Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Princeton-Harvard, From The Inside Of Both

The Final Jeopardy category was "Word History," and the clue was basically this: "Named for a Roman arena, this six-letter word took on its modern meaning as a form of entertainment in the 1800s." TigerBlog drew a blank; TigerBlog Jr. looked over and said "circus." When Alex confirmed it, TBJ said "it's actually short for 'circus-maximus, but that was more than six letters.' " TigerBlog was so shaken up by being beaten by TBJ at Jeopardy that he couldn't put thoughts together today, so he has once again turned the forum over to a TigerBlog HQ alum, this one Chuck Sullivan of the Big East Conference. As an aside, when TigerBlog first began to work here at HQ, his knowledge of how to use the Macintosh computer was non-existent. It was Chuck Sullivan who taught TB, starting with how to turn it on, and TB has always been grateful.

Upon reading that TigerBlog was accepting guest submissions from former staffers from the Jadwin balcony, TigerBlog-North immediately offered to share his two cents. The offer was accepted in relatively short order, meaning that some 16 years after he first stepped foot on the Princeton campus, TB-North was again on deadline.

TB-North spent the better part of two years in Princeton, working as an intern in the athletic communications office from 1993-95. Since then, he’s worked at just about every level that exists in college athletics – from a Division III commuter school with a shoestring budget to his current gig at a BCS conference that distributes several million dollars to each of its member schools.

In between was a four-year run managing the athletic communications office at a fellow Ivy League school – the one that likely stands as Princeton’s toughest competitor in most athletic endeavors.

Aside from the obvious difference that Princeton is a suburban campus, while Harvard is engrained into two cities, the respective athletics departments are actually quite similar. Both schools’ directors of athletics were accomplished Ivy League student-athletes who are competitors at their cores. Both departments are firmly committed to providing the best possible experience for its student-athletes. And both embrace the value of education through athletics.

That said, TB-North believes that the Princeton-Harvard rivalry is the strongest in the Ivy League. Of course, both schools also count Yale as a natural foil – and in the Crimson’s case the Harvard-Yale rivalry has been the subject of a recent book and movie – but ask a student-athlete from either Princeton or Harvard – in any sport – and he or she will likely tell you that the road to an Ivy League championship runs through the other’s campus.

TB-North has seen many memorable encounters between Princeton and Harvard in a number of sports from both sides. The first one that comes to mind was a men’s soccer game in 1994 at Lourie-Love Field in the pouring rain. The referee was kind enough to let the Harvard coach use his umbrella – a gesture he later regretted when said umbrella was destroyed over the coach’s knee upon the issuance of a red card. The coach watched what he could of the rest of the match from the team bus, but no doubt enjoyed the end result as the Crimson effectively eliminated Princeton from the Ivy League race.

That winter brought a memorable trip to Cambridge – actually lower Allston – from the men’s hockey team, which was mired in a 15-year streak of futility in Harvard’s Bright Hockey Center. But TB-North remembers Ethan Early’s (the son of a Harvard alum, no less) exorcising the demons with a hat trick in a Tiger win. That game, as it turned out, was the first in a lengthy run of Princeton successes in Bright as Harvard was unable to defend its home ice against the Tigers for the better part of the next decade.

Two football games come to mind as well. One was in 2003, when Harvard backup quarterback Garrett Schires engineered a win against the Tigers at Harvard Stadium in the first overtime game in series history. Three years later, both teams came into Princeton Stadium undefeated, where the Tigers rode a gutsy performance by the great Jeff Terrell to a 31-28 win as part of their Ivy title run.

But the rivalry extends beyond the so-called marquee sports. Pick any Ivy sport, and there’s a reasonable chance that Princeton and Harvard – in no particular order – will be the two favorites. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that in both men’s and women’s swimming, one will win the league championship and the other will finish second. Rowing, squash, tennis, field hockey, baseball and softball are often no different.

Even in those sports where there might not be a tradition of success, the schools have been able to hire good coaches and make the steady climb toward the top. When TB-North was at Princeton, women’s soccer and men’s hockey were more often found at the bottom of the standings than the top and Harvard was the Ivy to beat in both sports. Princeton has been to five NCAA tournaments in the last nine years in women’s soccer, including the only Final Four run in Ivy history, while the men’s hockey team is now a national force. Harvard, meanwhile, has taken steps to improve its standing in Princeton’s traditional strongholds of men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse.

At the root of the rivalry is a keen understanding of what the other is doing, both on the administrative and coaching fronts. The annual football game between the schools usually involves some kind of reconnaissance mission by staff members of the visiting team to scope out any facility upgrades or clever marketing initiatives. When a Harvard contingent saw firsthand how Princeton was using its new scoreboard displays to promote upcoming events during recreational hours, it brought about more than one department meeting back in Massachusetts.

The schools recruit a great number of the same prospects, and if one happens to provide a different level of support than the other, things can get testy – both internally and externally. Phone lines burn if a star prospect is admitted to Harvard and denied by Princeton, or if Princeton’s financial aid package is more generous than Harvard’s.

At the end of the day, both programs are successful because they have terrific people working for them. TB-North worked directly with Harvard’s football program for four years and, with no exaggeration, was impressed by every single person he met within the team. To this day, TB-North could reel off the starting eleven for the 1993 Princeton men’s soccer team, which made an amazing run to the NCAA final four with the great Bob Bradley on the sideline. As an aside, TB-North recalls killing time before many a Princeton soccer game by kicking a ball around with precocious 5-year-old Michael Bradley – Bob’s son who is now a fixture on the U.S. national team.

As TB-North mentioned earlier, he now works outside the Ivy League, in a 16-team conference that doesn’t allow him to choose favorites. Kind of like the same thing that happens when Princeton plays Harvard, though he has to admit that sometimes sentiment comes into play.

Either way, as long as they both beat Yale, then everything is right in the world.


Anonymous said...

Intersting take. But I wonder whether, in the years since you have worked at Ivy schools, you might be missing the rise of Cornell athletics and how many roads run through Ithaca to Ivy success. They have a lower athletic admissions standard than H and P which can't hurt their programs, and they have taken big steps to counter the HYP advantage in financial aid.

Anonymous said...

Princeton and Harvard both seem like very well run organizations, both in the athletic departments and overall. It's no surprise that, historically, the two have dominated the Ivy League sports scene. I have been involved with Harvard over the years and have always been impressed that, in so many spheres, although they are already the biggest name, they miss no opportunity to press their advantage further. There seems to be no complacency in Nassau Hall or Massachusetts Hall.

Yale is the competitor that confuses me. As an institution, Yale seems almost rudderless compared to HP, most specifically less ambitious and less energetic. It's no surprise that the Bulldogs are far down the ladder athletically. But yet, overall, Yale still competes head-on with Harvard and Princeton for students and faculty, faring quite admirably. I think that just goes to show that the HYP brand name is a huge resource that is difficult to squander, even if an institution isn't particularly competent at exploiting that resource.