The following essay appeared in the IHO Mailbox yesterday. The author of this piece is not affiliated with Ivy Hoops Online, but we always welcome and encourage outside contributors and readers to share their opinions and thoughts.
By The Ancient Quaker
Ladies and gentleman of Pennsylvania do not hate me. I am as loyal and grateful a Quaker as any of you. I donate generously to the annual giving, married a woman with more Penn degrees than Amy Guttmann, and even named one of my sons Benjamin after our great founder. (We didn’t really name him after Big Ben but you catch my drift.) So why would I ever root for the hated and haughty Tigers and their Mickey Mouse Halloween colors?
Allow me to explain.
As the 2011 Ivy hoop season gets underway, consider me a time traveler of sorts. Through the largess of age, I have experienced a very different era of Penn Basketball. A wondrous time when red and blue streamers flowed from the stands like a magnificent dichromic rainbow, the Big Five season ended in a five way tie, and even a snowy Saturday night contest against lowly Dartmouth still managed to sell out the sultry Palestra. Most importantly, I bear witness to the magical 1979 Final Four team which brought nothing less than hysteria to the campus and honor to The League. (That was of course before our heroes were handily dismantled by Magic Johnson and his Michigan State Spartans.) Yes fellow Quakers, without ever stepping on a court I have indeed led a charmed basketball life.
Still throughout these wondrous years, it is no secret that our most hated rival has always been the Princeton Tigers. Twice a year, our two teams would grapple for what each believed was their rightful birthright: the Ivy League Championship and its automatic entry to March Madness. No matter what the teams’ pregame records, the contests would invariably go down to the final possession and often pivoted on something as simple as a missed foul shot or turnover. Courts were stormed, hearts were broken, and seasons were either lost or validated. Besides these two games, the rest of the Ivy League season was basically an afterthought in our duopoly for hardwood supremacy. The two travel partners would languidly wind their way through the arctic New England winter dispatching opponent after opponent as if each were a glorified JV squad. Cornell? Get a team. Harvard? Sorry, thirty two Nobels still doesn’t add up to one championship. Brown? Cheesesteaks for everyone! All that mattered was that final Tuesday evening in early March when the real winner would eventually be crowned. Still no matter how bitter the rivalry, I always felt that there was a certain unspoken respect between our two schools. If we didn’t win the Ancient Eight title they did and if they didn’t we did. In a sense when it came to basketball, we were really a league of two.
However these past few seasons has seen a dramatic shift in The League’s balance of power. First, Princeton made the dubious choice of hiring Joe Scott, a martinet of a coach who appeared to alienate both his players and the alumni while dragging the Tigers down to Division III level caliber play. Although The League trophy was now ours for the taking, I admit that I felt a odd sense of loss as the Quakers would march through the Ivy schedule without being truly tested by our New Jersey rival. Victory, although still sweet, felt strangely hollow. Then as I’d watch the Quakers put a twenty minute scare into some Power Conference foe in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, I was forced to ask myself, “Who are we without them?”
Still basketball life was good in Philadelphia and no one was complaining. That is of course until The University decided imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery and likewise hired the chronically dyspeptic looking Glen Miller to replace the steady handed Fran Dunphy. Coach Miller, apparently a quick study of the Joe Scott method of destroying a University’s proud basketball legacy, similarly brought alienation and record-setting futility to the Palestra in remarkably swift fashion. As the losses and humiliation began to pile up, Miller did his best to comfort the shaken University community that there was indeed nothing to worry about. After all, in his estimation The Quakers were still every bit as good as Monmouth. Fortunately both universities came to their collective senses and eventually unloaded their problem coaches.
So over the last few years as The Killer P’s scrambled to right themselves, out of the Ivy hoops wreckage a host of new contenders have arisen to fill the basketball power vacuum. As of late we had the three-time champion and Sweet 16 flash in the pan that was the Cornell Big Red. A talented squad with a likeable coach, they were easy if not galling to root for. However this past season a most unlikely and disconcerting group of upstarts has burst onto the scene, the Harvard Crimson.
