Bulldogs Beat

Aboard the ‘Sweaterman Van’: How this UGA basketball fan’s legacy lives through Uber

Jesse Kenney, also known as “Sweater Guy” cheers for the team during the Bulldogs’ game at Stegeman Coliseum against the Auburn University in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Feb. 06, 2016.
Jesse Kenney, also known as “Sweater Guy” cheers for the team during the Bulldogs’ game at Stegeman Coliseum against the Auburn University in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Feb. 06, 2016. Special to the Telegraph

As Jesse Kenney pulled into a spot on Broad Street to drop off a group of sorority girls and finish an Uber ride, he was bribed with a $5 tip by each passenger. They wanted him to perform jumping jacks in the middle of the street.

Yes, jumping jacks, you read correctly. Kenney, an Uber driver on weekend nights around the Athens area, is a staple in Stegeman Coliseum for Georgia basketball games. He’s widely-known as “Sweaterman” for sporting a red sweater with black chevrons to games since it was purchased in Las Vegas in 2000. The attire is complemented by Kenney ferociously jumping up-and-down from his seat in the third row of Section U in the Bulldogs’ arena, although he admits to using the aisle beside his seat due to his ritual.

In this instance, Kenney pulled to the side, got out of his Dodge Caravan and did five-or-six jumping jacks as he would on any basketball game day (although at a much-lesser volume). He did it without much thought in plain view of those enjoying the nightlife of downtown Athens.

“They tipped me 10 bucks on the app,” Kenney recalled, with a chuckle for one of his funniest memories as a driver. “It was pretty cool.”

Kenney decided to add Uber excursions to his weekly workload as an opportunity to spend time with students. Well, and for doing what he loves most: talking Georgia basketball. As the clichè goes, Kenney eats, breathes and sleeps the program. Uber became an obvious avenue to spread the positivity surrounding it.

He registered with the ride-sharing service in March 2018, about 11 months ago and right before first-year head coach Tom Crean joined the program. Kenney drives larger groups of students via the Uber XL service to hangouts downtown, sorority houses or to a Cloudland and Caulfield concert at the nearby Caledonia Lounge. As Uber customers request rides and match with Kenney, they won’t see his name that appears on the app, but instead the vastly-popular alias of “Sweaterman.”

“I was really surprised to find who was at the wheel,” said Jake Estroff, a sophomore international affairs major who took a ride with Kenney in August. “My reaction was something along the lines of ‘Holy crap, it’s that Sweaterman!’”

From that moment, discussion about Georgia basketball begins, regardless of the rider’s interests. Welcome aboard the “Sweaterman Van.”

“To them, I’m kind of a celebrity,” Kenney said. “A lot of them know me and look for me, because I’ve been driving for a while. All of them ask what I think about coach Crean.”

Kenney refuses to wear the sweater while driving as he puts it on two hours before tip-off and it heads to the laundry basket immediately after returning home. It’s down to an exact science. Nevertheless, he’s easily recognizable as almost every rider has an idea of who he is and wants to talk about what’s happening with the team or hear news on the latest-and-greatest recruit.

As passengers pile into the backseat, Kenney’s first words are to welcome them to the “Sweaterman Van.” If that doesn’t draw a connection to the program, an opening to discuss basketball will surely be found by the time a Kenney-led Uber reaches its destination. And if one of the 250-or-more customers riding along per weekend with the Bulldogs’ icon don’t catch on, there’s a simple solution.

“Take your cell phone out and Google ‘Sweaterman Georgia,’” Kenney said in a joking tone. When entering the search query, the first result is a profile by the Red & Black with his Twitter profile and other media-produced stories to follow. “I mean, I’m all over the internet.”

Most of the rides won’t conclude without the traveling party asking Kenney to pose for a selfie. It has become so routine to the 68-year-old who coordinates fundraisers for public schools as his weekday job. He’ll hop out of the driver’s seat and flash a wide-mouthed grin. On one occasion, a group wanted to take part in a YouTube video with Kenney which became a mini-commercial to welcome Crean as he accepted the head-coaching position in March.

“That’s just a blessing,” said Georgia senior guard Turtle Jackson, who couldn’t believe Kenney used Uber as a vehicle (no pun intended) for the program. “Anyone who is willing and able to talk about the team and talking about the season is always a great thing because that helps to motivate us and let us know that it’s about more than just our team. There’s others who also want to see us do well.”

Everyone connects Kenney to the vibrant jumping act at Stegeman Coliseum to support Georgia, and Crean said he actually used it as a teaching tool: “I point him out on film. He was so good the other day. If we played as hard as consistently as he cheers, and we did it 75 percent of the time, things would change right there for us.”

But this opportunity is equally as important to Kenney. He hadn’t yet told Crean of his aspiration behind using Uber, but the crowd-hungry head coach is well aware. Kenney first met Crean ahead of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament as the Lady Bulldogs hosted Duke.

Kenney sat in the reserved parking lot adjacent to the Carlton Street deck and was enjoying a plate from The Varsity before entering the arena. Crean was strolling by and stopped by the “Sweaterman” and their relationship started by the newly-named head coach receiving a replica t-shirt of the chevroned attire. From then on, Crean gained perspective of Kenney’s actions and indicated his level of dedication as the backbone of how the attention garnered around Georgia basketball can evolve.

“He is a true owner because he is going above and beyond anything that you could expect,” Crean said. “When he is talking to people and drumming up support, and that’s huge. You want to keep building an army of people that are doing that, but he is a legit general or colonel in that army, to use an analogy. I think that’s awesome.”

Kenney’s days of patrolling the Uber will live on. He will gladly welcome a host of Georgia students into his minivan, and they might know what’s in store if “Sweaterman” flashes across the app’s interface.

If they want it to finish with jumping jacks, Kenney will likely get out of his car with joy and give a lasting reminder of Georgia basketball for all to see.

“The key to filling up Stegeman is getting 2,000 of those kids in there,” Kenney said. “I’m all about anything I can do to promote Georgia basketball. While coaches may come-and-go, the program always stays the same.”