By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Under normal circumstances, the game would have drawn “maybe 1,500” fans to University Hall, Debbie Ryan says, even though it matched two of the nation’s top women’s basketball teams.
Ah, but there was nothing normal about the proceedings Feb. 5, 1986, as those who packed U-Hall that night will attest.
The occasion was “Hot Dog Night,” a promotion that proved more successful than anyone at UVa dreamed possible, Todd Turner included.
Turner was then an associate athletics director at Virginia. Kim Record was director of promotions. She gets credit for the idea: Give a free hot dog and soda to each fan who attended the game between third-ranked and unbeaten UVa and No. 15 North Carolina.
“This was before it was fashionable to promote women’s basketball,” recalled Record, now the AD at UNC Greensboro.
“Todd said, ‘If you get 5,000 people, I’ll dance naked at halftime.’ He never danced naked at halftime, and I haven’t let him forget that.”
The game drew significantly more than 5,000, of course. The attendance was 11,174 — some 2,000 more than the arena’s official capacity then — and that remains a record for a home crowd at a UVa women’s basketball game.
“It was insane,” Ryan recalled.
Record said: “It was one of the craziest nights I can remember.”
UVa hopes to see that scene repeated at John Paul Jones Arena on Nov. 22. That’s when Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Volunteers come to town for a 2 p.m. game against Ryan’s Cavaliers.
The goal? A new attendance record for a UVa women’s game in Charlottesville.
Each fan at the game will receive a coupon for a free Gwaltney hot dog and a 12-ounce Pepsi.
If an overflow crowd shows up at the 14,593-seat JPJ, Ryan will be prepared for it. That wasn’t the case in 1986.
“We had no idea how it would explode,” Ryan said. “Of course, it was the perfect storm, because we were 20-0.”
That helped. So did Record’s relentless promotion. “We made it an event by getting all the right people [in the community] involved,” she said.
Dick Mathias was UVa’s ticket manager for athletics in ’86. He remembers a meeting at which he asked Jim West, a towering figure in the athletics department, what would happen if the turnout for the game exceeded U-Hall’s capacity.
“His comeback was, ‘Just let ’em in, brother!'” Mathias recalled with a laugh.
On the day of the game, fans started lining up outside U-Hall, giving Ryan and Record an inkling of what was to come. Mathias actually missed the game — he was at a meeting in California — but he got a call that night from Turner.
“He said, ‘We got a little problem here. We got all these people outside the building, and some of them have tickets [bought in advance],'” Mathias recalled.
“I said, ‘Todd, I don’t really have a solution, but I think you need to find out who out there has tickets and try to get them in.'”
In the end, West’s command — “Just let ’em in, brother!” — was followed, and everywhere Ryan and Record looked that night, they saw fans: in the aisles, behind the baskets, near the rafters.
“You couldn’t even get to the concession stands,” Record said.
At halftime, the over-capacity crowd was “treated” to a basketball game involving media members from around the state, among them such luminaries as David Teel, Doug Doughty, Jerry Ratcliffe and Rob Daniels.
“It was brutal, but it worked,” Record said, laughing. “I got them to write about the game.”
Alas, the main event ended unhappily for the Wahoos, who lost 60-58 on a buzzer-beater.
“The ending was unbelievable,” Ryan recalled. “The kid just threw it up.”
Record said: “That was such a difficult loss, and Debbie came out and got on the P.A. afterward and was so gracious.”
The story ended unhappily for UVa in another way, too. The local fire marshal, concerned about the crowd size on “Hot Dog Night,” reduced U-Hall’s official capacity by several hundred seats, Mathias said, costing the University thousands of dollars in lost revenue each year on marquee men’s games.
“Probably the most expensive promotion in the history of college basketball,” Record said.