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The First Hot Dog Night

Excerpted from Mad About U: Four Decades of Basketball at University Hall, by Chris Graham and Patrick Hite

In an effort to set a new Virginia women’s basketball single-game attendance record, the promotion that helped set the current mark 22 years ago is back on Nov. 22 vs. Tennessee – Hot Dog Night.

All Cavalier fans in attendance at this year’s Virginia-Tennessee game on Sunday, Nov. 22, will receive a coupon for a free Gwaltney hot dog and a 12-ounce Pepsi. Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena.

The original Hot Dog Night was Feb. 5, 1986, vs. No. 15 North Carolina in University Hall, which drew a standing room only crowd of 11,174. That mark still stands as the largest home crowd at a Virginia women’s basketball game.

Authors Chris Graham and Patrick Hite chronicled the first Hot Dog Night in their 2006 book, Mad About U: Four Decades of Basketball at University Hall, devoting an entire chapter in the book to the night, called “Leap of Faith.”

 

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A terrible thought occurred to Kim Record a few days before the game – what if it works?

As the director of promotions in the Virginia athletics department during the 1980s, Record was trying to find a way to promote women’s basketball. Football, that was easy. Basketball took a little more work.

“It’s an event,” Record said of the six home football games most colleges play annually. “It’s the place to be. Everybody wants to be there. Basketball, men’s and women’s, you’ve got 10 to 15 events every year, midweek. It’s not as easy to create an event. That was our goal – to make it the place to be in Charlottesville on that particular night.”

The Virginia women’s team was coming off two successful seasons, including an ACC regular-season title in 1984 and a pair of NCAA tournament appearances in 1984 and 1985. The teams were a combined 43-15 over those two seasons and started the 1985-1986 year with 20 straight wins.

Once Debbie Ryan became the head coach at UVa., the administration slowly began getting behind the program. All those associated with the early years of Virginia women’s basketball might find that amusing, but it’s in part due to their struggles that it was true. Not only were scholarships available for women basketball players by the mid-80s, but the school actually promoted the sport.

“Virginia put money into women’s basketball long before it became fashionable to do so,” said Record.

Still, attendance was hovering around the 1,000-a-game mark. The quality of basketball being played by the women at Virginia was on the rise; now it was up to Record and others in the athletics department to figure out how to boost the attendance figures.

Their goal: break the ACC attendance record. Their plan: give free admission, hot dogs and soft drinks to everyone who came to the game.

“The other piece of it was finding a way to get people to talk about it without us spending a whole lot of money to market and publicize the event,” said Record.

But the buzz started to spread. Record had come up with the idea of a halftime game between members of the media, figuring it was a good way to get them to write about the event. The University also did traditional advertising, including sending Debbie Ryan every place it could to promote the game that would eventually be known simply as “Hot Dog Night.”

“It was probably a week before the game that people were really talking about it,” Record said. “Everywhere you went, somebody was talking about it.”

That’s when Record began to worry. What if people show up in droves? What then?

She would soon find out.

 

Debbie Ryan arrived at the University of Virginia as a graduate assistant under Dan Bonner. Ryan, who was also an assistant coach on the field-hockey team, played her college basketball at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. She came to Charlottesville a year before Craig Littlepage got the job as Terry Holland’s assistant with the men’s team. The two got to know each other well.

“Debbie, at that time, struck me as being someone that was very curious, very dedicated, but I think in general just wanted to learn,” said Littlepage, now Virginia’s athletics director.

There was usually an overlap at the end of women’s practices and start of men’s practices. And by that time there was actually more camaraderie than contempt between the two staffs. As the women were shooting free throws to wrap things up, Holland, Littlepage and the men’s staff would venture out to the floor and talk with the women’s coaches.

Said Littlepage, “Debbie just seemed to soak up information, soak up knowledge, and was just a phenomenal student of the game.”

But even knowing that, he didn’t expect Ryan to get the head-coaching job at just 24 years old. When Bonner resigned his position after two years, Ryan was named head coach of the women’s team.

“I will admit that I was a little bit surprised when she was named the head coach, because she was so young,” Littlepage said.

It didn’t surprise Ryan.

