Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Princeton's First Undefeated Football Season Since 1964

Okay, so truth be told I wasn't planning on going.  Yes, it was Penn, and yes, Penn had a winning record and if you live in the Philadelphia area one of life's pleasures is to beat Penn, which has many more alums than your school.  Penn alums abound, not as much as the "We are Penn State crowd," but they do make their presence known.  Your own school rose to the top ten in the FCS rankings, somewhat meaningless in that football is the only sport where the Ivies forbid teams to compete in the post-season.  The reasons are hard to fathom, but as with legislation, once a group makes up its mind, it's hard to get them to change it.  The "they' in this case, of course, are the presidents of the Ivies, who, perhaps when pushed hard, would tell you that the lobbying they receive on sports issues at allegedly some of the most prestigious schools in the country is a royal pain in the posterior.  But I digress. . .

A good friend called on his ride home the night before and thought it would take a lot of convincing for me to go to the game.  Quite frankly, I hadn't thought about it, what with Thanksgiving coming up and both kids away at college.  And it was going to be cold, and I thought that I had sworn off cold-weather events since going to many football games as a kid with my dad and then through college, watching my kids play spring sports in February and going to the Eagles' parade last winter.  Then again, I had watched Arsenal in North London at night a few weeks ago in 45-degree weather and the forecast was for about 46 degrees and sunny at game time.  My friend thought it would take more convincing; I said yes in a heartbeat.

I mean, we had to go watch some history, right?  We were at the best game played at the prior stadium, Palmer Stadium, in the fall of 1981 when  Yale marched into Tigertown undefeated and ranked 19th in all of Division I (there was no BS about FBS and FCS then) and Princeton scored with 4 seconds to go to upset the Elis 35-31 and end a 15-game losing streak to Yale.  We were at the Palestra in the mid 1990's when Penn went up 29-3 with a few minutes to go in the first half and was up 40-15 with about 15 minutes to go, only to have the Tigers storm back and silence the red-and-blue faithful with a 50-49 victory that marked at the time the fifth-best comeback in NCAA men's basketball history.  This time, though, the Tigers were the favorites.

They had not always fared so well as favorites, and in the Ivies for the most part any team can beat any other on any given day because, well, that's what usually happens.  Okay, except this year when the Cornell Big Red came to Central New Jersey and lost 66-0; it would have stood to reason that Cornell did not have much of a chance going into the contest. as 66-0 is usually a score one associates with Alabama when it plays its cupcake pre-season schedule, paying half a million to some mercenary school without a chance in heck to win in Tuscaloosa, so as to give a chance for the first three units to get a tuneup and the alums to tailgate.  Was that game evidence of the gridiron hegemony of Princeton this season?  Or did they just beat a bad Cornell team?

I don't know why I am so focused on that game given that it was lopside and Cornell was the worst team in the league.  The Tigers scored at will as if the Ivies were Madden Ivy 2018, throwing, running at will and doing much more on defense than a depleted squad last year could do.  They beat Dartmouth in a battle of wills, a game which Dartmouth led most of the way before Princeton scored late a few weeks early to pull out a 14-9 win at home, the type of game that the Tigers had trouble closing out in some prior seasons.  The week before they could have scored 85 on Yale before they took their foot off the pedal, only to have the Yale QB have a memorable day where he looked like Dan Fouts from the old Charger Air Coryell days and racked up 460 yards passing despite throwing four picks.  This after the Tigers led 21-0 four minutes into the contest.

Tiger fans tailgated, donned their orange and black, some beige, and wondered whether the Tigers could close out the season in fine fashion.  Penn needs no extra motivation to beat Princeton and to ruin any opponent's undefeated season, but it turned out to be not much of a contest.  The Tigers went up 14-0, then were up 21-7 at the half before Penn scored on a long play at the beginning of the second half to make it 21-14.  But then Princeton scored three unanswered touchdowns to make it 42-14 in a game where the defense forgot the troubles of the prior week against Yale and the offense showed that the QB could run well and that the star wide receive could run by and behind the Penn secondary.  That receiver -- Jesper Horsted -- also a fine baseball player -- set the Tigers' career record for receptions in a season, breaking a 34-year old record held by a crafty, wonderful receiver named Kevin Guthrie, who did not play varsity ball his freshman year because back then freshmen were not eligible to do so.  Guthrie was in the end zone, and friends joked that with the offense that head coach Bob Surace has deployed he might have had 250 catches in his career; as it was, he had 194 in three seasons.  The crowd in the end zone -- always the heartiest of fans -- gave him a rousing ovation for his accomplishments.

