President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Madness in March
April 21, 2004
On the evening of March 14, I watched with growing anticipation along with Coach John Thompson '88, the members of the men's basketball team and their many student, faculty, and staff fans as CBS announced the pairings for the NCAA tournament, aka "March Madness." Firestone Lounge in Rockefeller College was abuzz with excitement, and, as each bracket was announced without the Tigers being paired, there were collective sighs of relief. As likely 14th seeds, we dodged the chance to play the University of Pittsburgh or Georgia Tech in Milwaukee, and Orlando came and went without our having to play North Carolina State. Then our fate was finally announced: we were going to play the University of Texas in Denver on Thursday, and I was going to the Dance!
I had already planned a long weekend of spring skiing in Colorado with friends and daughter Becca Tilghman '03 for spring break, but suddenly that trip took on an entirely new dimension. As a 15-year season ticket holder to Princeton basketball, I had watched our previous trips to the NCAA Championship on television, and I had been thrilled by the legendary victory over defending national champion UCLA in 1996, the still-disputed one-point loss to Georgetown in 1989, and the first-round victory over the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1998. Like all Princetonians I was proud when television announcers praised the "Princeton system" of brains over brawn that strikes fear into the hearts of more highly ranked teams. No one, it seems, wants Princeton as their first round opponent, and for good reason.
As I headed toward the gate for my flight to Denver on Wednesday, I saw two individuals in orange and black plaid jackets and straw boaters—not the usual dress code for Newark Liberty Airport. The band and the cheerleaders were heading to Denver as well, and as is their tradition, they were dressed for the party. One of the band members told me that she had her laptop on board, since she was working feverishly on her senior thesis. I was able to use this remark the next day when a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News asked me how so many students were able to take time from their studies to come to the game. I pointed out that the game was being played during spring break, but the reporter had done his homework. He knew about the impending senior thesis deadline, and I was able to reassure him that Princeton seniors were well versed in multitasking.
In record time Bob Ireland '76, the president of the Rocky Mountain Princeton Club, organized a very well-attended (and very loud) reception for alumni and friends of Princeton basketball on Thursday afternoon. Then it was time for the game. The Princeton section of the cavernous Pepsi Center included Richard Krugman '63 and T. R. Reid '66, two members of the board of trustees who live in Denver, as well as senior administrators Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson, Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee '69 and General Manager Laurel Harvey. Two of the faculty fellows of the team, Professor Emeritus Marvin Bressler and Professor Hal Feiveson sat behind me, offering humorous and knowledgeable play-by-play analysis. Parents of 12 of the Princeton players were there to cheer on the team, along with some former team members such as Mitch Henderson '98, one of the leaders of the team that defeated UCLA in 1996. Two of the former players, Joe Scott '87 and Chris Mooney '94, were there in a special capacity: as coach and assistant coach of the Air Force team that would play the University of North Carolina right after the Princeton-Texas game.
The student section had front-row seats, and made its brightly colored and enthusiastically vocal presence known with signs such as "Plane ticket from Jersey: $400. Tickets to NCAA game: $50. Blowing off your senior thesis to dance in Denver: priceless!"
The first half was thrilling to watch. The team played the Princeton system to perfection, slowing down the game and frustrating the Texas Longhorns by holding them scoreless for seven minutes. At half time the score was 25-22 in Princeton's favor, and it looked like an upset was in the making. However, the Longhorns came back in the second half with remarkable three-point shooting accuracy, while the Tigers' shooting was cold. Ed Persia '04, the team's lone senior and a key floor leader who was injured in the second half of the season, came in and sparked the offense, but in the end it was not enough against a stronger and more physical Texas team.
While disappointed by the outcome, I left the Pepsi Center enormously proud of the Tigers and what they achieved this year. They played with intelligence, grit, and style all year, and they are as fine ambassadors for Princeton as we could ask for. I know they will be back to play hard next year, and I will be there to cheer them on.