WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. – After the scouting meeting finished and Monmouth basketball players scattered inside the Orlando Gaylord Palms Resort Hotel, Dan Pillari spoke up. The starters and key reserves had their minds on the personnel of No. 17 Notre Dame, their opening opponent in the AdvoCare Invitational back in late November. As they contemplated their specific roles, Pillari focused on his.
“Bench meeting,” he bellowed. “My room.”
His cousin, Louie Pillari, freshman guard Tyler Robinson and junior forward Greg Noack marched to the room Pillari shared with Robinson. Television cameras had captured the foursome’s boisterous, disorganized sideline celebrations during Monmouth’s startling upset at UCLA two weeks prior. “We saw how the guys reacted off of us going crazy on the bench,” Robinson said. “We thought, ‘Well, what if we take it to the next level?’ ”
Inside the hotel room, the next level became an unlikely sensation. Never mind Ben Simmons’s ascendance, Kentucky’s latest recruiting haul or Michigan State’s efficient dominance: The most entertaining attraction in college basketball is Monmouth’s bench.
The Monmouth Bench Mob – the title the four players gave themselves – created more than a dozen intricate, choreographed group celebrations, replete with invisible props and Improv-troupe acting chops. When Monmouth toppled Notre Dame on Thanksgiving night, the result sent a ripple throughout the sport. Videos and Vines of the bench’s hilarious dances in response to three-pointers and dunks burst across the Internet and played on highlight shows. So when the Hawks visit Verizon Center on Tuesday night to face Georgetown, they arrive as a dangerous team that’s already beaten three power conference teams, yet are known primarily for four goofs on the sideline.
Last week, the campus bookstore started selling t-shirts emblazoned with the words “The Best Bench In Basketball” and silhouette depictions of four celebrations. The Twitter handle @MonmouthBench, hosted on Noack’s phone, has attracted more than 4,600 followers.
“As a whole, it’s kind of like a blur,” Noack said. “It’s really cool. I just love how much publicity it’s getting Monmouth. It’s put Monmouth on the map.”
The Monmouth bench is one of the rare occurrences in sports: something everyone can agree on. The NCAA, despite a brief alarm, supports them. Coach King Rice encourages them. Their teammates appreciate them, not minding the unusual attention they have garnered.
“It is bringing us even more together,” said senior guard Deon Jones, one of the best players in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. “We’re always talking about it after the game. It shows how everybody is on board for the team, whether you’re playing or on the bench. Because those guys are doing it for us. They didn’t do that just to get media attention. They were doing it just to pump us up. And it happened to blow up like this, which is awesome.”
‘We’re not even in the game’
Monmouth’s bench revelry traces to last season. Then a freshman, Pillari would greet Max DiLeo, a former walk-on who became a senior captain, as DiLeo walked off the court if a Monmouth run forced an opponent to call time out. They would perform an intricate handshake, or they would fence one another with imaginary swords, or DiLeo would pretend to throw a baseball and Pillari would swing an imaginary bat.
“Dan is probably the funniest guy I know and is always the center of attention,” DiLeo, now playing professionally in Germany, wrote in an email. “When you have that personality and you’re put into a role that he is in to cheer on the team like that, he’s gonna have fun with it and get creative.”
Noack, a scholarship player, grew close to the Pillaris, both walk-ons, as he had to sit out last season. Robinson’s energy meshed perfectly with theirs. In the season-opening victory at UCLA, their closeness manifested in raucous sideline behavior. Entering their showdown with Notre Dame, they decided to channel their spirit.
“We were like, ‘We should do something crazy,’ ” Noack said. “We were the only people walking in that game saying, ‘We could win this game.’ We believed the entire time.”
So after the team scouting report, they headed to Pillari and Robinson’s room. They tossed out ideas ranging from individual celebrations (acting as superheroes) to group skits (sitting down and rowing an imaginary boat). They pretended Dan’s bed was the bench. They hatched one called “Trophy Fish,” which has become a favorite: Dan Pillari leaps into the arms of Louie and Noack, eyes closed and limp like a dead fish, and Robinson pretends to snap a photograph.
“Dan jumping up and Greg and Louie catching him was kind of difficult at first,” Robinson said, “But we got it down.”
Not every idea stuck. Dan Pillari suggested rolling a towel into a ball and pulling it from between a teammate’s legs. “Towel Birth” never made it out of the hotel room.
“We laughed at it,” Noack said. “But we were like, ‘I don’t know. I think that’s a little far.’ ”
Noack wrote down the keepers on paper ripped from a hotel notepad. In the locker room, Noack stuffed the list in his sock. On the bench, he pulled it out to consult and remind his three compatriots which celebration would come next. Noack brings between 13 and 15 moves into each game. Ideally, there are no repeats.
