The smells of spring and coffee wafted in the Corner breeze Tuesday, the surprisingly clean morning-after streetscape belying the night before when students and townies jammed shoulder to shoulder to celebrate the first men’s basketball national championship in school history.
Off of the main drag, yards decorated in a party motif of crushed cheap beer cans, smashed red Solo cups and assorted detritus of jollity testified to the night’s gaiety.
Although the charred remains of two sacrificed couches lay in a driveway near Grounds, there were no burned-out hulks of torched cars, no broken windows and no looted stores.
Although no figures were readily available, police said there were few arrests and little vandalism.
Virginia’s celebrations stood in stark contrast to other college town celebrations over the past 20 years.
“I don’t know why that is,” said Delegate David Toscano, D-Charlottesville. “I guess we’re just exceptional.”
Toscano’s career in Charlottesville politics spans the Civil Rights era to the UVa student bacchanalian feast of Easters in the 1970s and the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist rally.
“There have been times when student behavior crossed a line, but they never really got that out of hand [Monday night],” he said. “I think it was just that people were happy really enjoying the moment.”
Enjoy they did. After the game’s end, every light pole and bridge near the Corner was up for grabs. Shirtless men scaled the side of the 14th Street bridge. Three people took over the 14th Street NW traffic light pole, waving a Cavaliers flag over the mass of bodies.
Others clambered up smaller light poles lining University Avenue. Even the dump truck blocking University Avenue to protect the crowds from vehicles became a momentary jungle gym.
Fans stood on the truck to take in vistas of the sea of people until police came to clear them off. As officers worked to remove people from one part of the truck, others climbed onto it from the opposite side in what appeared to be a friendly game of whack-a-mole.
Jim Carpenter, whose professional career in Charlottesville has spanned decades as a news, forensics and portrait photographer, said the thousands-strong party that spilled into the street Monday night was fun.
“We saw police keeping folks safe, I saw [trucks] parked in place to block the roads, I heard a church bell ringing and finally saw a mass of humanity around the 14th Street bridge,” he said. “There were people hanging from trees. There were folks dancing in the street. There were folks singing. There were students and townsfolk just having fun celebrating the big win.”
Carpenter said he asked a Charlottesville police officer about the crowd.
“He smiled and said ‘they are just having fun and so am I.’ It was a wonderful experience,” he said.
Charlottesville’s reaction to an NCAA basketball championship was devoid of the violence and vandalism that have become synonymous with celebrations of professional and collegiate sporting events.
In 1999, Michigan State University fans, who are credited with starting the dubious tradition of couch burning the 1980s, rioted when the Spartans lost to Duke in the final game.
Some 10,000 Spartan fans raged through the East Lansing streets starting furniture-fed bonfires, torching eight cars and a police cruiser, breaking store windows, destroying parking meters, hurling cans of frozen beer and looting a nearby Taco Bell for tacos. Police arrested 132 revelers.
MSU’s history of violent celebrations includes games in 1998, 1999, 2005, 2013 and even this year’s win over Duke that put the Spartan’s into the Final Four.
They’re not alone. In 2012, dozens were arrested and about 20 hospitalized when the University of Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Kansas Jayhawks for the basketball championship.
In 2014, Wildcat fans rumbled again with 31 arrested and two dozen injured when Kentucky beat rival Louisville in the NCAA Final Four. Two days later, they did it again when their team lost to the University of Connecticut.
As the defeated fans rampaged, so did the winners. About two dozen UConn fans were arrested in that school’s celebration.
Just last week, When Texas Tech beat MSU to get into the championship game against UVa, fans in Lubbock, Texas hit the streets, shedding clothing and setting it ablaze before moving to the ubiquitous burning couch.
When the crowed tipped over a car and immolated a pile of pilfered Lime scooters, Lubbock police resorted to the same tactic used to disperse the rioters at MSU and Kentucky; tear gas.
Texas Tech fans were docile and quiet after their team’s loss to UVa Monday, however.
Toscano said Charlottesville’s celebration should dispel much of the reputation earned after the racial violence of Aug. 12, 2017.
“This was not a contentious event. It was a gathering of people who came together to celebrate part of our community,” he said. “There were no white suprematists and no antifa, only happy fans in orange and blue T-shirts celebrating together as a community."
For Carpenter, who covered Charlottesville civil unrest in the 1970s, including clouds of tear gas, Monday’s celebration was a great way to celebrate his 69th birthday.
“I’ve seen the worst of the worst of people,” he said. “What I saw Monday night was a community celebrating together. It was the best of the best.”
Staff writers Katherine Knott and Allison Wrabel contributed to this story.