You can always tell a Harvard man, goes the expression, but you can't tell him much. For most of the school's 375-year history, this adage held true in pretty much everything except men's basketball. But on March 6, when Princeton beat Penn to knock the Quakers out of the Ivy League title race, the Crimson qualified for its first NCAA tournament since 1946, becoming the last member of the Ancient Eight to reach the Big Dance since the league began play in '56. Finally and mercifully, the rest of the world no longer has to listen to our self-absorbed yammering about our tournament drought.
Of course it's not much of a respite, given that we now get to yammer about making the tournament. Indeed, these days it seems that only the Republican primaries have gotten more ink than Crimson sports. In November the Harvard football team finished an undefeated Ivy League season. Then a 2010 grad named Jeremy Lin popped up on a few magazine covers. This week Tommy Amaker's squad, the Eastern region's No. 12 seed, travels to Albuquerque for a sure-to-be-scrutinized first-round matchup with Vanderbilt. Have we reached the top of the mountain? Not on your life, my good fellow! Last week sophomore skier Rebecca Nadler won the NCAA giant slalom. Crimson in clover, over and over.
Confounding those expecting stereotypical snootiness, Amaker's team (26--4) has no superstars; versatile junior forward Kyle Casey is its lone first-team All-Ivy selection. Its hallmarks are tough D, balance and brisk ball movement.
Until 2009--10, Amaker's third season in Cambridge, Harvard had suffered seven nonwinning seasons in a row. A William James (M.D., 1869) we had; a LeBron James, we did not. The program's rise has unified the oft-blasé Harvard community like no event since the Vietnam War--era protests. "Watching this team come together and grow together, it tied everyone's heart," says Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust. (Full disclosure: This writer once accosted Faust at a football game and told her, only semijokingly, that her mission was to make Harvard bowl-eligible.) Faust has sat behind the baseline at cozy (2,195-seat) but cacophonous Lavietes Pavilion. "It gets so loud," she says. "It has a kind of energy. That's what surrounded this team."
This energy, sometimes latent, has been present for more than a century at all Ivy schools. This is why no one should be stunned during March Madness when Cornell reaches the Sweet 16, as it did in 2010, or Princeton takes Kentucky to the limit, as the Tigers did in last year's first round. After all, Harvard and its Ivy brethren were the original jock schools. Their competitiveness is masked only because they don't play Division I football. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their nationally famous football teams set the template for major college sports. In 1908, LeBaron R. Briggs, Harvard's Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote, "An intercollegiate contest assumes in the minds of players, coaches, students, graduates, and the affiliated public the importance of war."
Today Briggs's view is perhaps more Crimson Tide than Crimson. But sports still matter, especially because Harvard, with approximately 6,700 undergrads, fields 41 varsity teams, most in the nation. On the other hand, athletics do not dominate. "The athletes blend in and often prefer not to be noticed," says Harry R. Lewis, the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science. "They all know they would be a much bigger deal elsewhere." Many also would get a free ride at, say, Duke, Northwestern or Stanford; Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships, and financial aid remains need-based, which complicates the task of Amaker and fellow coaches when tuition, room and board top $50,000 annually. But the Crimson's success has given Amaker a crucial calling card. "Kids see they don't have to sacrifice on the basketball side for the sake of getting this world-class education," he says. "Jeremy Lin is another element of that. You can realize all your dreams by choosing Harvard."
Likewise, Faust cites the league's real braggin' rights—and uncovers the reason this team is so beloved in Harvard Yard. Thanks to the Ivy League's Academic Index, recruited athletes "cannot be measurably different from the body of the students as a whole," she says. "Athletics is a distinctive kind of excellence, and we admire that. We cheer on our athletes. But we also cheer on our dramatic performers, our Yo-Yo Mas [Harvard '76]."
This week, proudly, the Field of Concentration around Harvard Square will be Applied Hoops. If the Crimson can get a win or two, there really will be no living with us. For a change.