If you have told someone 25 years ago that this would be the case, that they would be co-champions, you would have told that foreteller that he was nuts. There is no way, the listener would have argued, that anyone other than Penn or Princeton would be winning the title, save some interloping in the late 1980's. But time hasn't been kind to that great rivalry, and, among others, Cornell and Harvard have gone on some impressive runs, statistically more impressive because each got the Round of 16, something that Penn and Princeton found elusive (at least after 1979). Put differently, both Cornell and Harvard won two games and got to the Sweet 16.
Sure, I'm a Princeton fan, but I grew up a Penn fan and know how strong the rivalry was. Each team needed the other to bring out the best in it and the most passion in its fans. Somehow, it's just not the same between Harvard and Yale or Cornell and anyone. They call the football game between the Crimson and Elis "The Game," but no such moniker gets attached to any basketball match. Penn and Princeton, though, in its heyday, was another story. They were national programs with players and coaches who drew national mention. But that was then.
Inflation in the late 1970's and early 1980's plus freshmen eligibility plus every school's wanting to have a big-time basketball program plus the Ivies' not giving any athletic scholarships or full grants to those who needed them (as opposed to a package of a grant, a loan and a job) pushed players away from the Ivies who might otherwise have gone there. Still, Penn and Princeton persisted, both because of a rich history and, in Penn's case, arguably the best venue for college basketball in the country (at least when the house is packed). But then a couple of things happened, too.
One was that Steve Donahue, Fran Dunphy's top assistant, went to Cornell and worked some Penn magic in Ithaca. Another was that Dunphy left Penn for nearby Temple, and Penn didn't have a ready successor, choosing Brown's Glen Miller, who had success at Brown (including three simultaneous first-team all-Ivy players despite not winning the title), who failed to mesh with anyone at Penn (he's now the top assistant at UConn, where he has earned a few championship rings during his coaching career). Princeton kept drawing from its coaching family, first naming Bill Carmody in 1996 to succeed Pete Carril and then John Thompson III when Carmody opted for the Big 10 and Northwestern in 2000 (Thompson's coaching job at Princeton in his first season ranks as one of the all-time best coaching jobs anywhere; the Tigers lost center Chris Young to professional baseball, two players missed the season and five started it with injuries -- and they still won the Ivy title). When Thompson left for Georgetown, the Tigers logically hired Joe Scott, an alum who had worked wonders at Air Force. Sadly, though, Scott had similar problems at Princeton to those that Miller at Penn. Put simply, he couldn't go home, not much worked, and he ended up opting for the University of Denver a season or two perhaps before he would have been asked to leave.
Those hiring decisions, as it were, showed that dynasties do not last forever and that other schools can build basketball programs if they make the right hires and because you don't need all that many players to turn around a moribund basketball program as you do a football program. While Cornell was burning it up with Donahue (only to lose him to Boston College, where he failed), Harvard made a threshold decision -- it fired affable, honorable Frank Sullivan (who did an unheralded job), changed the way it would view admissions about basketball recruits, and hired a Duke alum, Tommy Amaker, who had not succeeded either at Seton Hall or at Michigan. Harvard must have felt that the third time was the charm and that Amaker, with better players, could help build a winning program at Harvard, which he has done (in the face of withering criticism about Harvard's allegedly lowering its recruiting standards for men's basketball players and a cheating scandal at the school that compelled two stars a few years ago to take a year away from Cambridge or else risk suspension or expulsion).
But Ivy basketball isn't the same. Penn just fired coach Jerome Allen, one of the best players in its history, who took over the Quaker program after Miller had left it like a battleship without a rudder in the middle of a firefight. His supporters argue that he had begun to turn the program around; his critics would contend that Allen is a better recruiter than a coach. At any rate, Penn will look to re-build its program. It has a few alumni out there who have head coaching jobs, and one would think that the favorite is former Penn guard Andy Toole, who is the head coach at Robert Morris, which is headed to the NCAA Tournament. Matt Langel, the Colgate coach, and a former Dunphy assistant, should figure into the mix, but he has not enjoyed much success up in Hamilton, New York. Of course, Penn could go outside its alumni network and the Ivies, too.
Princeton, in contrast, seems to have a better rudder. Coach Mitch Henderson, the star point guard on the team that went 27-2 fifteen years ago, just finished up a 16-14 season without his best returning player, Denton Koon, who missed the season because of injury. The Tigers relied heavily on underclassmen, and they seemed prime for improvement. And yet. . .
Something is missing. Both schools need to vie for recruits, to become two of the best teams not in a major conference in the Northeast, and two return to the times when they were the best two teams in the Ivies and both rivalry games were like playoff games, especially because the Ivies have no post-season tournament. I know, it's good to see change, nothing should last forever, and perhaps it's Harvard's and Yale's turn, and Coach James Jones at Yale is a most unheralded coach and worthy of a tournament bid. I get all that. . .
And yet. . . it's just not the same.
And that makes me sound -- and feel -- a bit old.
I yearn for the days where I hear a Penn fan hit a drumstick on a cowbell at the Palestra, when the Penn fans yell "Let's go Quakers," and the Princeton fans exhort their Tigers, where the Palestra and Jadwin are filled and when both teams play each other the first time without a league loss and the second time when the game will determine whether there is a tie or not and perhaps a playoff game. That was some good basketball back then, that was electricity, and that was the special feeling that a fan gets when he knows he's watching something truly special.
Sorry, Harvard and Yale. You have a lot of great aspects to you, you really do. And, yes, right now you might be atop the Ivies in men's basketball. Congratulations -- it's very hard to do that.
But it's just not vintage Penn-Princeton.
And it never will be.