Fourth-year Tyler Kenney built the Antourage, bringing an unfamiliar spirit to UCI’s student section.
“De-Fense!” Stomp, stomp. “De-Fense!” Tyler Kenney shouts at UC Irvine students, striding as if doing lunges, but thudding the aisles simultaneously. He’s challenging them, every one of them.
It is crunch time at UCI’s Homecoming Game on Jan. 12. The Anteaters are about to lock up a 79-69 win over Cal State Northridge in what would end up being their third of nine wins at home, a perfect home record in the Big West Conference. UCI has a comfortable lead, but Kenney is doing his best to make use of intense glares, shouting, stomping and peer pressure to get a rise out of the student section. He wants anyone who isn’t complying to feel uncomfortable.
Whether your reaction is, “Get a load of this guy,” “Move, asshole” or “You tell ’em, Tyler,” the fourth-year political science major doesn’t care.
What mattered most this season for Kenney was creating a home court advantage for the Anteaters, a legacy he has built, but it will only continue if Anteaters of the present and future continue to look like complete fools, to take themselves out of their comfort zones and to unite as Irvine’s sixth man — built by the students for the athletes.
“We wouldn’t have the Antourage without Tyler,” senior men’s basketball player Daman Starring said. “It takes one person to step up and make changes in any situation, and he stepped up big.
“It’s not easy getting up at games and being the only person yelling and making outlandish comments, but he did that and created a movement at UCI. I feel like so many more people are excited to get away from studying to make a fool out of themselves and lose their voice at games all because of him.”
What makes Kenney different than your typical fan?
“I can make the best out of situations,” Kenney said. “I put myself in the best situations and I’ve tried to make the most of the organizations I’ve come to love on this campus,” Kenney said. “I know this campus well enough to make a difference.”
Like he said, Kenney has made the best out of situations. Exhibit A: Kenney, a hardcore sports fan, attends UCI, a school that is nowhere near UCLA’s record 125 Division I National Championships, but finds a way to turn a lackluster Anteater fanbase around in four years’ time. Few could have imagined the growth in student support that Irvine has seen in recent years, and much of that has to do with Kenney.
“[Tyler] seems irreplaceable right now, from his energy to the work he does behind the scenes,” athletics marketing intern Aaron Wong said.
In nine Big West Conference home games for the men’s basketball team this season, UCI averaged 1,997 fans per game, ranging from students to alumni, faculty and community members. Winning didn’t make a huge difference in terms of attendance this season. UCI went from 3-5 at home in the Big West in 2012 to 9-0 in 2013; attendance jumped 165 people per contest, up from average of 1,832 onlookers in 2012.
The crowd effect in 2013 wasn’t based on pure numbers. It ranges from the chant, “I believe that we will win,” to trash talking, to reading the school newspaper while opponents’ names are being read off during pregame, to a hoarse “U-C!” belted out by Kenney, followed by a crowd full of “Irvine!” echoes. Sure, the student section improved in quantity, but it made larger strides in quality. Many of these traditions had been practiced throughout time in Irvine, but had fallen dull in recent years. Kenney helped bring spirit back to UCI, then took to it a whole new level.
The great “Field of Dreams” line stated, “If you build it, they will come,” but in UCI’s case, “If they come, you will win.” Irvine was 17-2 this season when playing in Orange County. Outside of the OC, the Anteaters were 4-14. That should tell you something — Kenney and the Antourage made an impact in 2013.
For Kenney, it all started in November of 2010 at the women’s soccer team’s NCAA Tournament first round matchup against Arizona State University.
With ASU up by one goal in the first half, a group of half-naked ASU fans paraded in front of UCI fans, gloating. Kenney looked around and saw a lifeless UCI crowd. Alongside the track team’s Vanessa Houston, who later transferred to Sacramento State, Kenney began to challenge UCI fans. The team responded, rallying back for two goals by then-sophomore Devon Delarosa to catapult the team to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before eventually falling in the Sweet 16 — the best finish in school history.
