The evolution of FAU fans

SPORTS

 

In mid-November, at FAU’s home opener for the basketball season, Warner University arrived at The Burrow for a 7 p.m. tipoff. One of Warner’s players had long hair, bangs flowing in front of his face and covering a portion of his eyes. As he dribbled up the court, chants of “Bieber!” vibrated throughout the arena.

Although singer Justin Bieber is popular among a younger demographic, the cheers were meant to badger Warner’s point guard.

The fans making those chants weren’t just any fans, either. They were the Dirty Birds.

“That’s just the Dirty Birds being the Dirty Birds,” said senior forward Brett Royster. “They’re always going to have something. We laughed, we thought it was funny, because obviously we could hear it too.”

Throughout the game Warner’s players were hit with jeers, each one more inventive than the last. To cause confusion for the opposing offense, multiple fans would shout “Hey,” not in unison, to give the illusion of multiple players calling for the ball.

“The Dirty Birds and all the student groups have the same mission, and it’s to support the basketball team, to give them a home court advantage,” said Mike Burdman, founder of the Dirty Birds and current graduate assistant for alumni relations. “You go to any other mid-major school, most of them have a good student section that actually gives the team a home field advantage when they’re playing and that was the whole idea behind the Dirty Birds.”

With Burdman’s help, home games for the Owls are now loud and vibrant, filled with young fans brimming with passion.

It wasn’t always that way, though.

“I remember being in the stands during basketball games and there were 10, maybe 15 of us on a good day,” said Burdman of basketball games from 4 or 5 years ago.

Prior to head basketball coach Mike Jarvis’ tenure beginning in 2008, the Dirty Birds were known as the Rowdy Rexes, named after former basketball coach Rex Walters. Essentially, the group consisted of Burdman and a few friends determined to cheer FAU on.

When Walters left, it was obvious to Burdman that a name change for his group was in order. As a result, the Rowdy Rexes became the Dirty Birds, an expanding group of passionate fans, bestowing a new home court advantage upon FAU’s athletics.

Today, the Dirty Birds fill up The Burrow, FAU’s basketball arena, with screams and squeals. However, with a slew of parents and children beside the Dirty Birds, Burdman has always demanded that those screams remain devoid of any offensive language.

“We make it a point not to say anything that would be considered bad — no cursing, that’s one of the rules, we don’t like cursing at all,” said Burdman.

With the number of members in the Dirty Birds expanding, though, that isn’t always easy to regulate.

Last year, the Dirty Birds and others filled The Burrow with chants of “rapist” upon the arrival of FIU’s coach, Isiah Thomas.

The chants upset Thomas’ wife, Lynn, who was in the stands that night. She was so upset that she called FAU herself to say so, a move that resulted in the university conducting an investigation into the chants.

“I was contacted by one of the athletic directors and was asked if I knew who did it, and obviously I didn’t,” said Burdman. “And they told me they were investigating it, but I don’t know what ever came of it.”

Now graduated and removed from the front line of the Dirty Birds, Burdman is in an administrative role, currently helping out another student group, the prOWLers.

Today the prOWLers and the Dirty Birds work mostly as one by attending numerous FAU sporting events, all in the name of creating difficult environments for opponents of the Owls to play in.

Back in 2002, however, with support dwindling, Student governor Pablo Paez enlisted the help of freshman Rick ‘Smitty’ Smith to ensure that the prOWLers would have a future with FAU fans’ support.

Smith, who currently sits on the board of directors for the alumni association, rewarded Paez’s faith by growing the prOWLers.

Smith oversaw the prOWLers, and with his help, his beloved student group — along with the Dirty Birds — has transformed the atmosphere at FAU games.

Smith himself can’t even believe the transformation the student groups have created.

“It’s unreal,” said Smith. “It’s absolutely unreal to watch what the university has done, and what the students have done has been incredible.”

The transformation is not lost on even the most tenured of athletes.

“I told some of the guys the other day, ‘I feel like I actually play college basketball now because we actually have a legit student section,'” said Royster.

While Smith would be complimented by such a comment, his favorite memory came in 2007.

“The single greatest moment was in early December 2007,” said Smith. “FAU had just beaten Troy in football and we knew we were going to the New Orleans Bowl, and I had people calling me from Troy saying we won and we were going to a bowl game.

“But then I get a call from an unknown number and I answer the phone and it’s [head football] coach Howard Schnellenberger and he called me from his cell phone from Troy and said, ‘Even though you weren’t with us today, Smitty, congratulations. You were as much a part of this program as anyone who was here today.'”

Following the call, Smith and others from both the Dirty Birds and the prOWLers made their way to New Orleans for the bowl, and the result was every bit as emotional as the phone call preceding it.

“Going to the New Orleans Bowl as an alum and not a student was very emotionally moving for me,” said Smith. “I caught myself crying in joy as did many people on Bourbon Street chanting ‘Go FAU.'”

Perhaps the most satiating element behind both the Dirty Birds and the prOWLers is the gratitude FAU athletes give back.

“The entire basketball team has brought us back to the locker room with Coach Jarvis to thank us for what we’ve done to help them,” said Burdman “And it’s a great feeling when the players come up to you and thank you.”

Even Royster, known for his tenacious defense, isn’t afraid to shower the Dirty Birds with love and praise.

“It means a lot. They’ve always been dedicated fans since I’ve been here, they’ve always meant a lot to me,” said Royster. “Every time I look into the crowd, they’re always right there front and center, and it means the world to us.”