Vikings’ best year

Don’t expect a tickertape parade down Broadway or a citywide rally to commemorate the event, but make no mistake – 2004-05 was the best year in Portland State athletics since the school moved to Division 1 in 1996.

After serving as the doormat of the Big Sky Conference for years, three championships and a dramatically improved record in conference play have sent a loud and clear message to future competitors: Step off, we’re legit.

Now don’t go confusing being legit with being worldbeaters, because that the Vikings are not. But, as Athletic Director Tom Burman is glad to point out, winning has brought something that the Vikings dearly lacked: “I think we have some respect now.”

Much of that respect can be directly linked to the men’s basketball team’s first ever regular season championship and the media and fan interest it attracted, but the roots of PSU’s new respect run deeper.

The women’s golf team has quietly won three straight Big Sky titles and the rapidly improving women’s soccer team hosted the postseason tournament after notching its first regular season championship.

Ironically, the best sign of PSU’s respect may be the departures of the women’s soccer and men’s basketball head coaches. Both were hired away by bigger, more renowned athletic programs (U of O, Fresno State), raising the question: who would have ever thought Portland State would be seen as a source for up-and-coming coaching talent?

Coaching was a big reason that four of PSU’s six team sports posted a winning record a year after none of them did.

Those same teams won nearly 50 percent of conference games. That may not sound like much, but it’s a huge leap from the 32 percent clip of the year before.

Add in the success of the track team which sent the most members ever to the NCAA regional and it becomes clear that winning was in the air more than ever before.

With wins comes excitement and with excitement comes fans and media coverage, two more long forgotten entities around PSU sports.

“There was virtually no support of athletics,” said rabid Vikings fan and seventh-year senior John Peacock. “It’s no fun to cheer for a losing team.”

Peacock organized The Horde, a student fan group, to build on the new winning atmosphere. The Horde had its coming out party at Memorial Coliseum in the Big Sky basketball tournament when a sea of Horders in custom green “Horde” T-shirts antagonized PSU’s opponents for all of the 40 minutes they were on the court. “This year really got the word out that Portland State has a good sports program and that it’s fun to come to the games,” Peacock said.

It didn’t hurt that disappointing performances by the Blazers, Ducks and Beavers opened a door and Portland State sports put their best face forward.

“There’s no question that winning makes a big, big difference in terms of our coverage,” said Mike Lund, Portland State’s assistant athletic director for media relations.

The result was more front-page coverage in The Oregonian, the first sell-out crowds in Stott Center history and a noticeable change in campus attitude towards athletics.

“During the basketball run, three or four times a day, I’d have people walk by me and say, ‘Hey, go Viks,’ or ‘Good luck this week,’ and that had never happened before,” Burman said.

A Park Blocks pep rally with cheerleaders even drew a few hundred fans, though it must be said that there was free pizza.

All the attention is well and good, but the only way to keep it is to continue improving and keep winning, two tasks easier said than done.

“We’re kind of doing this with some smoke and mirrors,” Burman admitted. “We have a small budget comparatively to others in our league and others that we want to compete with and we have facility issues that are second to none.”

Burman knows that the best hope of resolving both those problems lies in the continued improvement of the various teams and the increase in corporate and alumni support winning brings.

Peacock is optimistic that this year’s success is a sign of things to come and hopeful that the new fans will continue to flock to the Stott Center. “We definitely have to do well next year in order to keep the momentum,” he said.

Or, as Burman put it, “We just can’t rest.”