By Derek Mead
Sure, Meredith Field at Harder Stadium – or whatever it’s called these days – is one of the nicer soccer stadiums in the country. I’ve seen some good games there, and even better post-game celebrations. Particularly memorable was watching a dancing hippy get clotheslined at midfield by a member of event staff running at a dead sprint. But if you really think about it, Harder ain’t got shit on the true center of the rowdy Gaucho pride that I love. I’m talking about the only place on campus that not only allows you to drunkenly yell obscenities at athletes from twenty feet away but is also named after a death pit from a post-apocalyptic film from 80’s Australia. Welcome to the Thunderdome, bitches.
Home to the men’s, women’s and Pub Scouts basketball teams, the Thunderdome has for years been one of the worst places for opposing teams to play on West Coast road trips. Simply put, the T-Dome is loud. I’m talking Judas Priest loud. The same building acoustics that make the huge cluster of hoopty-ass speakers in the ceiling sound like shit focus the yells of a couple thousand Gaucho fans right onto the court. Trust me, sitting at the press table on the sideline can get uncomfortable if I’m sober. Now imagining trying to hit a jumper with all that. It ain’t gonna happen.
Of course, the Thunderdome wouldn’t get so nasty if the fans weren’t down, and the Gaucho faithful are always at their best in the ‘Dome. Compared to Harder, the Thunderdome’s lack of ample parking and AYSO children falling down at halftime means that fewer community members and, more importantly, parents with young kids show up to games. On top of that, even the laziest and drunkest of students can stumble their way to the Thunderdome’s most excellent location in the center of campus. This heavily increased drunk student to disapproving non-student ratio means that while fans at Harder are generally forced to sound like a bunch of toddlers at a Raffi concert, those same fans can talk shit like a heavily cross-faded Rasheed Wallace on the Men’s Center four square court.
Compared to the Thunderdome, Harder Stadium is a bed-wetting hooker, so I’m not surprised that the men’s soccer team won a national championship. Without that, no one would even go to games. Harder’s past halftime shows include elementary school soccer scrimmages, people leaving games because they ran out of Faderade, and weird baton-tossing sixth-graders that their lonely parents dress up like sleazy disco balls. Meanwhile, over at the Thunderdome, hot cheerleaders hand out free pizzas while the UCSB dance team goes apeshit on the court. The Phantom of the Dome, UCSB’s only mascot to appear at a game, has been making appearances again in past years after more than a decade of a post-graduation hiatus. You can even actually hear the band in Thunderdome, and those guys are so raunchy and play so wildly that I have to assume that they are all taking handles of Taaka to the face and abusing hardcore narcotics before showing up.
For me, the Thunderdome has always epitomized the wonderful experience of being a college sports fan. From watching the women’s team rock Riverside in one of the most heated basketball games I’ve ever seen, to having future NBA players flip me off from the court, and even watching a guy shoot a ball over the backboard after I told him I bought meth from his mom’s trailer park drug den, the Thunderdome has given me some great memories. I’ll never forget the crowd going silent as Downtown Cecil Brown pulled up for a game-winning three and the ensuing eruption when he hit it. Don’t get me wrong; I love our soccer teams and I’m at every game screaming my face off. But every time I look around Harder, I know that the only place where my heart is truly in it is the Thunderdome.
By John Greely
Harder is Hard to Beat
Let me start this off by saying that I love the Thunderdome. I really do. The corrugated fortress will always hold a place in my heart. But seriously, it can’t compare to Harder Stadium. It doesn’t even come close.
First of all, let’s take a typical game atmosphere at either location. For the T-Dome, you might have 2,000 people, maybe 200 of them students, and about 10 people seriously into the game – if that. There are of course counter-examples, like last year’s University of Nevada, Las Vegas game, and likely the game against perennial power North Carolina this November, but in general 5 percent of a Thunderdome crowd makes up 90 percent of the noise, which wasn’t particularly impressive to begin with. Now compare that to Harder Stadium. UCSB men’s soccer is among the nation’s leaders in average attendance every year, despite the fact that half of the home games are played before class is in session.
Not only are there more people at soccer games than at basketball games, but the people are infinitely louder too. Hundreds of students singing songs and screaming chants up the intensity level, and the community is more vocal too. At Harder, you don’t feel out of place if you’re yelling at the top of your lungs, whereas that same behavior at the Thunderdome would make you stick out like an Irvine student at a sporting event.
The one caveat with this argument is that it only covers men’s soccer and basketball. Support for the women’s basketball team is certainly better than it is for the women’s soccer team, but neither has enough of a following to create an environment rivaling the men. This isn’t necessarily fair (the women’s basketball team consistently outperforms the men), but it is what it is. Meager support for women’s sports is a big issue, but one for another article. Since the men of each sport draw the bigger crowds and crazier atmospheres in their respective homes, let’s keep the focus there.
Another important part of this debate is the level of play at the two buildings. The Thunderdome houses a men’s basketball team that is consistently pretty good in a really bad conference. They make the NCAA tournament once in a blue moon, and never crack the top 25 in the country. The best teams that come to play here in Santa Barbara are the likes of UNLV and Utah State. (The UNC game this year is an exception to the rule. Nothing like that is happening again for decades I’m sure.) These teams are decent mid-majors, but certainly not players on the national scene. Harder, on the other hand, lures the best of the best. The UCSB men are consistently one of the best teams in the country, with two national championship appearances and one win in the last four years, and they play some of the best teams at home as well. Nationally renowned teams like UCLA, Indiana, and defending champion Wake Forest come to town year in and year out to take on the Gauchos. Games at Harder often showcase some of the best talent in the country, and each team brings its A-game when taking on the Gauchos.
“It’s unique,” says men’s soccer Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg. “It’s well known throughout the country… and it’s a huge home field advantage.” His words, not mine. Senior forward Nick Perera once dubbed it “the cathedral” of college soccer. I seriously hope that title sticks. Harder Stadium has drawn over 11,000 fans to a game, and every year has a game or two above 5,000. Those numbers would be one thing in a mainstream American sport like basketball (although the Thunderdome rarely eclipses 4,000) but in college soccer they’re unheard of. This is a sport where a crowd of 500 at most schools is exceptional. This is a sport where most of the country can’t name a single player. And yet at UCSB, people care. At Harder Stadium, you feel like you’re a part of something special – and you are. It’s the best place to watch college soccer anywhere, period.
The Thunderdome used to be kind of like that. Back in the early-’90s, great teams would come to UCSB and be blown away by a (fittingly) thunderous crowd. People all around knew that it was a tough place to play. Even Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian once said, “This is as good an atmosphere as you’ll find for college basketball.” But those days are long gone. Nowadays it’s not even the best atmosphere in the Big West. I know it’s sad, but that’s where things stand right now.
I sincerely hope that the Thunderdome returns to its glory years of the early-’90s and becomes a great venue again. Honestly, it would be great for the school and great for the community. But even then it wouldn’t beat Harder Stadium.
Harder is unparalleled. Other schools would kill for half the crowd UCSB gets on a regular basis. The fans at UCSB soccer games are notorious nationwide. Teams fear the Gaucho Locos. That’s why I love Harder Stadium the most. It truly is the cathedral of college soccer, and hopefully it will remain that way for years to come.