Friday, February 25, 2011

TB-Baltimore Talks Caltech And Princeton

Once again, the floor belongs to TB-Baltimore:

Physics was, by far, my least favorite subject in high school (amazingly my 20th reunion is this year, but that’s another story). I never had a great mathematical mind, but somehow I got dragged into honors classes in science and math just like I did in English and history.

Luckily I had some fun in physics class. Mr. Schorr, the teacher, was an amiable guy who had a habit you couldn’t help but notice. When pausing or moving from one thought to another, he’d make a strange ticking noise and tilt his head to the left. One day he was a few minutes late to class, and I got up in front of the room and started on the imitation I’d been working on for weeks. I remember getting some laughs until Mr. Schorr walked in and I quickly bolted for my seat.

The only part of physics itself that I remember enjoying was when Mr. Schorr turned on the VCR (look up here if you’re under 15) and popped in one of the 26 tapes from a series called "The Mechanical Universe."

The series was filmed at Caltech sometime in the 1980s and is sort of a classic of educational television. After the opening credits, you see eager Caltech students entering a lecture hall and finding their seats. In walks the professor, Dr. David Goodstein, who steps to the front table and reads about this week’s topic while the students take notes. At the end of Goodstein’s opening script, we leave the classroom and head into the past.

Actors dressed as Galileo, Copernicus and Newton take us through gravity, motion and energy, aided by computer graphics that were stunning for the time, and it’s all narrated by a guy who could give NFL Films legend John Facenda a run for his money.

I thought about the show when I read that the Caltech men’s basketball team broke a 310-game losing streak in conference games when the Beavers beat Occidental (where President Obama first went to college) by one point in their season finale Tuesday night. The team had last beaten a conference opponent in 1985, maybe around the time they were filming "The Mechanical Universe."

The win set off pandemonium: the school president stormed the court, as did a Nobel Laureate chemist who is a Caltech professor. Some of the players missed class the next day because the school scheduled a celebratory press conference in the gym, which the Los Angeles media attended en masse as if it were the Lakers playing in the NBA Finals.

Somewhere in all this there are two cautionary tales for Princeton fans.

1. Don’t ever forget just how often Tiger teams win. Take the 13 “winter” squads. Of them, a total of 12 have winning records. The combined record of the men’s teams (69-24-2) and women’s teams (70-23-1) are nearly identical; add them together and the teams have basically won 75% of their contests, three out of every four times they compete. Having worked at many different institutions, I can tell you that this isn’t normal. Yet at Princeton it simply has become the norm and sometimes, in good ways and bad ways, the expectation. All of which brings up the next cautionary tale…

2. Don’t ever take that success for granted. The odds are that, even at Princeton, any and every team will take some kind of fall back toward the middle ground or lower at some time. No Princeton team is going to lose 310 straight conference games, but there’s bound to be some kind of losing streak that will have fans shaking their heads and wondering “how does this happen?” The answer is that it’s more amazing how infrequently it happens.

What is the greatest irony surrounding Princeton athletics? It’s the fact that, nationally and even internationally, the Tigers are best known for being underdogs. This stems from one Princeton team and just a minuscule sample of its games through hundreds of years. The truth is of course that, for the thousands and thousands of other times that Princeton teams competed, they were probably the favorites three out of four times.

Caltech’s epic athletic struggles don’t end with the men’s basketball team. The baseball team has lost more than 400 straight conference games and 170 straight games overall. The women’s volleyball team has never won a conference match. The women’s basketball team finished 0-25 this year.

Imagine for a second that your team has never been the favorite in any games it’s ever played. Imagine that your team has every disadvantage it could possibly have compared to its opponent in every game every year and that never changed. Imagine if your school tacitly celebrated this achievement, reminding you that the kids are brilliant and there’s really no point in giving too much thought to athletics because, well, it’s about the lessons learned and not about the result.

Then imagine what it must have been like for the senior playing his last game to make the free throw with three seconds left to end Caltech’s 26-year streak of futility. Then do the math (but not the physics).

Maybe you won’t be nearly as upset the next time Princeton loses a game you’re sure it would win.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Occidental's colors are Orange and Black, and its mascot is the tigers. That's not by accident.