Provo • Judging by appearances alone, you might never guess that this city is home to a college basketball team playing in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years.
No special signs cheer on the Brigham Young Cougars. Nothing unusual is painted blue.
Instead, children play in the sunshine at a city park, joggers enjoy the spring air and students stroll to class like any other day. Even the banners prominently spanning University Avenue downtown advertise a Provo Power Company energy-saving initiative and the upcoming "Festival of Colors" in nearby Spanish Fork, rather than superstar Jimmer Fredette and his history-making teammates.
Yet the pastoral setting around town and campus belies an unprecedented level of anticipation and excitement surrounding the Cougars, who play the Florida Gators in the Sweet 16 in New Orleans on Thursday night. The Cougs are just about the only thing anybody can talk about, it seems, and fans are sure to be gathered around every television in Utah County come game time against the Gators.
"Patients' rooms, co-workers, everyone," said Tara Hendrikson, of Provo, who works at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. "Everyone is always talking about the game and watching it. It's definitely much more than just students. It's everywhere."
And while the city might thus far lack many tangible symbols of its support for the home team predictable, perhaps, for a place with such a sober, buttoned-down reputation fans such as Hendrikson have been demonstrating their passion for the Cougars in a most uncharacteristic way.
With their wallets.
Sales of Cougar basketball merchandise especially shirts and jerseys bearing Fredette's No. 32 have skyrocketed since BYU began enjoying one of the best seasons in their history, seriously challenging the tired old stereotype of Cougars fans as tightfisted cheapskates.
"We can't keep Jimmer in stock," said Cole Evans, the manager at the Fanzz sports-apparel store at Provo Towne Center mall.
Evans said his store is on its third run of Fredette jerseys and other Cougar gear and the university bookstore is doing even better.
BYU Bookstore clothing buyer Dita Dekeyser said the Cougars sold 10 times more merchandise at the Marriott Center this season than they did last year and have sold more Fredette jerseys in the past three months than all the football jerseys they've sold in the past decade combined.
"It's something that has been crazy for us," she said, "because we've never had it before."
But what do you expect, when a team has so captured the imagination that students took to lining up outside the arena three days before games and sleeping in tents just to ensure they had the best possible seats to watch Fredette build his legend?
"I have some teachers who all came in and talked about it in class," said Devon Fitzgerald, of Provo, a student who works as a marketing assistant at the bookstore. "One of them was saying, 'Whoever thought BYU would get this far?' "
Already, though, the Cougars are having to think even bigger.
Dekeyser said the university has already prepared its orders for Final Four merchandise just in case the Cougars beat the Gators and then either Wisconsin or Butler on Saturday to snap a record streak of 26 appearances in the NCAA Tournament without reaching the national semifinals.
If that happens, demand is only going to increase, and the Cougars need to have fresh gear ready for the fans who can't seem to get enough.
"We have to be ready at the drop of a hat," Fitzgerald said.
Cougars v. Gators on TV
The BYU Cougars will play the Florida Gators in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game at New Orleans Arena, hoping to break into the Elite Eight, at 5:15 Thursday on TBS.