It began innocently enough, the brainchild of an overzealous sports information director who wanted to create something unique for college hockey while enhancing the game experience for the fans at Houston Field House.
The late Jim Greenidge put his plan into motion on Feb. 25, 1978 for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s home game with New Hampshire, and the “Big Red Freakout!” was born.
It was an instant success, a standing-room crowd of 4,594 cherry-clad Zamboni chasers bearing witness to the inaugural event as the Engineers delivered a thrilling, 6-5, overtime verdict under then head coach Jim Salfi.
The tradition has survived and thrived for more than three decades regardless of the social, economic or competitive climate surrounding the Troy, N.Y., campus and remains the most anticipated sporting event of the season.
It has become the focal point of the schedule for RPI players, and a combination of Mardi Gras, Halloween and New Year’s Eve rolled into one for students at the prestigious engineering school.
Some come dressed in full spandex body suits of red, many with faces painted half cherry-half white, some with their hair dyed in the school colors. You name it, you may see it here.
“I think it is one of, if not the best, traditions in all of college hockey,” said RPI head coach Seth Appert, who spent several seasons as an assistant coach at the University of Denver after playing at Ferris State.
“Many programs have big games or rivalries, but none that I have seen bring an entire campus, community and alumni base together like the Big Red Freakout!”
The school has made it part of the tradition to give free gifts to each Freakout patron going through the turnstiles – everything from hats to pompoms, foam fingers to thundersticks, rattles to megaphones and horns.
The latter accoutrements, combined with a well-primed student body, have usually resulted in frenetic noise levels designed to distract and disrupt the opposition. A lively pep band that sometimes grows to near-orchestral size on Freakout nights adds to the deafening decibel levels.
The scenario finally became so intimidating after some 3,500 stadium horns helped RPI blow Brown off the ice in 1987 that the NCAA created the “RPI Rule,” which put a restriction on the type of gift that could be given to fans at hockey games, in effect banning horns and similar noisemakers from college rinks.
Still, RPI’s version of the “Cameron Crazies” gives the Engineers at least a subliminal home-ice advantage. RPI is 19-10-5 over the course of the event, including a remarkable 17-game unbeaten Freakout streak from 1990-2007.
In the 25th and perhaps most memorable renewal, RPI trailed archrival Clarkson, 3-0, with 12 minutes to play. Inspired by the raucous crowd, the Engineers tied the game in regulation and won in overtime.
“That was probably the loudest I’ve ever heard this building in 10 years,” said Jeff Morris, a former student and currently a member of the Houston Field House technical staff. “It was crazy.”
The 1984 Freakout was one of the biggest blowouts in the event’s history, a 10-2 thrashing of St. Lawrence. The following season an all-time record crowd of 5,506 piled into the Field House to see Adam Oates and company whip Yale, 8-2, en route to the school’s second NCAA Hockey Championship.
This year’s Freakout only added to the school’s lore as the Engineers got the upper hand on Yale, this time arriving in Upstate New York sporting the title as the No. 1 team in the nation.
“It’s considered a big game because it’s Freakout,” Appert said. “It was Freakout as a big game with two top 10 teams in the country.”
The Engineers didn’t squander the opportunity, shocking the Bulldogs, 5-2, in front of yet another frenzied Freakout sellout crowd, many of who remained after the game when they are allowed to go onto the ice and skate or just to celebrate. A hefty contingent of alumni, including several members of RPI’s Frozen Four team of 1961, were on hand for the game, and virtually everybody wearing red went home happy.
“There was great energy in the building,” said RPI’s junior goaltender Allen York, who was playing in his first Freakout.
“Plus we were playing the No. 1 team, so that probably contributed to it. It was really fun to play in, like a playoff game. They [the crowd] are always awesome, but when it’s packed like that and it’s a special event, it’s way better.”
A new Daktronics four-sided video scoreboard made the experience even more unique for this year’s Freakout foray. And if you weren’t already convinced there’s something freaky about this Freakout phenomenon, an even more bizarre event took place at the first intermission.
Jason Leboeuf, a resident of Tupper Lake, lined up at center ice for one try in the Puck Shot game, in which one lucky fan gets one shot to try to put the disc through a hole only several centimeters larger than the puck. He shot. He scored. He drove off with a 2011 Honda CRV Hybrid.
“I just wanted to shoot at the middle of the net and not embarrass myself,” said Leboeuf, who was attending his third straight Freakout.
The last time that happened? Nobody could remember the exact date, but, of course, it came during another Freakout.
“The Freakout is an incredibly unifying event on campus,” said RPI Athletic Director Jim Knowlton.
“This year beating the No. 1 team in the country added to the excitement, and we’re all surprised that the roof was still attached by the end of the game.”