As most Pitt fans know, the play on the court last year wasn’t the only thing that suffered through the Kevin Stallings era. Fan support, between both general fans and students, was probably the lowest it has been in at least two decades if not far longer.
While the play on the court has started to show very tangible signs of improvement, the crowds have started to return to the Pete as well, and the Zoo has started to look like its former self.
For those that don’t know, I was a vice president for the Oakland Zoo from 2011-2013, and I’ve been pretty impressed with what the current crop of Zoo leaders have done to bring students back to the Pete. It’s hard for some newer students and fans to believe, but the Zoo was extremely well respected, and even considered the #2 student section in the country by ESPN in 2011. Students considered being the in the Oakland Zoo one of the best experiences they had at Pitt.
I asked the current set of leaders a few questions before the Duke game to better understand how they came into their roles, and how they’ve tried to harness the excitement Jeff Capel and the new team has brought back to Pitt
- How many leaders are there? What class/majors are you?
Derek Sellers (President) – Chemical Engineering, Senior
Shankar Dandapat (VP, Business Manager) – Computer Science, Senior
Michael Limbacher (VP) – Mechanical Engineering, Senior
Ben Linsey (VP) – Industrial Engineering, Senior
Tyler Vitale (VP) – Actuarial Math, Senior
Hope Gast (VP) – Chemistry, Sophomore
Kayla Paterini (VP) - Business Information Systems and Supply Chain, Junior
2. What originally got you guys into Pitt basketball? Was it when you got to Pitt or before that?
It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Mike grew up in Pittsburgh and watched them all throughout growing up. Derek also was a big fan growing up too and so was his dad. So Mike and Derek have liked Pitt basketball for a while. As for the other five, they all liked basketball growing up, but none of them started following Pitt basketball until they committed to Pitt. For example, Shankar got really into Pitt Basketball being friends with Derek during their freshman year.
3. How were you picked to be leaders?
At the end of every basketball season, the current Zoo leaders put out an application on social media. In the application, we were prompted to include a bunch of answers like favorite Zoo memory, ideas for future Zoo’s, craft a tweet for when Pitt makes the Final Four. The current leaders pick the upcoming leaders. While we read all of the applications we get, a big part of the new leaders that we select are students we’ve seen at games and General Body Meetings (GBMs), who have come to talk to us during games or on social media. Looking to get involved before being a leader is how a lot of us got to be leaders ourselves. All of us were consistently at most games before becoming leaders.
4. What do you consider the best part about being leaders of the Zoo? The worst part?
The best part is definitely the atmosphere. 100%. It is why we always come back and why we wanted to be leaders. Games like the last two games (Louisville and FSU) especially are what we love so much about the Zoo. We also really enjoy getting to work directly with Pitt Athletics on every detail we do (which will be discussed later) and getting into games free is a biiiig perk since we’re at all of them. The worst part is the negativity that we experienced, especially last year. With how great Zoo’s in the past have been, expectations were pretty unattainable for stretches and social media is never forgiving. For example, we used to always hear about attendance even though we (the people that run the account) are at every game, hours early. But we have really enjoyed the Zoo being back and seeing a lot more positivity!
5. Right about when I was a leader in 2011-2013, the University had just started to really embrace the Zoo as its official student section. It seems like now you guys have a huge amount of official support from the University. How helpful has the athletic department been in supporting you guys?
We talk with people with Pitt Athletics department every day. We’re always talking over group messages or meeting in the Pete. Ryan Maerder, the Director of Pitt Basketball Marketing, is really great and instrumental in connecting the Zoo and Pitt Athletics in every aspect. Joe Lassi, Assistant Director of Marketing, is also awesome and constantly helping us. Joe was a Zoo Leader himself (Zoo President from 2012-2013) which is an absolute power move as he can provide historical information and perspective from past Zoo experiences. We have gotten to personally meet and talk with Coach Capel and Athletic Director Heather Lyke. Both Coach and Heather are always very open to listening and helping us make the Zoo a great experience. On a day to day basis, with Ryan and Joe, we definitely have a good connection within Pitt Athletics. They are paramount in helping us market games. A lot of the giveaways we execute result for meetings and conversations we have with those guys. They let us turn a lot of our ideas into reality. We are really grateful to have them.
