By Nan Turner
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – He’s known as “Pav” – short for Pavarotti. He’s a presence at Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball games, home and away. He’s recognizable to fans, players, coaches, media and event staff – well, at least when he has his horns on.
Chris Crowley has fulfilled the role as leader of Ram Nation four years after his graduation from the university he loves.
Crowley visited VCU in 2001 during his senior year of high school. The first person he met was Mike Ellis, associate athletic director for administration. Crowley’s goal was to be a student manager for the men’s basketball team.
He said he chose VCU because it had three strong academic programs: sports medicine, sports management and music.
Crowley was a manager for the team under Head Coach Mack McCarthy in 2001. After McCarthy left and Jeff Capel was promoted from assistant coach to head coach, Crowley continued to work for the first two years of Capel’s tenure.
However, Crowley could not forget the primary reason he came to VCU – to focus on his education. So after three years with the team, he left to concentrate on getting his degree. Due to his rigorous schedule working with the team, Crowley lost a year of academics and ended up graduating a year later than planned.
Still, Crowley could not stay away from the Siegel Center or the team he had grown so familiar with. While he continued to attend games, he became friends with a group of guys in the VCU Pep Band. At their suggestion and encouragement, he got involved with the Rams in a different capacity.
The band was always trying to push for more school spirit so they decided to start a spinoff group – the Rowdy Rams. Crowley was quickly targeted as a leader for the newly formed student section and served as vice president in 2005 and co-president the following year. It was also the beginning of the nickname many know him by now.
“Coach Mack used to call me Pavarotti because when you’re a fat, bearded tenor, that’s who people say you look like,” Crowley said. “So that’s why everyone calls me Pav.”
What makes Crowley so identifiable, besides his nickname, is the pair of plush Ram horns he wears on his head during every game. The horns were found by Chris Neil, a member of the Pep Band, at a costume shop in Woodbridge, Va.
“They ended up on my head most of the season and we figured that’s where they’re supposed to be,” Crowley said. “The company actually went out of business, but my wife has a pair that she wears from time to time.”
Although Crowley frequently wears his horns, they are not his favorite piece of VCU apparel. What is his favorite?
“My original Rowdy Rams shirt, which is now a tattered rag, but I still keep it with me,” Crowley said. “The shirts didn’t have sponsors on the back. It reminds me where we came from, and how we went through all the hard work.”
After graduating in 2006 with a degree in music education, Crowley considered throwing in the horns, but instead he has remained.
“As long as the students want me down there, I’ll be down there,” he said.
A decade of following the Rams has produced many memories for Crowley. Some occurred when the student section was not known for being so “rowdy.”
During the Rowdy Rams’ inaugural season, Crowley recalls a core group of loyalists who would never miss a game. Sell-outs were not the norm, but you would see some faces in the stands every game without question.
“It was a family in that way, because everybody knew each other,” Crowley said. “There weren’t a lot of students. There were 200 instead of 2,000 – sometimes even less than that. There wasn’t a student section; people weren’t decked out in black and gold.”
Today’s games don’t have such a close-knit feel where everybody knows your name. But that’s a trade-off Crowley is willing to make.
“Two-thousand [fans] down close really made you feel like you had the advantage,” Crowley said.
Although he has loved every second spent in his Ram horns, a few moments really stick out for Crowley. One of them came from an unexpected source – a walk-on freshman named Jesse Pella Rosa.
The Rams defeated George Mason in the Colonial Athletic Association’s 2002-03 championship game, 55-54. Pella Rosa hit the free throw against Mason in the last seconds of the game. It was the Rams’ first CAA Championship victory against the Patriots.
“We had beat Mason plenty of other times, but this one made me smile the most,” Crowley said.
Many players have passed through the Siegel Center, but none has had quite the lasting impression on Crowley as Domonic Jones.
“I feel he was the epitome of the humble star,” Crowley said. “I have a whole bunch of favorite players, but he’s probably at the top.”
It’s not surprising that Crowley would admire someone he describes as “humble.” It’s an attribute others would use when speaking about him. He said he doesn’t like attention focused on himself and would rather see it bestowed on all the fans.
“I’d like to see all the fans wearing the horns and cheering, and I’d be a happy man.,” Crowley said. “I’d feel accomplished.”
Crowley was especially happy at all the Rams accomplished during their miraculous run in the NCAA men’s tournament. The underdog darlings of March Madness, VCU beat Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to make it to the Final Four.
Crowley attended every game except the Purdue matchup, when he had to work. He said he was able to travel to the games thanks to winning some contests and “lots of love from people.”
Someone paid for his flight to San Antonio to see VCU defeat Florida State in the Sweet 16 round and then Kansas in the Elite Eight. Crowley was also present in Houston for the Final Four semifinal game that VCU narrowly lost to Butler University.
Crowley said his favorite experiences during the tournament include hanging out with members of the athletic office staff at the River Walk in San Antonio after the Florida State game.
“It was a great night,” he said. “We knew we were at least getting to the Elite Eight.”
Two nights later, Ram fans everywhere rejoiced after the victory against Kansas, and Crowley was no exception.
“I sat down after the Kansas win and just thought about how we were there and no one can take that away from us,” he said. “I was proud for the fans.”
On the sidelines, Crowley was most impressed with the work of the VCU Pep Band. In his opinion, they’re the best in the country. Crowley says the band should be praised with the team and deserves all the positive press they’ve been given.
Crowley says he has yet to come up with a word to describe the whirlwind that was the 2011 NCAA Final Four Men’s Basketball Championship. He feels a general sense of accomplishment about the entire run.
Watching videos of the team coming home to screaming fans in the Siegel Center struck an emotional chord with Crowley.
“To see 7,500 show up to welcome the team home at 1 a.m. culminated everything we set out for. That was our purpose – to bring visibility and support to VCU,” he said. “It’s an accomplishment for the university to see people wearing black and gold.”
Crowley has lived in the Richmond area for 10 years and says that until now, he had never seen the city join together and get excited over one thing. It gives him hope for the future.
“It made me think that if we can all agree on VCU, we can agree on other things,” Crowley said. “Maybe that little bit of hope that VCU brought can get things done.”
As time passes and new players take the Siegel Center court, Crowley hopes some things stay the same. He thinks Head Coach Shaka Smart and the rest of the athletic staff should continue what they’ve been doing. Crowley also said the university and fans need to be ready for ups and downs.
One thing that will remain constant, though, is Crowley’s support.
“This team has players that you want to cheer for,” he said. “They’re likeable, well mannered and smart. When you have a team that good, how can you not want them to succeed – not just at basketball, but how can you not want them to succeed at life?”
Although the tournament may leave Crowley at a loss for words, when it comes to the magic ingredient that makes his Rams special, he knows exactly what to say.
“We’ve got swag. I don’t even have to say what that means, but I can tell you we’ve got it,” he said.
“I can’t say we’ve got the most heart, because I watched that Butler game and that team had as much heart as any. I can’t say we’re the most talented or the best coached, because all the coaches involved in the NCAA were great.
“But maybe when you combine all those and put them all together, that’s what it is.”
This article has been published on RVANews and other websites.