And then it ended.  The Tiger players and staff fan onto the field, sang the alma mater, "Old Nassau," in front of the Princeton band near the tunnel leading out to the stadium, and the players, their families, the coaches and alums partied into the evening.  The last time Princeton won the league while going undefeated was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was President and before things like personal computers, the internet and smart phones were on the scene.  Many seasons and good memories have come and gone for Princeton football, but this season ranks among the finest accomplishments since that year.

It would be nice to say that the sun shone brightly, that the stadium was packed, that the crowd was loud, that the home fans wore only orange and black, but that is not the essence of Ivy League football.  There are no "card alignments" in the stands, no 350-piece synchronized marching bands (although I do love Ohio State's and Bethune-Cookman's) no "orange outs," no "Game Day" from ESPN (although the fellahs once covered Amherst-Williams and Harvard-Yale).  My guess is that more than half the students did not go to this game, because the Ivies being the Ivies they got in because of their unique talents that require them to spend time elsewhere on Saturdays (after all, as some Ivy snoot once said, you don't get offered admission being a spectator).   I don't know what to think of the overall lack of student support, save that the kids so have a lot more to do while aging alums look for comradery in the stands (and perhaps at some point in life it is okay to watch and not to participate).  Beside which, with all of the discussions regarding joint replacements, sitting in the standings offers a better alternative for most than over-50 sports leagues.

Again, I digressed, as when you have something to celebrate one is wise to remember all that was right about the day -- a nice, innovative coach, a team that dusted its opposition this season and rose to the occasion against its toughest opponent (okay, not a dusting, but a true revealing of character), bantering with friends in the end zone and enjoying a crisp day.  It really doesn't get much better than that, and if you wear warm socks, bring a good pair of gloves and hat the weather actually can be quite enjoyable.

Tiger, Tiger, Tiger! as they say on campus to start the "locomotive" cheer that Princeton alums are so fond of.  To seal the championship at home, in front of friends, family, classmates, alums, to win convincingly, to leave no doubt. . . a very memorable day.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Naming Rights for the Palestra

It is as silly as it sounds.  An Ivy League school, has tons of money, home to THE iconic arena in college basketball.  Sorry, Dookies, but this is so.  And what does Penn do?  It sells the naming rights to the court at the Palestra to an Australian investment firm named Macquarie. 

A few things jump out.  First, what the heck are the Aussies thinking?  Who in the Palestra will care one iota about this naming event, except for those who are offended that Penn decided to sell the naming rights to a sacred place?  Will anyone be influenced to park his nest egg with this group?  If I were a shareholder of Macquarie, I'd grill the management team hard as to why they ponied up monies to name the court at the Palestra.

Second, it could be worse for Penn alums, Penn fans, hoop fans.  Oh, yes it could be.  Given that universities tend to name buildings after famous people, it could have been the case that a certain real estate conglomerate in New York wanted to pony up the bucks to name the facility after its organization or the 45th President of the United States.  Think Trump Court at the Palestra.  Has a certain ring to it, doesn't it?  That would not have been beyond the realm of the possibilities, even if the President probably has a popularity problem in University City.  The possibilities there would be endless.  Would recruits turn down the Quakers because of the naming rights?  Would players want their teams to play Penn on the road so that they could take a knee during the national anthem? 

The Palestra is iconic, classic, a great place to play and to watch a game.  Why on earth did Penn go out and feel compelled to sell naming rights to the place?  Even its rival Princeton, which seems to sell naming rights to everything too (and let former eBay CEO Meg Whitman pay a paltry $35 million or so to name a residential college after herself when it could have gotten more), named the basketball court at Jadwin Gym after legendary coach Pete Carril.  So why couldn't Penn have gone that route and named the court after one of Dick Harter, Chuck Daly or Fran Dunphy? 

The naming rights and commercialism surrounding all things sports remind me of a scene in the movie "Wall Street," which is an apropos reference because of Penn's highly regarded Wharton School of Business.  There is one scene where Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) are talking, and Gekko says to Fox, "It's all about the bucks, kid." 

