Mason Madness: Then and Now

(Photo credit: Claire Cecil/Fourth Estate)

A sea of students decked out in green and gold flocked to Eagle Bank Arena on Friday night to celebrate the start of the 2015-2016 basketball season. However, the bright lights and grand performances have not always been a part of Mason tradition.

Associate Athletic Director Andrew Ruge joined Mason Athletics 19 years ago when Mason Madness was a much smaller event.

“When I first started doing [Mason Madness], it was more [focused on] campus games like dizzy bat and free throw contests for two hours. Then they’d do a practice,” Ruge remembers.

The idea of a late-night opening ceremony originated at University of Maryland in 1970 when Coach Lefty Driesell organized a midnight practice for his team after the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) stated that teams could only begin holding official season practices after midnight on a designated date. Driesell’s first run drew a crowd of almost 3,000 people, sparking interest among other college teams.

About 10 years later, in the 1980s, Mason began holding Midnight Madness events. Because the NCAA still had a midnight rule for practices, Midnight Madness planned carnival-like games for attendees to enjoy before watching the team’s first practice at 12 a.m.

Now the league allows teams to begin practicing a few hours earlier, so teams and fans no longer have to stay up as long to celebrate. A name change accompanied the new start time.

“[Mason Madness] evolved a lot so it doesn’t start right at midnight anymore. We’ve evolved it with that time change. We’ve made it more of an event. More of ‘come out and see the team’ than watch the first practice. It’s more of like a Broadway show,” Ruge said.

At this year’s Mason Madness, spectators enjoyed a special pre-show to celebrate the start of the season.

“The basketball team has a new little routine they’re doing, they’ve never done that before, “ Ruge said.

The pre-show featured Steve Max, a professional “Simon Says” caller, who was hired to hype up the crowd. “We noticed in the past that the pre-time before the show starts that there’s a lull and people need to be entertained during that,” Ruge explained.

An opening teaser of a special highlight video of the team played to pump up the crowd and kick off the festivites.  Inspirational phrases like “tradition lives here” and “spirit lives here” landed on the screen in between clips of Mason’s basketball teams best performances from the following year. The video ended with a clip from Mason’s cinderella season in 2006 when the team made it to the Final Four to celebrate the 10 year anniversary.

The video even had clips of Coach Paulsen at practices leading the way. The video seemed to be a success as the crowd happily clapped along to the beat.

Performances by a professional juggler and the reappearance of a combined routine with Doc Nix & the Green Machine, Mason Cheerleaders and the Patriot mascot also helped round out the evening’s actitivites, all underneath a special new lights display.

Since Mason Madness is not a ticketed event, Ruge is unsure of how many people were in the crowd Friday. However, Ruge said planners did a lot to get students, alumni, family and fans out to Mason Madness. They even hosted a pizza dinner with Coach Dave Paulsen in advance to encourage students to come support the basketball teams at Friday’s event. Ruge also estimates that the additional people on campus for family and alumni weekends probably added to the crowd’s size.

Ruge believes that the energy that accompanies Mason Madness is one of its most exciting assets.

“I love the collaboration between the different groups on campus to get people there. Its just the synergy to get people working together, it embodies ‘We are Mason’,” Ruge said.