Hidden on a quiet suburban road in north Durham is a white brick house with bright blue shutters. The open garage reveals a matching blue sedan. When the blue front door opens, a tall string bean of a man is standing, smiling, in a blue sweatshirt that nearly camouflages his torso against the blue front door.
All the blues are Duke blue.
This is Herb Neubauer, Duke University’s beloved “Crazy Hat Guy.”
Wait. That’s not right.
Neubauer’s story certainly starts with a hat: a blue leather fedora bought on a quick trip to Tijuana during an L.A. excursion to see a Duke basketball game. Back in Durham, the hat made Neubauer’s head sweat in the relentless heat of Cameron Indoor Stadium. (There was no air conditioning in the 1990s). The story continues with a towel, innocently brought into the stadium to mop his sweaty scalp.
And then, a fire: It raged through Neubauer’s apartment in 1994, incinerating his extensive Duke ticket collection, more than 250 Duke T-shirts, and his beloved leather hat. He replaced the towel and kept it tucked in his jeans for every game.
Not long after, he earned the name that he’s best known for today, whose call of duty is issued by thousands of students who stand across from his perch in Section 7, Row G, Seat 8.
“Crazy Towel Guy!”
It begins as a murmur from a blue student mob of smurfs and cookie monsters and jerseys and baby dolls and pigtails and mohawks and tutus otherwise known as the Cameron Crazies.
Next a little bit louder: “Crazy Towel Guy!”
“CRAZY TOWEL GUY!”
He stands, looks around, and pumps his arms until he gets enough response out of the crowd around him. He waves the towel in circles over his head.
As a student who enrolled at Duke in 1959, Neubauer’s first passion was football.
In 53 years, he missed only two or three football games, even while living and working in Richmond, Virginia.
“I was wild. We’d stay ‘til the end of the games. When everybody was leaving when they had bad streaks during the bad years, we’d give ’em hell,” he says. When his friends started to leave, he’d beg them to stay. “WHERE YOU GOING!?,” he’d say. “HAVE ANOTHER DRINK!”
The Rockingham, North Carolina native studied business administration, a major now extinct. He took jobs in Charlotte, Richmond, and Denver. After joining Food Lion, he worked his way up the corporate ladder.
In 1980, Neubauer purchased his first season ticket to Duke basketball. This was the same year that Mike Krzyzewski started coaching the Blue Devils. Just seven years later, Neubauer’s executive status and Food Lion stocks, as well as health concerns, allowed him to retire and settle back in Durham “to be a full-time Duke sports fan.”
Now “77 years young,” Neubauer has attended all but one home game of the men’s basketball team, and countless others on the road.
Neubauer has watched every Duke sport at least once. During a 2009-2010 binge, he attended 238 matches that included every home game for every Duke team, including rowing, fencing and javelin throwing. That took a lot of driving between Durham and Duke athletic sites. Although no one keeps records on such a thing, it’s safe to say probably no one else has accomplished that feat. And, safe to say, it was a one and done.
“I almost got killed a couple of times on the highway, but it was something I had to do once. My wife said, ‘Do it again, and you’ll be single’,” says Neubauer, who keeps the binder documenting every game he attended, sorted by sport.
Neubauer has been married to Judith Villare Neubauer, a native of the Philippines, for 23 years. The two met as “pen friends.” Neubauer found her photo in an Asian magazine, wrote her a letter, and soon enough, she came from overseas and the two were married. Neubauer says he fell for her because of her knowledge of sports: “That’s my life. I’m a sports junkie. Somehow she picked me.”
The two honeymooned in Orlando, to see Disney World — and a Duke football game.
Judith, a manager at Belks in Crabtree Valley Mall, is one of 10 brothers and sisters. The couple has 47 nieces and nephews. Being part of a large family inspires Neubauer’s compassion. In his 13 trips to the Philippines, Neubauer says he was so struck by the poverty that he vowed to make a change. He rebuilt Judith’s mother’s home and aspires to send at least one of every siblings’ children to college.
Neubauer supports a scholarship of his own for Duke athletes too. He sold Crazy Towel Guy towels, co-signed by Coach K., to help feed the homeless in the Durham area in 1998. With the help of students, he was able to sell 2,000 towels and raised more than $25,000.
Extreme sports fans sometimes say they would die for their favorite teams. Neubauer almost has – multiple times. He’s suffered three heart attacks and had other scares; but it hasn’t kept him from his seat in Cameron.
Neubauer had an ESPN team following him, filming a fan special in 2002, when he began to suffer from arrhythmia. When in the hospital for treatment, his doctor recognized him and joked that Neubauer would wake up a Carolina fan.
During one game in Cameron, he suffered what paramedics thought might be a heart attack. As he was being carted out, he kept looking over his shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of the scoreboard. Neubauer had select words for hospital administrators when he realized that the hospital wasn’t showing the game.
Duke basketball has changed – and Neubauer has too. Two decades ago, he could catch a lift on the team plane to games. He attended banquets, killed beers with Laettners and screamed from behind the bench with Hills. This year, he hasn’t done more than take a photo with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, because he “doesn’t want to bother them.”
With the increasing commercialization of college sports, season ticket prices have increased as the accessibility of players has decreased. In the same way, Neubauer notes how the dynamic within Cameron Indoor has shifted, especially when it comes to his call from the Crazies.
It’s a small change, but an important one to a fan obsessed with tradition. In the mid-1990s, they called for him like clockwork, twice in every game, “always at the 11-minute mark.”
Now it’s random, unpredictable. Are the Crazies, with all their traditions and routines, forgetting Crazy Towel Guy?
“This year, it’s sort of scary… I just don’t think they really understand,” Neubauer says.
Undergrads Steve Hassey and Peter Potash, leaders of a student group that keeps Crazies in line, see it differently. “We intentionally delay chanting,” they wrote in a joint email. “We want the jolt of energy he provides to carry over and inspire the team as they resume play. Just like ‘Everytime We Touch’ and the banners in the rafters, Crazy Towel Guy is a staple of the Cameron Indoor experience.”
Still, it seems we’ve reached the twilight of the Crazy Towel Guy Era, just as it is with the Age of K.
At his home, Neubauer flips through one of his many scrapbooks featuring an endless amount of photos of him with volleyball, tennis, basketball players, coaches, former athletes and the legendary coach.
“He’s a great man,” Neubauer says of Krzyzewski. “I wish I’d lived as good of a life as he does… What a void it’ll leave when he leaves.”
Speculation is rising over when Coach K will retire. People wonder about Neubauer, too.
He has it all planned out. It’s going to be big, just like his personality. But as long as the Crazies keep calling, and his health stays intact, he isn’t going anywhere.
Thankfully so because to so many, including Vice President of Student Affairs Larry Moneta, “He’s a Duke treasure.”
Besides, he’s already purchased plane tickets to Minneapolis for the Final Four.
(Photo at top by Bill Adair)