Touche.  Nothing more, nothing less.

It could have been Dunphy Court at the Palestra.  Instead it is Macquarie Court at the Palestra.  What's next, the Aeroflot Penn Relays?

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Wallace Loh Should be Your University's Next President if There is an Opening

He has made mistakes; people at the top of the leadership pyramid frequently do. 

But when it came to investigating the death of Eric McNair this summer at a pre-season football practice, University of Maryland's President, Wallace Loh, went by the book.  He placed his athletic director and head football coach on administrative leave.  He compelled the severing of the university's relationship with the school's strength and conditioning coach, for it seemed that even a preliminary investigation demonstrated that the coach should not be working at Maryland any more (that is a polite way of saying that the coach's behavior at a minimum left a lot to be desired and at a maximum was grossly negligent).  He hired investigators to dig deeply into the death of a 19 year-old young man, the types of investigators who know that you keep turning over rocks until there are no more rocks to turn over.  Those investigators provided a 192-page report that expressed reservations -- some serious -- about the culture within the football program at Maryland.

Loh, displaying an appropriate sense of, if not adherence to, good university governance, shared the report with the Board of Regents, and the inference here is that he intended to fire the football coach.  That led to a donnybrook apparently with the Chair of the Board, who ostensibly told Loh that he couldn't do that.  Loh perhaps said, "well, if that's the case, let's negotiate my exit from the university.  I cannot work here anymore."  (Whether because he thought his authority was undermined or because the Chair's judgment was so poor remains an open question to me).  So, the Regents and Loh put together a statement that said the A.D. and Durkin would be reinstated, and that Loh would be leaving in say eight months.  Put differently, Loh probably thought, "This is bleep, and if that's how they want to run this place, I'm out of here."  Both the Regents and Loh put as good a face on his exit as they could have, motivated, perhaps, by Loh's desire to get good severance from the university (in other words, he had motivation not to torch the reputation of the place).  That's how these things work.

What Wallace Loh did was speak truth to power.  What Wallace Loh did apparently was stand up for the harder right decision.  What Wallace Loh did was make a statement that character matters in the short and long runs and that a student's life is more precious than winning a football game or games with a certain coach.  What Wallace Loh also did was ensure that if a university employee created a culture that led to a death under these circumstances, he/she would not have a job with the university.  Wallace Loh did the right thing.

And it cost him his job.  That said, who would want to work for a Board of Regents or a Chair who felt so compelled to restate D.J. Durkin that he put the university's relationship with its president on the line?  Who would want to work at a university where the football coach's future was more important than straightening out a culture that he perpetrated than a young man's life.  Of course, no corrective action will bring back Jordan McNair.  But what it can do is set an ironclad tone that will ensure that players are cared for on and off the field, in real time, and are not bullied or shamed.  Challenging them is one thing, but mistreating them is another.

Wallace Loh can work at my university, were I to work at one.  He can be its president because what he did was to take a stand for doing the right thing over, well, the omnipotence of the football program, a football program that struggles almost yearly and is an arms race to be a championship team with little chances of doing so.  It is about time that a university president focused on character and integrity at the expense of a revenue-producing program.  And that's a Division I problem.  You know, in Division III, the coaches don't make a ton and they certainly don't make more than the college president.  But where you pay them millions in Division I, they own the school (like the old banker's line -- "lend someone $100 dollars, you own them; lend someone $100 million, and they own you).  Loh said enough is enough. 

Okay, it wasn't perfect.  Why didn't he stick with his plan to fire Durkin the day before, consequences with the Board chair be darned?  Only he can tell us that.  And, yes, there was a huge outcry from students, faculty, alumni about Durkin, mostly totally negative.  Even some players refused to meet with the reinstated coach, and some walked out of the meeting.  So you can argue that he watched the wind and blew with it.  Mostly a fair point, except that he did not rescind his agreement to resign, which is telling because it means that Loh had little to gain by sticking to his principles a day late and terminating Durkin. 

But he reclaimed his conscience and the moral authority of the President of the University of Maryland to have one of the last words, if not the last word, on matters of principle that matter the most. 

Wallace Loh did the right thing.  So will another university when they hire him as president.