home of the University’s basketball teams, as an opponent with two different coaches — Tommy Amaker and current Pirates' head coach Kevin Willard — that gave him the same feedback at the final whistle.

“Both coaches 15 years apart said the same thing as they walked off the floor of the RAC, they said, ‘I’d kill for this place,’” Hobbs said. “When that place is packed, there is no harder place to play in college basketball. That is our home-court advantage so we need to pack the RAC.”

The RAC averaged 4,653 fans across 18 home games last season as Rutgers went 7-25 overall and 1-17 in Big Ten play under Pikiell’s predecessor Eddie Jordan, filling just over half of the 8,000 seat capacity and ranking dead last among Big Ten programs.

Pikiell is in his first year as the Knights’ head coach, where Hobbs jokingly pointed out he is still undefeated, but he is no stranger to bringing struggling programs out of obscurity.

The former University of Connecticut standout as a player under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun brought Stony Brook University, his latest stop before coming to Piscataway, from a relatively new Division I program in his first season on Long Island to an American East Conference champion and NCAA Tournament participant in his 11th.

He’s looking to do the same with Rutgers at the RAC, a venue Pikiell said Calhoun told him was one of the three toughest places he entered as an opposing coach, which the Knights’ head coach credits to the student body.

“We need to build (a program) and we need to build it with students,” Pikiell said. “Every place I’ve been, it’s been about the students. The students sell the school, the students sell the environment. If you make it a tough place to play, everyone will come. The community follows the students … we’re gonna need your help moving forward here.”

Stringer is on the opposite end of the spectrum as she enters her 22nd year of coaching the Knights, but her message remains the same.

After watching the fanbase at The University of Iowa, one of her previous stops, grow from an average of 25 fans per game to 22,157 in a season over the span of 3 years, she believes she can see a similar growth at Rutgers.

“I need you to come out and support our teams and know we’re going to give you everything because these are the same 17-18 year olds sitting beside you in your class everyday,” Stringer said. “We’re so proud to represent you and we will do everything in this world to continue (doing so).”

After spending a majority of the hour encouraging students to come out to games and support every athletics program, Hobbs took time at the end of the event to remind students of the Rutgers Athletics Creed, a recent initiative to maintain respect amid the students and fans.

Along with standing for the players as they take the field, Hobbs emphasized the importance of treating the opposition with respect, calling out a chant directed towards Big Ten rivals Pennsylvania State University that began when the Nittany Lions visited Piscataway two years ago and encouraging students to “come up with something better, something funny.”

“When we say that (chant), when I hear that, it lessens who we are and it actually elevates the rival. It’s saying we have to sort of engage in something that’s just not us. It shouldn’t be us,” Hobbs said. “We gotta kill that. ... I’ll tell you, when I hear it, I always feel like calling the AD and apologizing and I feel like calling the president of that school and apologizing because that’s not who we are and that’s not who we should be.”

Before Hobbs called the students to end a chant that has slowly become a tradition, a student asked the group if there are any plans of installing new traditions around the basketball programs to increase student engagement.

“Winning,” Pikiell responded.

Brian Fonseca is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in Journalism and Media Studies. He is the Sports Editor at the Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @briannnnf for updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team.

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