Caltech vs. Vince Lombardi

For the first time in the last 26 years, Caltech won a conference basketball game. A record 310-game losing streak -- longest ever in the United States by any sports team -- was broken.
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Last night, 19,763 sports fans paying hundreds to thousands of dollars for tickets jammed Madison Square Garden to welcome all-star Carmelo Anthony as a new member of the New York Knicks basketball team. The Knicks won.

Also last night, a few hundred students (paying nothing) attended the Caltech-Occidental basketball game at Caltech's Braun Athletic Center. Caltech won.

Caltech's victory came despite the fact that President Obama attended Occidental for a couple of years, and therefore probably picked them to beat Caltech. But he had no more prescience in this game's outcome than he did in picking the Bears to win the Super Bowl. Caltech still won.

There are some who think that the Knicks game was more worthy of national attention than the Caltech game. Indeed, judging by the comparative press coverage (about 1,000 to 1 in the Knicks's favor), attendance (about 100 to 1) and ticket prices (infinite ratio), the Knicks seem to hold the zeitgeist edge.

But judging by historical implications, it's Caltech all the way. For the first time in the last 26 years, Caltech won a conference basketball game. A record 310-game losing streak -- longest ever in the United States by any sports team -- was broken. Like so many of its achievements in science and technology, Caltech accomplished something that no one else in history has ever been able to do.

Havoc broke out in Pasadena. Nobel laureates raised toasts to the winning athletes. Students interrupted their problem sets to cheer a sports team. Even The New York Times featured Caltech, not in the Science section, but on the second page of the Sports section. This indeed was a Big Event.

Yet somehow, during these 26 years in athletic purgatory, Caltech still seemed to function. Heads didn't roll. Presidents kept their jobs. Coaches weren't fired. Scientific breakthroughs kept being made. Nobel prizes continued to be won. Incoming student SATs remained the highest in the nation. And every year it was ranked a top-10 university. Indeed, midway during The Losing Streak, U.S. News in 1999 awarded tiny Caltech academic hegemony over some other pretty highly regarded and far larger schools:

  1. California Institute of Technology
  2. Harvard University
  3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  4. Princeton University
  5. Yale University
  6. Stanford University
  7. Duke University
  8. Johns Hopkins University
  9. University of Pennsylvania
  10. Columbia University

This raises a momentous question: Can it be possible that Vince Lombardi was wrong? Vince Lombardi wrong? Remember, he's the über-successful coach for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. He's the coach who's currently being memorialized by an eponymous Broadway play. And he's the coach best remembered for popularizing:

"Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."

(Despite that saying's enduring fame, it strikes me as a really dumb credo. But I digress.)

So here's my question: Is winning the only thing? If so, Caltech should have been completely embarrassed over the last 26 years. The school should have buried its collective head in shame. Losers, losers, losers.

But Caltech hasn't been a loser. To the contrary, some consider it an American treasure. A small school (just over 900 undergrads) with an oversize reputation for academic and research achievement. A school where a surprisingly high percentage of the students engage in intercollegiate athletics, and for fun. Where there are no athletic scholarships. Where the institutional culture subscribes not to the Lombardi-esque philosophy, but rather to that hoary value that some of us were taught as youths, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."

So team, enjoy your victory. But remember, keep having fun.

Ben Rosen graduated from Caltech in 1954

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