Flipped cars, burning couches: a brief history of destructive post-game celebrations

 Photo by Kentucky Kernel Staff

Amanda Bryant

March Madness is here and, as tradition permits, the celebration isn’t far behind.

While stray couches are looking for refuge, it is a good time to recall past celebrations centered on March Madness and the Wildcats’ success.

A destructive homecoming

Let’s go back to the UK NCAA championship win in 1978.

A 1978 Kernel editorial critical of the crowd’s actions described the scene as the victorious Wildcats flew into Lexington’s Bluegrass Airport, then Bluegrass Field:

“Jubilant drunkards left a trash-strewn path across Lexington from the moment James Lee’s game-ending dunk went through the hoop. The damage was most severe at Bluegrass Field, where several thousand fans elbowed their way into the terminal early in the morning.”   

According to a Kernel news story describing the scene in 1978, more than 7,000 UK basketball fans were waiting at the terminal to welcome home the Wildcats after they defeated Duke in the national championship.

“Ninety to 95 percent of the crowd were just loud, happy and celebrating. The other 5 percent got caught up in the excitement of the moment and began wrecking things,” said then airport manager Jim Brough to the Kernel.

“The crowds, Brough said, ripped telephones off the walls of the terminal building, broke a display case holding several historical documents donated to the airport, demolished a ledge build around heating ducts and somehow put footprints eight to 10 feet up the wall and left behind a collection of various bottles and cans that airport employees literally had to shovel out.”

Gathering at the airport for the arrival of the UK championship would be a continuing tradition for the fans to welcome their beloved Wildcats home from an NCAA trip on the road, whether they win or not.

“The DC-10 carrying the ever-so-barely vanquished University of Kentucky Wildcats was cheered before it ever touched ground. Spotted first by airport personnel high above the northeast horizon around 2:43 p.m., the USA Jet Airlines flight battled the wind, wobbled a bit and landed solidly to cheers of a small but enthusiastic crowd of 75,” according to Lexington Herald-Leader coverage from 2011.

The infamous burning couches

Couch burning has become a post-win tradition unlike any other.

According to Herald-Leader coverage from the 2012 NCAA championship win, “There are two kinds of people in this world, those who see a couch and think ‘Fire!’ and those who don’t.” Fire officials said there were 12 couches reported to be burned around campus following that win.          

Since the couch burnings, there have been numerous advisements each year to remove loose furniture from the street and remove anything that may tempt someone to burn it.

The Herald-Leader reported in 2012 that the couch burning craze could be attributed to students at West Virginia University. A column in its student newspaper from the previous year was in favor of the practice of couch burning.

“It would show the rebellious montani semper liberi (Mountaineers are always free) spirit that defines Appalachia, but within a more modern and safety-conscious framework,” said the writer, who was anonymous.

Cars beware

Along with couches and crowds at the airport, cars on the side of the streets have suffered during March Madness. In 2012, the Herald-Leader reported that police could not stop at least five cars from being turned over, set on fire or vandalized in another manner.

During the 1996 celebration in light of UK’s championship win over Syracuse, students could be seen climbing electrical poles and standing on walk/don’t walk signs on street corners, Herald-Leader archives said.

According to the archives, the Radisson Hotel in downtown Lexington had been a hot spot for the celebrations taking place that year.

In 1998 photos, students could be seen riding on hoods of cars and bursting out the windows. That year marked UK’s win over Utah for the NCAA championship. During that same celebration, the Herald-Leader reported the Lexington Fire Department had been called to a hit and run accident on East Main Street between Midland and Woodland. The man was seriously injured and early reports had it as a fatality.

Safety first

On Monday, Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers promised heavy police presence around the State Street area during Thursday’s game. Weathers also said that officers will be there to help if needed, and he offered a bit of advice to students who plan to celebrate with the crowd.

“Be responsible, take care of one another,” Weathers said. “And this isn’t about somebody getting hurt or anybody getting hurt, it’s about going out there and having fun and cheering on the Wildcats.”