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BYU works OT in efforts to bring fans back

The timeout is over and BYU's basketball team returns to the court. The Cougars have pulled within striking distance and the crowd stirs in anticipation. Suddenly from the sound system comes a recorded three-note riff. The drums join in and the lead-in to the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" is ringing through the house.

Mick Jagger? At the Marriott Center?Believe it. BYU athletic officials are saying it is indeed time to start 'em up. These days, it takes more than 3-point shots and a cheer squad to get people into college basketball games. After watching attendance drop drastically over the past decade, marketing and public relations people are working overtime to return fans to the Marriott Center and keep them there. And while they are careful to note the substantial number of senior citizens attending games, they are openly courting younger fans, raised on compact discs, video games, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop.

"Eventually," says marketing director Dave Champlin, "we're going to get to the point that when we start winning, we're going to reap the benefits of all this."

The changeover has come gradually after decades of mostly quiet timeouts; periods so still that if the band didn't play you could hear the coach giving instructions, several rows back. Although the arena wasn't quiet when BYU's best teams were thriving, that's because the success spurred the crowd. But eventually the team, the noise level and the crowds all faded. The joke was that even the most serious students could attend games because they could do their studies there. It was quieter than the library. While they were turning out the lights, flashing strobes and setting off fireworks at UNLV and delivering soaring introductions at UTEP, at BYU it was straight by the book: bland, impersonal, impartial. As former athletic director Glen Tuckett would say, "What's wrong with plain vanilla?"

Several years ago, when Champlin initiated the purchase of a blimp to drop promotional items into the crowd, Tuckett exclaimed, "I never believed I'd see the day when people were more excited about a blimp than seeing someone make a shot."

But after a visit to the 1992 Final Four at the Target Center in Minneapolis, in which he saw the video wall, Tuckett allowed, "It's time for the old dog to step aside."

Gradually, the basketball-is-enough philosophy is giving way to a more sensory experience. Though not exactly a ride on Space Mountain, it is getting more active. Coach Steve Cleveland is among the proponents of the louder-is-better philosophy - so much so that he rates a wild and crazy student section equal to recruiting in importance. He has visited dorms, the Wilkinson Center and other places where students gather, urging them to attend. He willingly dispatches a player immediately after home wins to ring the victory bell in the northwest corner of the Marriott Center.

Several hundred student regulars will show up early for tonight's game against UNLV to stake out the best seats - a result of Cleveland's effort to bring the students back.

Champlain and others have taken things a step further, recording sound effects from movies and television. When a player misses a free throw, he clicks on the computerized program and the voice of Homer Simpson cringes, "D'oh!" When a player dives into the pit for a loose ball, the television ad for "The Clapper," comes up with a woman crying, "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!" When forward Ron Selleaze makes a spectacular shot, Jim Carrey's voice calls out "Somebody, stop me!" in a scene from "The Mask." A comeback calls for a rendition of the theme from "Rocky."

During timeouts, fans get regular doses of Chumbawumba singing the chorus to "Tubthumping": I get knocked down, but I get up again. You're never gonna keep me down!

The changeover isn't happening overnight. With many of the longtime season- ticket holders over 60, officials worry about making the switch too quickly. When the Cougars played to their biggest home crowd of the year, against Utah, the athletic department fielded numerous calls from irate older fans who complained about the noise, the music and the fact that students were standing during the game.

Thus, officials are walking a thin line between loyalty to the old guard and making things exciting enough for the new fans.

Still, the move is on, and it isn't going to change. Winning teams bring their own kind of enthusiasm but in the meantime, at BYU, they plan on making the games fun - whatever the outcome. Says Champlin with a laugh, "Eventually we want to get so we can play `Another One Bites the Dust.' "

GAME NOTE: Forward Justin Weidauer has been bothered by the flu this week and did not practice Friday but is expected to play his final home game as a Cougar toda . . . Keon Clark, UNLV's preseason All-American, was suspended indefinitely on Feb. 9.