The Oakland Zoo, the student section of Pitt’s basketball teams, established themselves as one of the best in college basketball starting in the early 2000s, coinciding with the rise of Pitt men’s basketball and the construction of the Petersen Events Center.
The Zoo helped to create raucous environments, striking fear into opposing teams and setting the tone for one of the best home courts in the country, with one of the best home records to match.
Things started to change after the 2015-16 season when Jamie Dixon resigned as head coach to go back to his alma mater at TCU. Pitt hired Kevin Stallings and the team went from NCAA Tournament appearances to bottom of the ACC in two seasons, with an 0-18 record in ACC play in 2017-18. Within just two years, the Oakland Zoo went from one of the most vibrant, lively student sections to deserted, with only 30 to 40 students showing up in attendance for some games.
Pitt then fired Stallings after that season and replaced him Jeff Capel to start the 2018-19 season. Capel brought back pride in the team and students showed back up to fill the Oakland Zoo. Even with the reinvigorated student body, Pitt teams under Capel saw late season collapses, a COVID-19 pandemic and a poor 2021-22 season that saw the team only win 11 games.
Capel and the Panthers started the 2022-23 season off poorly as well, with a blowout loss to rival WVU at home, another large loss to Michigan and then a close one to VCU to give them a 1-3 record.
Instead of reverting to old ways, Pitt is playing some of the best basketball that fans have seen since Dixon served as head coach. The team has gone 12-2 since that poor start and is now 13-5 overall and 6-2 in the ACC, tied for second best in the conference.
With interest in this Pitt team at a high not seen in many years, fans are now showing up to the Petersen Events Center in droves.
The Oakland Zoo is now trying to build back off this recent success, remaking itself as a domineering student fan base that plays an integral part in the Panthers success.
Junior political science and communication double major Austin Hogeboom serves as a leader for the Oakland Zoo this season and also did the season prior. He spoke in great lengths on the organization’s effort in trying to capitalize on this momentum and try and bring out as many students as they possibly can.
Much of the work from the Oakland Zoo leaders has gone into education of students who aren’t aware of the traditions and history of the famed student section. With COVID-19 and poor play impacting the past two seasons, the leaders are working to get students on board with the team and their support, particularly with the biggest class of first-year students in Pitt history.
Some of this includes promotion focusing on using Instagram instead of Twitter for social media, as the Oakland Zoo Instagram profile has grown by three thousand followers in the last year and a half. Others include creating new traditions, such as the players high-fiving those in the student section after a game, win or lose.
While the Zoo leaders are currently spending their time convincing the student body to show up for games, prior to the season, players and coaches met with the Zoo leaders themselves to pitch their team.
“We sat around with some of the coaches and some of the players at the beginning of the year,” Hogeboom said. “They said, “Look. We feel that this team is different. We want the [Oakland] Zoo to be different with us. What can we get you and what can we do?”
That encouragement from the players and coaching staff gave the Oakland Zoo leaders, like Hogeboom, the confidence to let their fellow students know that, even after a rough start to the season, they should still stick around and support this talented team.
The Oakland Zoo leaders work with the Pitt athletic department to bring together designs for shirts, promotions, and other ideas that will bring students to the games. They primarily work with Aaron Fordyce, assistant director of marketing, and also with Brigid St. Leger, director of marketing, to make sure everything in order so that for game day, the Zoo leaders have their ideas ready and put into whatever is needed for that game.
Hogeboom said that he speaks at least twice a week with Fordyce to work on those ideas. He also praised Fordyce and the Pitt Athletic department for their quickness with the work to bring together the poster for people to sign to send to former Pitt defensive back Damar Hamlin, who suffered a cardiac arrest in an NFL game on Jan. 2 as a member of the Buffalo Bills.
The Oakland Zoo is something that Hogeboom wants the student body to see as one with them, likable and available to listen to their questions, needs and wants around Pitt basketball. He said that there are other student sections around the country that their student body doesn’t view well, and he wants to be the complete opposite of that and to be transparent with his fellow students.
“It’s really important for us to maintain that kind of connection at a grassroots level because that’s the level we want the team to be at,” Hogeboom said. “If we’re not like that, if our student organization is not at the grassroots level, the team won’t be at the grassroots level either. We want this team to be engrained in the student body and we want the student body to be fully behind these guys.”
Oakland Zoo leader and junior health informatics major Jack Neiman said that they don’t necessarily know all the players on a first-name basis, but they know the players well and speak with them outside of basketball-oriented events. This could be seeing them at a bar or having a lengthy conversation at Piada, discussing basketball and life itself.
“I’ve never felt more personally connected with a team ever,” Neiman said. “The connection that us as leaders have with all the players, we care about them as people, not just as players. When they feel upset, we feel upset. We’re frustrated when they’re frustrated. But we’re also that support system if they need it. The motivation, the encouragement, etc. So, the connection that we have with them this year has been probably the best part of doing this.”
Hogeboom and Neiman noticed that the student section has continued to improve with each win going forward. Even during winter break, the student section saw many students attend, with Neiman even flying back to Pitt to go to the UNC game on Dec. 30.
Hogeboom also praised the Pitt Athletic Department for allowing students from other universities to attend over winter break. This also connected the team with former Zoo attendees and big time Pitt fans that aren’t at Pitt anymore that brought an “educated” energy to the games, such as jumping constantly up and down on defense, which hasn’t been a thing since pre-pandemic. He believes that the first-years that saw the Oakland Zoo traditions and emboldened them to also join that tradition going forward.
Hogeboom also gives thanks to the previous Zoo leaders that kept the traditions in place as best they could over the past six seasons when the team struggled greatly. He believes that their work will come to fruition with the team’s improving performance.
This is also just the second season with that the television broadcast shows the Oakland Zoo. Prior to the 2019-20 season, the broadcast showed the benches, which were in front of the Suites instead of the raucous students. National audiences will now see the Oakland Zoo in full force, that Hogeboom and Neiman believe will serve as a great recruiting tactic.
Junior accounting major Dustin Bleiweis is also an Oakland Zoo leader who plays a large role in creating a great environment. He watched Pitt basketball when he was younger attending games and seeing what the energy was like during the best years of the program. Bleiweis truly believes that the program is on the rise and that the energy brought by students and general fans alike will bring Pitt back to top form.
“When the Oakland Zoo is rocking, it’ll beat any single football game,” Bleiweis said. “I don’t care I’ll say that any day of the week. The Oakland Zoo is so much fun because we have an actual impact on the game. I’m just so excited to see a full Zoo again and it’s a full circle thing for me I’m in the season where the Oakland Zoo has emerged again.”
Hogeboom also said that the success of other Pitt programs brings students and athletes together across the university to build all teams up. The success of the football programs has been a big boost, but also of volleyball plus men’s and women’s soccer have seen attendance records broken, thanks in part to the Oakland Zoo encouraging students to support the other programs at Pitt.
Pitt starts their three-game homestand against Florida State this Saturday, Jan. 21 at 3 p.m. They take on Wake Forest next Wednesday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. and conclude with No. 17 Miami next Saturday, Jan. 28 at 4 p.m.
With the Panthers looking to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, they’ll have the opportunity to earn some good wins against both the Demon Deacons and the ranked Hurricanes, both of whom are tied with Pitt in second place in the ACC.
They’ll also have the Oakland Zoo behind them, cheering and supporting them the whole way, as they look to start a new era of top-quality basketball.
“We’re gonna support them,” Hogeboom said. “We’re going to make that environment everything that they need it to be to have a great home advantage. We’re going to do whatever it takes. We know so many people want to see it be good and we’re going to do our part.”