The attitude is definitely upbeat in the offices of the UNF Athletics Department. And why not? In the University’s first year of full-fledged Division I status, men’s basketball has already posted more wins than last year’s team, including a buzzer-beater victory over a conference kingpin. Attendance is up, the crowds and atmosphere at games are spirited, and there’s a buzz and an air of excitement about athletics that permeates the University.
The average attendance, counting students, faculty, staff and the general public, for the first seven men’s basketball games, most of which were part of a doubleheader with the women’s team, was 1,224. Last year, the average attendance was 830 a game for the season. That’s almost a 50 percent increase in attendance. Last season, there were perhaps 25 or 30 season tickets for basketball sold. That number has jumped to 300 this year, the University’s first year of being eligible to compete in Division I post-season play.
There are probably a lot of reasons for the attendance increase and the buzz about athletics, but one stands out – hard work. The hard work starts at the top with Director of Athletics Lee Moon and is shared by his staff. Moon and his staff have set out to make attending basketball games, the sport currently in season, an enjoyable night out.
Moon saw to it that after a seven-year hiatus the 40-member UNF pep band, known as the Awesome Osprey Band, was back playing at games. There’s also a dance and cheer squad called Velocity to entertain fans. A group of about 50 boisterous students who call themselves Prey Nation do their part to create a big-time college atmosphere at home games by cheering on the Ospreys. Moon helped them buy Prey Nation T-shirts to wear at the games.
“My deal is enthusiasm is caught, not taught,” Moon said. “I want students, faculty and staff to come out and hear the band and feel the energy in the Arena.” After games, Moon goes up to fans and thanks them for coming. He says they give the team the energy to win. “We want everyone to come here [the Arena] and love basketball and love UNF and have an experience they will remember forever. I get fired up. I am proud of my staff who are working hard to get people out.”
That experience includes a tailgate area in front of the amphitheater at the Student Union. Students and UNF employees set up tents and grills to tailgate before basketball games. Moon often goes from tent to tent to thank the tailgaters for turning out.
Moon also meets with student clubs and organizations to talk about UNF Athletics. “You start with the student body, and they create the atmosphere.”
Moon is low-key enthusiastic and speaks in measured tones. Matthew Driscoll, the men’s basketball coach, is just the opposite. He has the energy of a hummingbird, speaks a-mile-a-minute and is so fired up talking UNF sports he makes a listener feel like suiting up and hitting the court. His is a different approach, but he works just as hard as Moon to promote UNF Athletics.
After a game earlier this season when UNF ended the game with a one-point win over perennial Atlantic Sun Conference power Belmont University, Driscoll took a microphone and told the crowd: “Look, we need you more than you’ll ever know. Because of you, we got this win tonight. We can’t thank you enough for your support.”
Jeff Wuerth, assistant athletic director, media relations, said there is a new culture in UNF athletics. “Lee Moon has created a family atmosphere culture on campus and in the community. He has created a good working environment here where everyone can succeed.”
Athletics hopes to continue building campus enthusiasm this spring on the baseball field, tennis courts and the track.
No UNF coach has experienced more success than Dusty Rhodes, the University’s baseball coach for 23 years. This will be his final season, and UNF will start it off by playing the Ohio State Buckeyes Feb. 19 at Harmon Stadium in the Ospreys’ home opener. Rhodes, a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, built the UNF baseball program into a national power. Under his leadership, the Ospreys went to the College World Series twice as an NAIA member and three times in NCAA Division II.
Rhodes’ successor, Raymond “Smoke” Laval, is already on the UNF Baseball staff. He’ll take over after the 2010 season. Laval is a 30-year veteran college coach with 12 years of Division I experience. He was LSU’s coach for five seasons, during which he took the Tigers to two College World Series.
Also on the horizon, UNF hopes the women’s tennis team will build on last season’s success when the Ospreys finished with an overall record of 16-5 and 8-2 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Tennis season started Saturday.
UNF will for the second year in a row host the Atlantic Sun Outdoor Track Championships May 14-15 on the nine-lane Olympic-quality Hodges Stadium track.
Moon is hoping for a big crowd at the track championships. He says he’s greedy and optimistic when it comes to drawing fans to UNF athletic events. “I want more. I want to fill the place,” he said, referring to the basketball games. “I want to pack it [the Arena] with students, faculty, staff and the community. I want to get where we are getting 4,000 or 5,000 a game.”
Why would Moon, who attends every UNF home game, no matter the sport, encourage people to come to a UNF sporting event? “I’d tell them it’s the best buy in town,” he said with conviction. “If you like to watch kids play and compete at a high level, come out and see us.”