By Matt Norlander
A tiny NAIA school in the middle of Indiana has a once-a-year tradition that's one-of-a-kind and among the best in college sports. Friday night, 2,265 people sardine-packed Odle Arena and got to celebrate “Silent Night,” the carefully orchestrated combustion of cacophony and joy that happens once the Trojans men’s basketball team scores its 10th point.
Why do this? It’s college, so: Why not do this? The tradition is the perfectly timed stress reliever. The annual game is always scheduled the Friday night before finals begin. The students assemble afterward at a university-sponsored Christmas party (“Habecker’s Holipalooza”) where, among other activities, the school president reads A Christmas Story to them.
The patient tradition isn’t even two decades old; it began in the early ‘90s when longtime Taylor coach Paul Patterson got the suggestion from an assistant on staff. It’s a blend of basketball and Christmas cheer, sort of an initiation into the holiday season that comes before cramming for the end-of-semester blitz.
“It’s so bizarre, that first 10 points. You can’t speak. You can encourage the guys, but you can’t do anything,” Patterson said Friday night, referring to typical coach gyrations and screams. “Then it (the 10th point) comes and the game gets to be a really high intensity.”
Here's early video of the shot/moment. Just scan the crowd quickly and see what you can pick out in terms of the characters dressed in outrageous outfits. (I see you, Waldo!)
The past three years have seen the unlikely happen: the 10th point coming via free throw — and all by the same player. Casey Coons has been sent to the stripe and connected each time, sending his fellow students into frenzy. Friday night, he was hoping to dodge having to go to the line again, only to be fouled while attempting a 3-pointer (no better way to do it than by dropping a trey). Coons is the team’s best player and leading scorer in the Mid-Central College Conference.
“We just want to get it over with quick,” Coons said by phone after the team’s oh-by-the-way 71-47 win over Ohio Mid-Western. “I’ve just been in the right place.”
Imagine that, though. The foul line, all three times, and sinking it when the 10th point was imminent. It’s an anxiety a few minutes into the game that’s usually reserved for free throws with less than a minute remaining.
“There’s definitely pressure, for sure, and it’s not like a late-game situation totally, but it’s a fun situation,” Coons said.
“He is that kind of a player, though,” Patterson added. “I think he’s an aggressive kid who goes out and leads us. He gets us off the mark, attacks the game and is as good a competitor as we have and is one of the smartest guys we’ve had here in a while. It’s ironic he got three shots tonight. It’s a great experience because it’s not the same as hitting a big shot at the end of the game, but it is a pressure situation.”
Coons has an opportunity to run the table during in this annual high point on the Trojans’ schedule — he’s just a junior.
The school is abuzz all week with the buildup to the game. It’s officially Silent Night Week. Players carry the anxiety and expectation with them from Monday morning all the way up until a few minutes after 6 p.m., when the game normally starts. Students line up early, many dressed in pajamas. In recent years, the costumes and oneupsmanship has gotten extreme. Costumes of so many sorts have been donned to give the event the wild-card aspect that’s made it as eclectic as it is rambunctious.
What's nearly as cool: the arm-in-arm, shoulder-against-shoulder swaying and singing of "Silent Night" at game's end.
Taylor’s never lost the Silent Night game. Teams in the past have tried to curb the chaos by calling a timeout when that bombastic 10th point comes. But that only encourages the crowd to get rowdier. Friday night, a new victim showed up on campus, as Ohio Mid-Western had never gotten the Silent Night experience.
“It’s definitely a unique experience,” Coons said. “You can’t really prepare for or get used to. It’s like practice, but there’s a couple thousand people staring and you and not saying a word. You want to hurry through and get that 10 point as quick as you can.”
There have been times before when Taylor hasn’t been the first to 10. That’s when the team really starts to tighten up. But in recent years, it’s won the race to double digits.
“The biggest thing is we try to have the older guys on the floor instead of the younger guys,” Patterson said. “It’s a lot of fun for a lot of people, but it’s not fun for us — in that it’s a great exercise in mental awareness. But it’s not an easy thing."
In addition to having such a cool tradition, the team is also pretty good. It’s currently ranked 21st in the NAIA D-II Top 25. And Patterson is a legendary coach in his own right; he recently accomplished something unprecedented in Indiana collegiate sports history when he became the first coach at a a four-year Indiana university to win 700 games with the same team. His first season with the school was 1979.
The game gets a lot of local attention, naturally, and so Patterson’s taken advantage of the extra eyes and cameras in recent years by coaching in his bare feet. He did it to raise awareness for the Samartin’s Feet charity, which aims to slips shoes onto the bare soles of needy children around the world.
Patterson, 69, said the tradition is part of what keeps him going. He’s not thought about retirement yet. Team keeps winning, fans keep coming, the nights aren’t very silent these days when the basketball team hosts opponents.
“I like doing this, and as long as I feel like I’m making a difference for our guys, I’m going to keep on doing it,” he said.
Whenever Patterson steps away, he'll have brought and left that record-breaking wins mark and one of the terrific traditions in the sport to Taylor.