6. Is being a leader what you expected? Is there anything that really surprised you about the role so far?
It has definitely exceeded expectations. In many ways. To an extent, we all thought that most of what we would do is just lead the student section during games. But we do so much more. We did not expect to have as much say as we do but Pitt Athletics has helped make our voices heard. Like we said above, we get to pretty much have a say in most of our giveaways. We get to expose our creative sides with the way we market games. That is another thing that has surprised us: how much work goes into getting kids to come to games. Winning helps bring students and fans to games but there is a fair amount of additional marketing we push to bring people to games. We are always thinking of endless ways to market games. Different giveaways, every form of social media, littering school buildings with flyers. Funny story. One point during last season we had the idea to get a freshman to sign us into Towers and let us ride the elevators up and down to market one of the games. It was a Hawaiian theme game so we decked out the towers elevator with a Hawaiian tapestry and music. Not even in the elevator for five minutes and the Resident Director of the building gets in the elevator. All in all, he was not happy and we got kicked out.
7. The Zoo was one of the first student sections to really utilize social media especially Twitter. The Zoo account will have it’s 10th birthday on Twitter soon. How important has social media been for you guys to get the word out there about the team and the student section? You guys have used Snapchat and Instagram in ways we never thought of.
We LOVE social media. It’s very important and the biggest way that we market our games and our student section. It makes getting the word out easy and it plays a big role in getting people to games. We have a group chat that we are constantly using to think of ideas and captions. We try to use every form of it and be as creative as possible. A new idea we executed this year is we created a massive group chat (60+ people) of students that came to our first GBM (General Body Meeting) and it has worked really well with helping us spread our ideas or hear ideas that others have. The massive group chat has helped us connect better with the fans of the Zoo. People are always being added to the group chat and helps increase our voice and gives the students a voice in what they experience in the Zoo. Also note: Thanks for the heads up about the 10th birthday! We’ll have to have something extra special planned for it.
8. What is one thing you think the Zoo/Pitt could be doing better?
Anything you guys have already decided to implement for next year?
Well, we really want to try to get back to having every student wearing the same color shirt. That’s the problem with having giveaway shirts and a school with pretty much two color schemes is that you increase the number of shirts that people can and will wear to games. Another thing we are trying to get better at is being more uniform throughout the Zoo with chants. We are implementing some ideas during the next couple games to try to improve that. Finally, overall we just want to bring the culture back to the Zoo. We know what the Zoo was and we know we will get it completely back to that. But the reality of it is most undergraduate students had never seen as lit of a Zoo as they saw over the last two games. But they sure did learn fast and we are going to try to keep implementing things to bring the Zoo culture all the way back.
9. My favorite thing about being in the Zoo was the games you could feel the Zoo willing the team to a win, and being able to tell the players were feeding off the energy. Did you guys get that feeling during the Louisville and Florida State games?
Damn right, it was electric. It was amazing honestly. Basketball is such a great sport for that and the Pete is such a cool venue that you can just feel the momentum and energy growing and growing after every big possession when the Zoo is really going. We are so close to the court that you can feel the effect. You can see it in the players’ reactions and in some of the nice things they say afterwards. For us senior leaders, we had kind of seen that before during our freshman year. But that was so long ago and it was so nice to feel that again. And it was really amazing to see the majority of the students get to experience that for the first time.
10. You guys took over after the worst year in Pitt basketball history. What made you guys want to be leaders? It’s a lot more work than people realize, and the prospect of trying to pump up a fan base coming off an 0-18 ACC season must have seemed daunting.
So we directed this at the three first year leaders, Hope, Tyler and Kayla. We all are big fans of basketball in general and of Pitt. Even through last year we were at almost every game so we just wanted to get more involved however we could despite the 0-18 season. It was difficult, but we wanted to be involved to help it get better and knew it would get better. Hope wanted to add in that her high school team sucked really bad so she was already used to it and Tyler (the Zoonicorn at games) wanted to bolster his status from D-list celebrity to C-list celebrity (kind of joking but maybe not).