JOSH WEINFUSS: Big heads are a big deal around college basketball

2011-03-09T22:00:00Z JOSH WEINFUSS: Big heads are a big deal around college basketballBy Josh Weinfuss On college basketball nwitimes.com
March 09, 2011 10:00 pm  • 

It took only a few seconds for a half-dozen hands to reach up and grab Digger Phelps' head.

One by one the hands fell away until Tommy Reagan, a senior at Notre Dame, came away with the oversized mugshot of Phelps, three rows deep in the student section at the Joyce Center.

Big heads are a big deal, these days.

"I'm a senior, I've been waiting," he said at halftime of last week's Notre Dame win over Villanova, while giving his arms a rest. This is my last home game."

Yeah, that big of a deal.

The oversized, gigantic, sometimes hilarious photos of heads -- whether it's a celebrity, an athlete, a cartoon character, a wrestler, a politician, it doesn't matter -- have become a college basketball phenomenon. The pieces of cardboard have taken over the sport throughout the country, becoming staples in student sections popping up during free throws and timeouts.

"Anything you can have in your end zones when games and the margin of victories are so small, especially when people are at the foul lines, you never know if it's going to distract somebody, you never know if it's going to be something that plays into the game. Just as is the case if you don't know that it is, you don't know that it's not," said Indiana University coach Tom Crean. "That's what's fun about it."

Crean has single-handedly helped take the big head craze to new heights.

When Marquette joined the Big East, the school's athletic marketing department was looking for a way to make a splash in its first league game on Jan. 4. 2006 against Connecticut. Sitting in the lobby of Craig Pintens' office was a copy of the Dec. 19, 2005 edition of ESPN The Magazine, inside which was a photo from a San Diego State basketball game with monstrous heads being waved behind the backboard as an opposing shooter attempted a free throw.

"We said, 'Hey let's do this," said Pintens, who left Marquette for LSU two years ago. "We actually printed them at the union. We cut them out. Our process perfected itself as we went on.

"We were the only athletic department with a jigsaw."

Gaining steam

Crean loved the idea, Pintens said, and soon heads of Mike Tyson, Dwyane Wade and Mini-Me, among others, were in the stands at Golden Eagles games.

When Crean took the IU job in 2008, he brought the idea with him.

Now in Assembly Hall there are big heads of everyone from Andre the Giant to Bob Knight to Jay-Z to Miss Piggy to Lady Gaga to Doc Rivers to the Housewives of you-name-it city (That was Crean's idea).

Most schools try to include heads of current and former players and coaches.

At Notre Dame, heads were made of former Andrean and Irish star Luke Harangody for last year's senior day, coach Mike Brey, former Irish star Austin Carr and Phelps -- who had the distinction of two heads, one from his coaching days at Notre Dame and another from his current job as an ESPN analyst, with microphone and all.

The Irish haven't incorporated the bizarre and funny heads seen at other schools since ESPN GameDay came to South Bend on Jan. 29, 2009.

"Notre Dame has enough of their own notable faces where I think we should keep it in the Notre Dame family," said Kali Hofer, the coordinator of event marketing at Notre Dame. "Does that mean we will never branch out again? No, absolutely not. But for right now, this year at least, we kept them Notre Dame affiliated."

At IU, the heads have taken on a life of their own.

The head of former basketball player Eric Gordon was bouncing around at a recent game, so were heads of Crean, new IU football coach Kevin Wilson and athletic director Fred Glass. They're just four of the 200 made by the IU athletic department during the past two years, said IU Marketing Director Pat Kraft.

"We put it on steroids here," Kraft said. "We really go all out.

"It is one of those things where at first, I'll be honest, I was like 'Ehhh,' but embrace the moment. The list is unbelievable. Who's gone and what's lasted. What hasn't lasted. Who's stolen."

The heads have become so popular that Kraft lines up his interns outside Assembly Hall to watchdog daring students. At $70 each, Kraft can't afford to lose too many, but that doesn't mean someone hasn't been crafty enough to sneak out the large heads.

And Kraft said a lot were stolen when the students stormed the court after defeating Illinois in January. So far Indiana has lost Harry Caray, Wilson and a cutout of the Old Oaken Bucket.

Which head will be revealed at the next game is guarded like a state secret. Despite the best guess of other athletic department employees, Kraft said only the marketing department knows who will be unveiled next.

Students can suggest heads on Facebook and Twitter. Two weeks ago Kraft was going through two pages of ideas, laughing while he remembered some of the names.

"Being a product of the 80s and a fan of WWF, (Andre the Giant) was going to get in for sure," Kraft said with a laugh.

Kraft got the heads sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, which absorbs most of the cost, but also leads to a corporate influence -- there are Fifth Third credit card cutouts now part of the rotation at IU.

Hofer said the smaller heads at Notre Dame cost between $60-75 and the large ones are about $100, and they come out of the marketing department's budget.

In San Diego, Conor Mongan makes his big heads at Kinko's for $8 each. A bargain compared to what Notre Dame and Indiana pay, but that's what happens when you're on your own, absent of the backing of an athletic department.

Back to the beginning

But Marquette, Pintens pointed out, was very quick to give all the credit to San Diego State and Mongan, who can be considered the father of big heads.

Before the 2002-03 season, two years after he graduated from San Diego State University, he was watching the movie BASEketball, in which opposing players do whatever it takes to distract each other while they shoot. Coupled with the inspiration of ESPN television show Pardon the Interruption, during which Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser use mini heads, and the Michael Jackson trial, Mongan came up with the idea for the big heads.

The first big head was of Michael Jackson, long hair and all.

"I was thinking of the most visually disturbing elements that could get into the peripheral of the shooter and kind of throw them off," Mongan said.

Mongan knew he was onto something during a road game at Long Beach State. The free-throw shooter was ready to shoot when he saw the heads. He took a double take, bent over in laughter and then missed the free throw.

Mongan's first heads included Siegfried and Roy, and B-list celebrities.

A graphic designer, Mongan, 33, designs 95 percent of the heads used by SDSU's student section, The Show, which gained national attention when it was featured in the front of the same ESPN The Magazine issue that Pintens used for inspiration, with their big heads and all.

The first time Mongan saw a big head at another school was during a telecast of a Marquette game. Since then Mongan has watched his brainchild grow and spread throughout college basketball.

"It kinda stung at first," he said. "Now it's everywhere. It's in the promos for College GameDay on ESPN.

"I think at this point it's its own animal. It's nothing my opinion can really sway. I like the original concept of what I was trying to accomplish which was distract shooters with them. It was a visual thunderstick. I was trying to annoy people visually. We were actually creating them with a purpose."

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