“Cheerleaders wanted my name and wanted me to join the cheer team after that game,” Kenney said. “I called them out and asked why they weren’t even there. They weren’t even cheering. It lit a fire under my ass that students came from ASU and showed more spirit than a home crowd less than a mile away from freshman dorms.”
Kenney was ready to stand out, but whether anyone would stand with him was the question.
Growing up in Costa Mesa, Kenney attended Newport Harbor High School. When he smiles, huge dimples appear. You’d swear he was a child actor or at least in a milk commercial at some point. His hair is long and dirty blonde, often hanging up in the breeze like a Frisbee trying to avoid landing.
For four years, Kenney has played on the UCI club Ultimate Frisbee team, spending much of his free time on weekdays throwing flicks and backhands across the upper lawn in Aldrich Park. Just like the seniors on the men’s basketball team, Kenney and the ultimate club still haven’t defeated UCLA in these four years. He connected quickly with the team’s struggle and latched on as the team’s number one fan.
There’s something else you should know. This might not be as earth-shattering as finding out the truth about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Pam Anderson’s breasts — but they’re all fake, just as Peter the Anteater is not a real Anteater. Kenney served as UCI’s Peter the Anteater mascot for three years. Last November, assistant marketing director Sharitie Williams referred to Kenney as “the perfect representation of what [the athletic department] looks for in a Peter.”
Kenney tried out to be Peter in the spring of 2011 after women’s soccer player Jackie Samis convinced him to give it a shot. He got hooked pretty quickly.
“I attended every game that I could because I started to develop relationships,” Kenney said. “Big Mike Wilder and I took [humanities] core together and we were study buddies. The athletes welcomed me into their community because finally someone was recognizing their passions. Derick Flowers appreciates it more than anyone. He came up to me after the game at UCLA this year and was so sincere about how much the guys appreciated it.”
But it wasn’t all zots and “Gangnam Style” dance moves. There Kenney was in 2011, in a pitted out costume with less than 100 fans in attendance at a women’s basketball game, trying to incite some spirit. Behind the basket, Houston sat cheering for UCI and stood up to stomp up and down like a madwoman when the opposing team went to the free-throw line. They were alone together in their spirit.
“Vanessa was the only reason I was willing to work those games as Peter,” he said.
When Houston transferred, Kenney continued on as Peter.
For almost three years, he sweated profusely in what has to be one of the hottest and smelliest outfits on campus. Inside, it’s overwhelming, requiring copious amounts of water, plenty of breaks and a change of clothes after games to substitute for his drenched t-shirts. Thankfully his drawers were overflowing with free UCI T-shirts.
Having wrestled for four years in high school, Kenney was used to sweat suits. He danced, jumped threw up the zot sign and embraced little children with big hugs. But at some point or another, Kenney realized that he had so much more potential as a fan than he did as the team’s mascot.
Instead of losing his voice, he was drenched in sweat. His passionate glare wasn’t the portrait fans got when they looked at a jovial anteater with a smirk. Inside the suit, he wanted to challenge people and scream at them, “Get up! Get off your asses and support your team!”
You can imagine what the athletic department would have said if he had spoiled the immaculate reputation of Peter. Imagine getting flipped off by Mickey Mouse.
“I was told being Peter was the best way to show my passion for athletics,” Kenney said. “I made $10 an hour. It was torture. At the end of the day, it wasn’t worth it for someone who was cooped up. I got damn good at that job. I cut the ribbon for the Newkirk Alumni Center. I needed the money bad and was spread so thin, but eventually I was told by the athletics interns that I was trapped. I wished all along that I could cheer, which was really hard to do when you’re not allowed to talk at all.”
This season, Kenney began a transformation back to his sophomore self that helped inspire the comeback against ASU, breathing life back into a team from the bleachers. He would routinely cheer as Tyler the Antourage President before transitioning to Tyler the Peter the Anteater at halftime in front of what he called “a dying crowd.”
Once he said goodbye to the Peter suit in January, Kenney found an edge and an objective.
He wanted to turn the opera into a rock concert, something he’d later accomplish at the Big West Tournament with members of his Antourage screaming at opposing players, “Hey McCloud, you suck!” and “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!” when a call didn’t go in UCI’s favor.
