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Op-Ed: New NKU Tradition is Symbol of Collaboration & Spirit

Most college athletics programs have a tradition that students and fans can rally around during sporting events. Think: Ohio State’s dotting of the “I”, or Cincinnati’s band charging down the stadium steps. And, of course, UK has the “Y” when spelling “Kentucky“. If you are chosen to be the celebrity “Y” at a UK basketball game, well, you’re kind of a big deal.   

Enter our own Northern Kentucky University, whose Division I athletics program is on the rise. 

When basketball season began last fall, NKU launched a new tradition of sounding a 10-foot gjallarhorn before each home game.

What the heck is a gjallarhorn? It’s an historic instrument used to call the Norse into battle – and after only a few short months, it’s already clear that if you’re asked to sound the gjallarhorn before a game, you’re kind of a big deal. 

So far, celebrities who have called the Norse into battle include local elected officials, the Kentucky Secretary of State, and the Chair of the NKY Chamber of Commerce.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes flanked by NKU President Geoff Mearns & wife Jennifer Mearns

How the gjallarhorn became a new tradition is an interesting story.

Last summer NKU officials realized they needed to re-sand and repaint their basketball court to reflect the joining of the Horizon League. They also needed to reflect the arena name change from Bank of Kentucky Arena to BB&T Arena.  

“We thought, if we have to paint the court anyway, let’s have some fun with it, and create a buzz and some new traditions,” said Bryan McEldowney, Assistant Athletic Director for Communications.

So they contacted a marketing firm called The Agar Group for some advice, and came up with the concept of the gjallarhorn, modeled after the one that the Minnesota Vikings use.  

“It kickstarted an embracing of all things Norse, including the Viking ship on the court, as well as the gjallarhorn,” McEldowney said.

But a giant gjallarhorn and a Viking ship were going to costs tens of thousands of dollars, which was way out of budget.  

Enter Todd “T.J.” Johnson from Groth Music near Minneapolis. T.J. built a gjallarhorn for the Vikings and was able to build NKU’s well within budget, including the intricate sound system.  

It turns out, “sounding” a gjallarhorn is not as easy as it, um, sounds.

For one, the gjallarhorn is very difficult to play.

Enter Conrad Krieger, the student pep band director, who recorded various sound options and eventually settled on the one people hear today.   

There are several ways to sound the horn, but Brandon Hays, Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing, Promotions, & Ticketing let me in on a little secret: “Most of the time, our in-game DJ just presses a button.”  

Next, NKU had to build the Viking ship and figure out how it would transport the giant gjallarhorn into the arena.

Enter Bill Kashatus, former Director of Operations for BB&T Arena, who volunteered his time to not only sketch the ship’s design, but also to build it.

Next, they needed to decorate it.  

Enter Ron Shaw, one of the directors in the NKU Theatre department, who took care of the staining and decorating.

You see, a lot of people donated their time and talent to make this special new tradition. And in true NKU fashion, they took advantage of something that had to change anyway, got a lot of volunteers to pitch in, and pulled it off using very few dollars.

The Norse have even created two smaller versions of the gjallarhorn (2 ½ foot & 3 ½ foot), to be used at other sporting events and special events.

When you attend an NKU game these days, you can’t help but be excited. There’s a new spirit and electricity in the air. The student body is passionate about their school, and alumni are coming back with a sense of pride. 

So “Norse Up”, come check out a game, and see the gjallarhorn in action.

And if you get asked to sound it, say yes – it’s kind of a big deal.  

Brent Cooper is president of C-Forward