How Neil Diamond’s 'Sweet Caroline' became Iowa State’s inescapable celebration song

Matthew Leimkuehler | Des Moines Register | 11:30 am CDT September 7, 2018
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Trever Ryen hears “Sweet Caroline” and automatically thinks about one thing …  

Victory.

He thinks about Iowa State’s 14-7 win against No. 4 TCU last season, in particular. The No. 25 Cyclones toppled one of the country’s top teams on national television and, under the evening lights of Jack Trice Stadium, Iowa State faithful cascaded onto the field.

Iowa State players and fans celebrate after defeating TCU 14-7 at Jack Trice Stadium Saturday, Oct. 26, 2017.
Rodney White/The Register

The celebration soundtrack? “Sweet Caroline,” of course.

“I feel like that game meant a lot more,” Ryen, a former Cyclone receiver, said. “Like ... people were screaming it.”

More Cy-Hawk coverage:

How, exactly, does a college football program come to roar Neil Diamond's 1969 pop song about Caroline Kennedy at its most jubilant moments? Sort of by accident.

Mary Pink first pulled the trigger on playing “Sweet Caroline” in 2006, she said. The associate athletics director for marketing was experimenting with songs to play between the third and fourth quarter of important games — something to give the crowd a boost.

She doesn’t remember how she stumbled upon the song that would alter Cyclone fandom for the next decade. It’s been a music staple with other teams, most notably the Boston Red Sox, but Pink said she didn’t have Fenway Park on her mind when she pressed “play.”

More: Neil Diamond went to this popular restaurant before his Des Moines concert

“It grew organically,” she said.  “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I saw this game.’ I had never been to a Boston Red Sox game.”

What she did know, however, was that the song worked. Chants of “so good!” and “Bap bap bah!” took over Jack Trice Stadium that Saturday.

“It’s that one song that you can get into whether you’re older or younger,” she said. “It’s unifying.”

Pink saw she was onto something; the song quickly made it into game day rotation. But it took a while for “Sweet Caroline” to find a permanent home in Cyclone Nation.

For a while, audio-video production put the song between the third and fourth quarter or at a pivotal, crowd-boosting moment in-between game play.

More: How AC/DC’s 'Back in Black' became the must-hear song on Hawkeye game day

Now it's reserved for a notable victory, said Nathan Terry, associate marketing director. Good times really do have to seem so good if Cyclone faithful want a sing-along.

“Everybody hears those first couple of notes and … we know what’s coming,” he said. “We play 100 songs during a game, or whatever it is … there are just some songs that resonate a certain way.”

And it’s a polarizing tradition. In 2015, Iowa Nice Guy and notable Iowa State alum Scott Siepker brutalized the song — “it’s a really fun thing to discuss and faux argue about,” he said — on a WHO-TV “SoundOFF” sports segment.

Scott Siepker introduces ISU star Stacy Frese at Hilton Madness Friday, Oct. 16, 2015.
Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register

He stands by calling the song “a bad idea even when the Red Sox use it,” but admits his defeat in turning Cyclone faithful away from Diamond’s soft rock opus.

“At this point I have lost and this isn’t going anywhere,” Siepker said, laughing. “(They) only play it when it’s in connection with winning or a really good emotion  — it’s hard to get a negative context to it.

“They have destroyed me in this battle.”  

So, despite reservations from some, Iowans can still expect to hear echoing howls of “so good” the next time the Cyclones pull off an upset under the Jack Trice lights.

“(Tradition) pays respect to the people that have built the walls of the program,” Ryen said. “It’s the building blocks of your program.”

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