“I was totally oblivious to my age, to my inexperience,” Ryan said. “I was a little too cocky. I really thought I knew quite a bit, and I knew nothing. It was one of those things where I went like I was a bull in a china shop. I just thought I was going to change the world at a very young age. I was aggressive. I had a lot to learn, and I did learn a lot.”

While there was a lot for the new coach to learn, she was thankful to her predecessors who coached Virginia women’s basketball. In fact, years later, after the team had won ACC titles and been to Final Fours, Ryan made it a point to remember what those first few teams went through. Along the women’s locker-room wall, she had listed the names of everyone who had played women’s basketball at UVa.

Ryan would then make it a point to show the names to her current players and tell them that they didn’t know what it was like back then. They had it so much better than the players in the first years of the program, she would tell them.

“I thought that was a really classy, classy thing for Debbie to do,” Bonner said. “She always likes to remind the people that are there now that there were pioneers.”

Two of those pioneers were Barbara Kelly, the first varsity coach at Virginia, and Bonner.

“Barbara and Dan had laid a pretty good foundation for me and had fought for a lot of things,” Ryan said. “So I didn’t really have to do a lot of the initial fighting.”

As thankful as she was for what Bonner had done, he left her one thing she wished he hadn’t.

“We had a pretty ambitious schedule,” Ryan said of her first season, when Virginia played three top 10 opponents, including North Carolina State in University Hall, another game at Maryland and Old Dominion twice. “Dan had scheduled us … I wouldn’t say that we were overscheduled, but maybe we were a little overscheduled.”

Virginia won the first game in the Debbie Ryan era, beating Virginia Union in Charlottesville 54-48. But the second game, a trip to Norfolk to play No. 9 Old Dominion, was a disaster. Virginia lost 74-26. After a win at Duke, the Cavaliers lost 10 of their next 12 games. Clemson beat them 86-58, ODU got them a second time, 71-49, Maryland won 69-38 and Virginia lost at St. Joseph’s 91-59.

“That year was one of those years where you just had to grow and learn, and I had a lot to learn,” Ryan said.

One thing she learned quickly was that Virginia had some work to do. With Tennessee to the west, Old Dominion to the east, Maryland to the north and North Carolina State to the south, Virginia was surrounded by quality programs. In fact, those were the benchmark programs of women’s basketball at the time, and Virginia was playing catch up.

“We were just totally behind all of those programs,” Ryan said. “Way, way, way behind … we were just light years behind. We were just barely giving aid, and we were giving it like half a scholarship at a time.”

On her travels between her office in Onesty Hall and the basketball court at University Hall, Ryan would often wonder exactly how far the program had to go.

Said Ryan, “I remember walking through there thinking – will we ever catch up?”

It would take a while, but eventually they would.

 

Val Ackerman received the first women’s basketball scholarship to UVa. Actually, she only got half the scholarship, with the other half going to another player.

“I got tuition, she got room and board,” Ackerman said years later in an interview with the UVa. publication A&S Online.

Ryan had known Ackerman from a young age. Ackerman had attended the same New Jersey high school from which Ryan had graduated, and her father was Debbie’s high-school athletics director.

Ackerman, a 1981 graduate of UVa., would eventually become the president of the Women’s National Basketball Association and is currently the president of USA Basketball. But in 1977 she was the first recruit of any significance for Virginia women’s basketball. That carried more weight than the 8-17 season that first year.

“We didn’t win as many games early on as either we would have liked or Debbie would have liked, I’m sure,” said Ackerman, “but she’s never looked back, the program has never looked back, and it’s absolutely a privilege for me to be a part of it.”

Ackerman was the first, but she certainly wasn’t the last good basketball player to give Virginia a chance. Ryan said there were a couple of events that made her believe that Virginia could catch those other programs.

Recruiting players like Chrissy Reese and Jill McKone in the early ’80s was one thing that excited Ryan about the possibilities.

“We were starting to get players that were highly visible players,” Ryan said. “We weren’t getting enough of them at one time, but we started to get highly, highly visible players. That’s when I really felt like we were headed in the right direction.”

Then came Cathy Grimes. In 1981, she was probably the first star recruit for Debbie Ryan. Eventually, she would become the first women’s player to have her jersey retired.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, Grimes (now Grimes-Miller) never gave much thought to the Cavaliers. Instead, she spent her youth rooting for Maryland and Georgetown. But once she got to high school, a lot of schools came calling. That’s when her home-state school caught her attention.