Kenney led buses full of fans in yellow shirts to battle at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The athletic department secured over 500 free student tickets for UCI students. Playing in home-away-from-home games, the men’s basketball team advanced to the Big West Tournament title game for the first time since 2008, falling just shy of upsetting No. 2 Pacific in the conference championship.
After practically painting an entire side of the arena gold, the crowd roared as the Anteaters walked off the court, defeated, but appreciative.
For Coach Russell Turner, one of his first priorities at UCI was enlivening a lackluster fanbase. “What can I do?” was always the question on Turner’s mind. It turned out that all the Anteaters needed was one passionate person, who just so happened to be a senior silenced for three years by a Peter the Anteater costume.
Hours after losing to Pacific, Starring — who had just missed out on his final chance to play in the NCAA Tournament — took to Facebook to express his appreciation for Kenney.
“Tyler, you are the man bro! Our season and fan support would have never been where it’s at without your help,” Starring wrote.
As Kenney approaches graduation, 7 feet 5 inches tall center Mamadou Ndiaye is set to replace Adam Folker in the post, Dominique Dunning may step in for Starring at guard and Chris McNealy patches the gap Mike Wilder leaves behind at forward. But who replaces Tyler Kenney?
The Antourage executive board consisted of five students this year, four of whom will return next fall with Kenney graduating.
“We started the first official student group in 2002, which was CIA — the Completely Insane Anteaters,” assistant athletic director of corporate relations, Robby Ray, said. “The name and the colors of the T-shirts have changed a couple of times, but our support has never changed.
“This year’s fan support was consistent and strong, and much more passionate,” Ray added. “I think we might have had the best Big West Tournament crowd in school history. The board of five students for Antourage infused that passion and Tyler was the driving force behind that passion. I look forward to building on what we did this year with four of the five executive board members coming back next year.”
It’s been a rocky road for Kenney as a UCI fan, just as has been the case for the UCI basketball team who has seen its downs and now ups in recent years.
Kenney has wrestled with the department to shift more of its focus on the students. The reality is that undergraduate students enter home games free of charge when presenting their ID cards, and are therefore not a major source of profit for the athletic department in the near future. Kenney’s priority is for the students to remain a priority to the athletic department.
“Marketing to the students doesn’t increase profits for athletics,” Kenney said. “My concerns are not about one donor, but about 500 students who will someday remember these amazing times in the Antourage. The students will write checks 30 years down the road when we’re the ones who are CEO’s.
“Unfortunately it’s just not working for the change that I and a lot of proud Anteaters want to see.”
Hard on himself, Kenney still has unfinished business at UCI. He hopes for the continuation of a UCI student movement that he helped create. The movement demands credibility from the students to take ownership of their student section.
“We need to see a culture shift in Irvine. If housing drilled it into residents’ heads that instead of going bowling or to the beach, they could walk 100 yards from their dorms to the UCI baseball game, or if campus tours went through athletics, or if faculty gave one extra credit point to students who attend a women’s basketball game, then we will see a change,” he said.
Kenney explains that after he graduates, the Antourage organization needs to establish a new spirit leader to replace him.
“I want to continue to find a bunch of people with that passion that I have,” Kenney added.
Tyler Kenney had a great run as Peter the Anteater, but it ended at the right time. In his last game as Peter in January, Kenney took a punch square in the family jewels by a screaming toddler. Kenney was there alongside the Anteaters through their struggles and their triumphs, sometimes in a mask, other times in face paint, so it was fitting that he experienced the same pit in his stomach while bent over in a sweaty Anteater costume that the Anteaters endured after falling just shy of their first March Madness in school history.
Kenney will now attempt to do what the men’s basketball team still hasn’t accomplished — advance to a major national tournament. On April 20 and 21, UCI’s men’s Ultimate Frisbee club team is hosting the sectionals at the Anteater Recreation Center.
“This is our chance to make the big dance,” Tyler said, beaming.
He then went on to say, “Men’s volleyball and baseball won tonight. Two wins in one night!”