I’ve always appreciated, if not despised, the Tigers, I tolerated (barely) the Big Red, but I’m sorry, I simply cannot stomach The Crimson. When the boys in Cambridge decide to do something, they usually do it in a big way and rebuilding their heretofore pathetic basketball program apparently is no different. After the athletic department put their gigantic craniums together, the result was the hiring of the much travelled Tommy Amaker. In many ways accepting the Harvard job was a bit of backwards hiring move by Coach Amaker. The Ivy League is usually a stepping stone to the Atlantic 10, the PAC 10 and all the mammon and prestige that these big conferences bring, not the other way around. Still in my eyes at least, his big time ACC, Big East, Big Ten pedigree just doesn’t seem like a good fit for the Ancient Eight. In addition, the cold blooded method with which he dispatched a group of former players and of course, even though he was exonerated, the unseemly specter of “alleged” lowered admission standards and recruiting violations simply rubs me the wrong way. Nevertheless it’s all paying off this season as The Crimson is indeed living up to the hype. Already ranked in the Top 25, they are currently laying a path of hardwood destruction from California to the Bahamas and back to Boston. Veritas? I think not.
Of course it is no secret that college sports have in many ways become much more unsightly than the pros. At least in professional sports being a mercenary is a completely acceptable practice. Whoring yourself for fame and monetary gain is just another day at the office. Now in collegiate recruiting offices, post pubescent teenagers, rather than grown men, are being wooed to forward the Selection Sunday dreams of large and powerful institutions. As Pollyanna as it may seem the Ivies still seem to be, although I’m sure there’s tons of dirty laundry out there, the cleanest member of the perpetually filthy.
As hard as it must be, The League seems to have at least tried to maintain the façade if not always the actual reality of keeping the student-athlete paradigm alive. (See Yale’s quarterback Patrick Witt’s recent Rhodes Scholarship nomination.) Therefore I find it bizarre that Harvard of all places has appeared in recent years to embrace this indecorous decent into athletic depravity.
However unlike The Crimson, a few years back Princeton eventually chose a different direction in their basketball rebuilding efforts by choosing the soft spoken and affable Sydney Johnson. A former home grown star player and disciple of the Hall of Fame coach Pete Carill, Johnson quickly turned the program around: a testament to the success of grass roots basketball reorganization. So last year when Princeton and Harvard had their playoff game to decide who would represent The League in the NCAA Tournament, I strangely found myself pulling for the Tigers. I have to say things were indeed looking a tad bleak until Douglas Davis finally put up his last second prayer to send The Crimson back to Boston with nothing more than a paper title. As sacrilegious as it may sound, I
couldn’t have been happier. If the Quakers couldn’t be in the Big Dance, than it might as well be the Tigers. Call me a traitor, call me an elitist, call me a fossil, call me a douche (this last sobriquet may indeed be the most apt) but as I said, I was raised on a round ball aristocracy of two.
Now Penn’s once mighty basketball tradition has found itself in the midst of what looks like a rather long and arduous rebuilding process. Although it’s still early and Coach Allen appears to be the right man for the job, the Quakers are probably still years away from hoisting any championship trophies. Yet I am confident with a favorite son of Pennsylvania at the helm, someday soon The League will once again Fear the Fish.
For all their recent success, the Tigers too are entering a period of flux as Sydney Johnson, after tearfully declaring to a nationwide audience that “I love, love, love Princeton Basketball”, immediately bit the teat of the alma mater that had carefully suckled him (no one likes masticated teat) and promptly took his talents to Fairfield University. I can’t blame him since in this era of coaching insecurity, a bigger paycheck will almost always trump school loyalty no matter how genuine it may be.
So this year as Ivy season begins once more, forgive me for channeling Gordon Gecko, but in my mind rivalries are good. Rivalries are healthy. Rivalries are fun and they can bring out the best in both parties. The French call their ancient foe the British, Notre Meilleur Enemi, our best enemy. When you think about it, it’s a rather profound expression. It is enmity and endearment all wrapped up in three little words. As Quakers, Princeton is our “Best Enemy”. Face it, what does The League have besides Harvard and Yale? Brown and Cornell? Columbia and Dartmouth? No my friends, it has Penn-Princeton. It is something special. As strange as it may sound, be happy they’re up there in Central Jersey swathed in velvet and crinoline sipping cognac in their eating clubs. Because after all, who are we without them?