“Debbie Ryan stood out to me as probably the best recruiter in the country, because she let me know early on that I was her number-one recruit, her number-one priority, and she followed the rules,” Grimes-Miller said. “She respected the rules. She knew that there were coaches out there who weren’t following the rules, but she respected the rules, and that appealed to me.”

It’s not surprising that, being the stickler for rules, Grimes-Miller went on to earn her law degree from the University of Virginia and, since 1993, has worked for the U.S. Department of Education as an attorney.

On her recruiting visit to Virginia, Grimes-Miller got to see the final home game for both Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker. Virginia was playing, of all teams, Maryland, which featured her favorite player, Albert King.

“The energy in (University Hall) was just unbelievable,” said Grimes-Miller. “I couldn’t imagine playing in an environment like that. And that’s what sold me. That’s what sold me. And it was the prefect timing, because I was able to make that transition from being a diehard Maryland fan to becoming a University of Virginia fan. And I haven’t looked back since.”

Virginia won 74-63 over the 17th-ranked Terrapins, which, as far as she can remember, was good news for Grimes-Miller.

“I’m pretty sure I was rooting for Virginia. I think,” Grimes-Miller said laughing.

She committed to Virginia soon thereafter, and went on to a stellar career in Charlottesville. She is still the sixth-leading scorer in Virginia history and is tied for third in career rebounds.

“That was a leap of faith for Cathy Grimes,” Ryan said. “That was just a leap of faith. Just wanting to be part of her state institution and wanting to be a part of something that was growing and hadn’t gotten there yet and can I take it there. That’s kind of what she was doing, and I really admire that, because it takes a lot of courage. A lot of courage, and a lot of loyalty.”

Ryan has trouble putting into words what it meant for players like Ackerman and Grimes-Miller to come to Virginia. In so many ways, they were the cornerstones of a program that would very soon be prominent on the national stage. They didn’t get to take part in the ultimate success, but they set the stage.

“It was hardest for them, because they didn’t get to reap the benefits while they were here from being on great teams,” Ryan said. “But they were willing to take the risk of coming in and spending their careers toiling away at making something really special.”

 

By the time Grimes-Miller graduated, Virginia had established itself as one of the top teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In her junior season, the Cavaliers were 11-3 in conference play and reached the NCAA tournament, where they lost to North Carolina State 86-73. In her senior year, Virginia captured third in the regular season, and once again appeared in the NCAA tournament, losing this time to Tennessee.

Grimes-Miller had led the team in scoring three of her four years, and rebounding all four seasons, but when she left, there was more than enough talent to pick up the slack. With sophomore Daphne Hawkins leading the way, averaging 17 points a game, Virginia rolled off 20 wins in a row to begin the 1985-1986 season.

That’s when Record had her idea. The team was ranked No. 3 in the country, but very few fans were in U Hall to see how well Ryan had the Cavaliers playing. Record wanted to change that.

North Carolina was coming to town with a No. 15 ranking, so besides the hype surrounding the free admission and food, the game itself was pretty big.

In the days leading up to the game, Record walked into Todd Turner’s office. At the time, Turner was Record’s boss, but later, he went on to serve as athletics director at North Carolina State and Vanderbilt, before landing at his current position as the University of Washington’s athletics director.

Turner asked Record if the athletics department was prepared – if this promotion worked – from a game-management standpoint.

“None of us really knew,” Record said.

What they did know was that by that Saturday morning, a good eight or nine hours before tipoff, fans were lining up outside University Hall for the game. From what Record remembers, the line stretched all the way to Emmett Street before noon.

By the start of the game, it was really hard to tell exactly how many people showed up. The announced attendance was 11,174. Record thinks more than 13,000 people showed up. Either way, the number was well over capacity. U Hall’s official seating capacity was a little over 9,000, but for the bigger games, close to 10,000 people could squeeze in.

Unfortunately for UVa., one of those in the crowd on what will forever be known as Hot Dog Night was the local fire marshal. After he finished with his report, U Hall’s capacity was reduced to 8,392.

“So the promotion was a huge success in that we set a women’s record at that time for attendance, but it cost us about 1,800 seats for future years in University Hall,” said Terry Holland. “That means we gave away free hot dogs and free admission to that game to lose 1,800 seats times at least 300 games since then – at an average of $20 per game, that comes to well over $10 million in lost revenue over the last 20 years for UVa. What a great promotion.”

