The lights cut off in a sold-out Thompson-Boling Arena against Florida on a late Saturday afternoon. Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA.” blasts through the speakers as thousands of synchronized phone flashlights flicker on and off. The final image of Admiral Schofield staring intently into the crowd fades off the jumbotron. Smokey tightly clutches an inflatable alligator while Kyle Alexander walks all 6 feet 11 inches of himself to the half court line for tipoff.
It’s game time.
With several sections reserved for students, seats continue to fill quickly. Lines formed hours before the Florida game began. Students are eager to watch one of the the top teams in the nation play, and they hope to see history in the making. Barnes’ team is setting records left and right.
However, for both true and aspiring basketball fanatics, members of the Rocky Top Rowdies simply show their wristbands as proof of membership and then bypass the general student line. Entering the arena 10 minutes earlier than other students, Rowdy members cheer on the starting five from some of the best seats in the house.
With nearly 300 active members, this student organization is thriving. This organization is young, though. President Shea Payne and founding members Colin Castleberry, Tyler McBee and Jacob Tolleson just celebrated the Rowdies’ first year as an official organization. In just one year, the Rowdies grew from a 50 person Facebook group to a full-fledged organization. Neither Payne nor Castleberry can believe the Rowdies’ recent success.
“We were four guys who just wanted more people to come to basketball games, and now we have bi-monthly meetings that Rick Barnes and Holly Warlick have come to,” Castleberry said.
Although the name Rocky Top Rowdies existed in the Bruce Pearl era, these Rowdies are all fresh faces. Leading the student section of one of the top basketball teams in the nation, Payne, Castleberry and the other board members run a tight ship.
This season, Payne and the executive board stress before games the respectable reputation they wish the Rowdies to uphold.
“We told every member if that happens [shouting profanity] and we see you with a Rowdies’ wristband, we will take their name and wristband,” Payne explained. “You’re out. Forever.”
Perhaps the reason the Rowdies are growing in membership is related to the relationship the Rowdies maintain with coaches Barnes and Warlick.
In past seasons, the students could be heard yelling “sucks” in unison whilst holding newspapers covering their faces when the visiting team players were introduced. However, the current coaching staff wanted a change in tradition.
“Rick Barnes didn’t want the newspapers or for us [the student section] to chant ‘sucks,’” Castleberry said. “He wanted us to do something else.”
Now, the student section turns around when the opposing lineup is announced.
Newly-appointed interim president of the University of Tennessee, Randy Boyd, specifically met with Castleberry and Payne to discuss ways to make the student section more welcoming, especially toward visiting fans. After Boyd visited Texas A&M University, he noticed the hospitality of the university’s fans. He wants Tennessee to uphold the same welcoming reputation, according to Payne.
This season is far from over, though. With SEC and NCAA tournaments approaching, the Rowdies are working to prepare for the difficult regular and postseason games ahead. Hoping to host watch parties and coordinate themes for future games, Payne and Castleberry are ready to support the basketball teams for the remainder of the season.
The Rowdies have grown exponentially in the past year. Now, with eight active board members and close relationships with the Tennessee Athletics Fan Experience Department, Payne, Castleberry and the Rowdies are the faces of the student section. The Fan Experience Department aims to create a “hospitable, warm, and LOUD!” sports environment, and the increase in Rowdy membership is helping the department meet that goal.
Payne and Castleberry can be seen courtside at every game, hardly ever sitting. Castleberry is the recognizable “TBA Taco” of the student section, donning a taco suit at every game without fail. The taco suit has been a tradition ever since former UT player and now sports analyst Dane Bradshaw mentioned the suit while covering a game last season.
With more and more students discovering the perks of Rowdy membership, Payne hopes to increase membership significantly in the organization’s second full year.
“Our goal in the constitution was 100 [members],” Payne said. “The goal for next year is going to be 500.”
Payne, Castleberry and the 286 other Rowdy members will be “creating chaos” for the remaining home games this season. Keep up with their latest plans on social media.
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