The fans in the standing-room-only crowd are as loud as a library for as long as it takes Taylor's basketball team to score 10 points. But once that happens, there's no shushing them. As soon as Taylor hits double digits, the students erupt into bedlam, and they don't stop screaming and dancing until it's time for the post-game Christmas party on campus.
Friday's racket known as "Silent Night"—the game ends with a student singalong of the Christmas carol—is very, very quietly a tradition unlike any other. What began as a lark is now a holiday in its own right at this evangelical Christian school about two hours and a world of college sports away from Indiana's top-ranked hoops team.
"Other than a game-winning shot," said former Indiana player and coach Dan Dakich, "I think it's the coolest thing out there."
Silent Night is so admired that the concept recently spread to big-time college sports. When Illinois hired Taylor alumnus John Groce as its basketball coach this season, the student section normally known as the "Orange Krush" welcomed him by briefly renaming itself the "Orange Hush" and keeping quiet for the first four minutes and two seconds of his Nov. 9 debut. "It's a little bit of an eerie feeling when you're waiting in stone-cold silence and could hear a pin drop," Groce said.
Timothy P. Riethmiller The Taylor University basketball team huddles in front of a quiet crowd before last year's Silent Night game.
The novelty of Silent Night, which falls on Friday when Taylor plays Akron-Wayne, goes beyond just attending a college-basketball game and not uttering a peep. Silent Night drew 2,265 fans last year, by far the most of the season for the Upland, Ind., university with fewer than 2,000 undergraduates that competes in the NAIA, a rung below the NCAA. Taylor coach Paul Patterson celebrates Silent Night by going barefoot to raise money for charity. Afterward, the wild rumpus continues in the school's dining hall, where Taylor students sing carols, eat holiday cookies and make ginger-bread houses. And this unorthodox tradition belongs to a deeply conservative school where students agree to abstain from drunkenness, gossip, premarital sex, "homosexual behavior" and "social dancing," according to Taylor's student code of conduct.
Taylor officials trace Silent Night back to 1995. Steve Brooks, an assistant coach at the time, was previously the men's basketball coach at Houghton College, and he recalls coaching on a snowy night against Geneva College's version of Silent Night, which he says included pennies and milk jugs. "It wasn't done like it is at Taylor," Brooks said.
Former Geneva coach Jerry Slocum, who now coaches at Youngstown State, remembers the crowd standing until Geneva scored but not remaining quiet. Either way, Brooks brought the concept to Taylor as a way to increase attendance at games.
Silent Night was combined then with the school president's annual Christmas bash—now called Habecker's Holipalooza after current president Eugene Habecker—as a way for students to unwind on the last day of fall-semester classes. The game's sponsor is similarly wholesome: Silent Night coincides with the Ivanhoe Classic, a basketball tournament put on for the last 29 years by Ivanhoes, an Upland restaurant with 100 types of ice-cream sundaes and shakes.
Over time, as Taylor students settled on 10 points as the tipping point for chaos, Silent Night festivities took on a life of their own. In the last two years, as videos and photos of Silent Night went viral through social media, the rest of the world noticed Taylor's little ritual. Now what happens around the court is a bigger deal than the basketball. "It's almost like the Leviathan," said Taylor spokesman Jim Garringer. "You're just waiting for the thing to come to life."
The student section during Silent Night, after it finally erupts, is a moving mishmash of neons, pastels and Christmas colors. Underneath the baskets are elaborate nativity scenes. Some people dress up in pajamas and togas, others in penguin costumes and elf regalia. Last year, a pack of gorillas chased a banana during a timeout. At halftime, a flash mob from a women's dormitory line-danced to "Drummer Boy," Justin Bieber's version of the holiday classic, and the teenage heartthrob tweeted a link of the YouTube clip to his millions of followers.
Taylor University Taylor fans break their silence during the 2010 game.
Taylor's players admit they rewind the Silent Night film—not to watch the game and break down their performance but to spot the wackiest getups around the gym. Patterson, the Taylor coach, doesn't notice the shenanigans, either.
"I'm two heartbeats away from a stroke most of the time during a game," he said.
The patron saint of Silent Night is Taylor guard Casey Coons, who had never heard of the tradition before he arrived on campus and only learned about the pandemonium when Patterson made his players watch film of previous Silent Nights. The 10th point in the last three Silent Nights came the same way: with Coons at the free-throw line. "It's not like a pressure where you win or lose on the free throw," Coons said. "But there's definitely some added pressure."
Coons wasn't the only one taken aback by his first Silent Night experience. It can also be disorienting for the visiting team—especially when the opponent has no idea an impromptu carnival is coming.
Last year, Ohio Mid-Western College coach Ricardo Hill couldn't figure out why Taylor's gym was so mobbed and so muted. He had even less of an idea how long the blissful silence would last. "I definitely went in blind, so it was a real eye-opener," Hill said. A year later, despite losing the game, Ohio Mid-Western players still tout videos of their opponent's ritual to visiting recruits.
"Out of all the places I've played or coached," Hill said, "that was by far the most electric atmosphere I've ever been in."
Silent Night is a one-night-only affair. Taylor inevitably plays its next game in front of a small crowd unconcerned with how loud it cheers. All is calm. All is bright. "Saturday is almost 180 degrees different," Patterson said.
But that next game is part of the Silent Night routine in a way. There's a reason why Patterson's team always makes it to the championship round of the Ivanhoe Classic on Saturday: Taylor has never lost on Silent Night.
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared December 7, 2012, on page D4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Quietest Tradition in Sports.