Holland was only half joking.

The game itself was what Debbie Ryan called a “Shirley McClain, out-of-body experience.”

“That just took on a life of its own,” Ryan said. “I’ve never seen anything … it was mania here. People were just everywhere. They were hanging off the rafters. It was crazy – in the bathrooms, in the hallways. Just nuts.”

In the end, North Carolina won 60-58, the only regular-season loss, as it turned out, for Virginia that season, which eventually ended with a loss to James Madison University in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

“Both teams played pretty poorly because they just weren’t used to it,” Ryan said of Hot Dog Night. “The game-winner was a kid throws the ball straight up in the air, and it went through the basket. I mean, it was insane. The whole game was insane.”

 

One of the players in that game was Kathy McConnell (now Kathy McConnell-Miller). Now the head women’s coach at Colorado, McConnell-Miller was a freshman in 1986.

She arrived at Virginia with the program on the rise, and was part of a team that won the ACC regular season three of her four years. But her timing was a little off. McConnell-Miller graduated in 1989, the year before Virginia’s first trip to the Final Four. Still, she managed to play in the NCAA tournament every year while at Virginia, and even took part in the Cavaliers’ first NCAA tournament victory, a 76-75 win in University Hall over Memphis State in 1987.

Now, in the early stages of her coaching career at Colorado, McConnell-Miller thinks a lot about the process Virginia went through and how to get her own team there.

“I definitely think that players like Kirsten Anderson and Liza Lank and myself, Donna Holt and Daphne Hawkins and Trina Thomas – I definitely think that we were part of the process,” McConnell-Miller said. “Being part of the process, I think, was important for all of us.”

McConnell-Miller grew up in a three-bedroom house in Pittsburgh, part of an Irish-Catholic family with eight kids.

An older sister, Suzie, was a year ahead of Kathy in school. Virginia started recruiting her, and both Ryan and Virginia assistant Geno Auriemma would come to the family home to visit with Suzie McConnell.

“I had a chance to sit in on all of Suzie’s home visits, obviously thinking that they were there for me, too,” McConnell-Miller said.

Her sister eventually chose Penn State, but the recruiting visits by the UVa. coaching staff paid off, because a year later, McConnell-Miller chose the Cavaliers.

And 21 games into her college career, there she was, playing in front of the largest crowd in ACC women’s basketball history.

“To represent the University in that environment was, at times, overwhelming, but probably one of the most exciting nights,” she said. “It was amazing. It was electric. Obviously the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but to see that growth, it was awesome.”

 

As for Record, she was disappointed that her promotion had resulted in lost seats at University Hall, but she was pleased that the intended result, promoting Virginia women’s basketball, had been realized.

“It was probably the point in my professional career that I realized that I could not control what went on on the court,” Record said. “All that you can do from a marketing and promotional standpoint is to bring people to the table, set the table.”

People often ask her if they ran out of hot dogs and Cokes that night. As it turned out, it wouldn’t have mattered.

“You couldn’t even get to the concession lines,” Record said. “They were so long, and the concourses in U Hall are not real wide. People were everywhere. It was hot. It was … it was a crazy night. It was a lot of fun, though.”

She still has a memento, of sorts, from that game in her office at Florida State, where she is now a senior associate athletics director.

“We gave out these horrifying little trophies of hot dogs. It was a hot dog with legs and arms. Oh it was just …”

She stopped there, searching for the right words. Only, words couldn’t even describe the trophy.

Record had one of the trophies, but gave it to Jim West, an associate athletics director at UVa., when he retired.

“When I left Virginia in 1995,” Record said, “one of the few things that I wish I had was this hot-dog trophy.”

In a way, Record got her wish. In an interview on the University of Virginia Web site about Hot Dog Night, Record mentioned giving away her trophy. The sports editor of The Cavalier Daily in 1986 saw the video clip, and, because he had played in the halftime media game, he had a hot-dog trophy. He took a picture of it and sent it to Record.

“And this is how sick I am,” Record said. “That is such a special memory that I printed the photo and laminated the little copy of the trophy, and I have it on my bookshelf in my office. People now come in and say, ‘What is that?’ I tell them it’s a long story, but a very memorable one.”


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