Campus Life

Mason Prepares for Annual Basketball “Madness”—Just Not at Midnight

By Buzz McClain

You can thank the University of Maryland for Mason Madness. The annual rally to kick off the Mason men’s and women’s basketball seasons takes place this year on Friday, October 12, at the Patriot Center.

In 1970, Maryland’s head basketball coach, the legendary Lefty Driesell, flaunted NCAA rules regarding when a coach can legally practice with his squad by scheduling a mile-and-a-half run at the school’s track on October 15 at 12:03 a.m., three minutes after the official time practice could begin.

At each Mason Madness, the men’s and women’s basketball players are introduced to the Patriot fans and take the court with fanfare. Photo courtesy of Intercollegiate Athletics.

No laser lights, no over-the-top pageantry, in fact, the coaches watched the players run for six minutes using flashlights.

Still, with little promotion, some 3,000 students turned out to watch, and a national collegiate sports tradition was born as the practice spread from campus to campus. Midnight Madness dawned on Mason in the 1980s.

At first, the Mason version of the event was held in the Physical Education Building (now the RAC), where the varsity teams played before the opening of the Patriot Center in 1985. And the rally did indeed begin at midnight and carried on into the early hours. Thankfully, Mason senior associate athletic director Jay Marsh says the NCAA rules changed and so did the start time of the festivities.

“We begin at 9 and it’s over a little after 10,” says Marsh, who is senior associate athletic director for facilities, events, and championships in Intercollegiate Athletics. “And that’s why it’s ‘Mason Madness’ and not ‘Midnight Madness.’” He sounds relieved.

Another change: The teams do not practice during the event. “It’s really to draw attention to the start of basketball season,” says Andrew Ruge, the associate athletic director who handles marketing. “It does a good job of getting people aware the season is coming. It’s a great idea by Lefty.”

In this photo from 2010’s Mason Madness, Ken Carlson, the “T-shirt Guy,” lets former president Alan Merten use the T-shirt gun. Photo by Intercollegiate Athletics.

Over the years, there have been various diversionary themes—The Blair Witch Project, TV’s Survivor, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—as well as hired performers, including Peter Rabbit the Bucket Drummer and the Amazing Christopher and his synchronized life-size puppets. These days, the show’s rousing entertainment is handled by Mason’s own Doc Nix.

Doc Nix is Michael Nickens, the assistant professor of music and director of the athletic bands who has claimed a bit of fame on and off campus for his distinctive style of dress (flamboyant vested suits and Chinese robes) and his use of a gem-capped cane as a baton, not to mention the Patriot passion he generates among his enthusiastic musicians. During Mason Madness, Nix leads a combined spirit team that includes the 60 plus-member pep band—the Green Machine—the Masonettes dance team, and the acrobatic cheerleader squads.

For last year’s Mason Madness, men’s basketball head coach Paul Hewitt (right) dressed like Green Machine director Michael “Doc Nix” Nickens. Photo courtesy of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Last year, first-year men’s head coach Paul Hewitt got caught up in the Nix excitement and made his Mason Madness debut dressed as Nix, in a matching vested suit.

The music and pageantry build anticipation for what Ruge calls “the big reveal,” when the members of the varsity basketball teams are introduced to the fans for the first time. The players emerge from a screen of smoke and lights, with their names and faces projected on video screens.

By the way, as for this year’s get-up, Coach Hewitt says, “It’s a surprise.”

A video of highlights from Mason Madness can be seen here. Doc Nix and the Green Machine’s performance last year can be seen here.

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