During a game, Noack might call out “Heart Attack”: All four players celebrate a three-pointer by sticking three fingers in the air, and one suddenly grabs his chest and falls to the ground. The other three Mob members gather around him, and Robinson rubs his fingers together, hits the fallen member’s chest and “revives” him. They all signal to the crowd that all is well.
Or Noack might call out the classic “Hawks”: Everyone waves their arms and leaps in the fashion of their mascot. Or he might call out “Superheroes,” when they pick characters to emulate – Robinson gained renown for pulling imaginary arrows from an imaginary quiver and shooting them from an imaginary bow as Hawkeye.
The choreographed celebrations come after three-pointers. Other big plays are improvisation, but even those have spread. After Jones’s massive dunk against USC, the bench erupted and Noack sat on the floor, eyes bugging like a terrified child. In another game, Dan Pillari rolled into a handstand. Noack instinctively grabbed his legs and pulled them apart and pushed them back together, contorting his face each time. And so “Scissor Handstand” was born.
The breadth and hilarity of the celebrations, combined with the pluck and skill of a team taking down two heavyweights, became irresistible. They became Internet sensations, campus celebrities and the subject of a feature on “SportsCenter.”
“It’s definitely weird, because I’ve never heard of SportsCenter or anybody interviewing the bench,” Robinson said. “I don’t think it’s hit us how big we blew up for a second, mainly because our main focus is the team and winning games.”
Surprising sources took notice. At Canisius, the student section directed heckling not toward the court, but at Monmouth’s bench. “It was, like, weird,” Robinson said. “Because we’re not even in the game.” For the entire game, students hurled invective at them. Even as the Hawks lost, the Bench Mob kept up their cheering.
At a team dinner afterward, starting junior guard Je’lon Hornbeak addressed the foursome. “I just want to let you guys know I appreciate everything you guys do,” Hornbeak told them, Robinson recalled. “All the celebrations, I love them. The people love them. It definitely gets us going on the court. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Drawing the law’s attention
Against Dayton, players on the bench noticed a ref looking over his shoulder at their bench and chuckling at their theatrics. For a brief moment, it appeared a different brand of officiating attention might end their fun.
A head of officials from one conference wrote to the NCAA to clarify the rules pertaining to bench celebrations. NCAA and rules officials exchanged emails to determine the answer. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, an ardent NCAA critic, heard about the conversation and reported on Twitter that the NCAA was in discussions to rewrite “bench decorum rules to curtail celebrations” of Monmouth’s bench.
But the NCAA never actually considered changing rules in the middle of the season, NCAA Director of Media Coordination David Worlock said. There was internal discussion to clarify the existing rule, but NCAA officials quickly determined they would continue to allow Monmouth’s celebrations.
“Not only in my position with the NCAA, but also me as a fan of the sport, this is what college basketball is clamoring for,” Worlock said. “This is a great thing. For anybody to want to rain on this parade, it would have been ridiculous.”
Monmouth’s sideline festival rolled on, anticipation building. A scheduling quirk meant their first home game didn’t come until Sunday, against MAAC rival Wagner. Sitting in the empty stands last week, Robinson looked ahead to seeing how fellow students responded to the bench’s antics. “I. Can’t. Wait,” he said.
School officials hoped for a large turnout, but worried an NFL Sunday and 69-degree weather might keep fans away. Students tailgated in the parking lot and filled the place by 1 p.m., an hour before tipoff. To accommodate all the students, they had to convert a regular section into a second student section. Monmouth packed 3,911 fans into the Multipurpose Activity Center, the fifth sellout since the gym opened in 2009. Afterward, the Asbury Park Press declared it the best basketball experience in New Jersey.
The starters and the Bench Mob both fulfilled their roles. The Hawks won, 73-54, and the bench unveiled a new entry on the list inside Noack’s sock. When he yelled “Joust,” Noack and Dan Pillari jumped on the backs of Robinson and Louie Pillari. Robinson and Louie charged at each other, and Noack knocked Pillari off his “horse” with an invisible lance.
“The best way to describe it,” sports information director Gary Kowal said, “would be organized chaos.”
When Robinson walks into class, his classmates shoot imaginary arrows at him. Noack gets stopped on campus to pose for pictures. In Germany, DiLeo’s Spanish and Greek teammates tell him their friends keep asking if they’ve seen the Monmouth videos. On Tuesday, Monmouth will send a bus of 50 fans and students to Georgetown. On the quaint campus hard by the Atlantic, it has become cool to warm the bench.
“We’re not really worried about being on TV or anything like that,” Robinson said. “But it’s definitely fun.”