Realistically," Mike Cingiser was telling his team one evening last December, "we're about to play North Carolina, and...."
A voice from the back of the locker room cut him off. It belonged to Sean Moran, who plays for Cingiser, who coaches at Brown University, which last weekend turned the chaste and ordered world of Ivy League basketball on its egg-shaped head by winning the championship for the first time ever. "Forget reality!" Moran yelled.
Cingiser (pronounced SING-eyes-er) couldn't much argue. So Brown, notwithstanding the reality of having one of the most abject hoops traditions anywhere, went out and played the Tar Heels even for six minutes. Played them even for 10 minutes.
The Bruins ultimately lost big, 115-63, but they came away with an abiding feeling that this season would be special. That premonition lingered last Friday night, after front-runner Cornell lost to Penn 77-71 and Brown knocked off Harvard 88-78 to edge into a tie for the league lead with one game to go. "If we can win and Cornell can lose tomorrow night," said Bruin center Jim Turner, "it would be like winning the Pick Six."
And Saturday night, when Princeton beat Cornell 56-53 moments after the Bruins defeated Dartmouth 82-51, Brown's number finally did come up. After 86 barren seasons of formal and informal Ivy play, the Bruins had earned the very first invitation to this year's NCAA tournament. As an anxious Cingiser fretted by a phone in Dartmouth's Alumni Gym, awaiting final word that Cornell had lost, Brown freshman Nikki Cingiser knew how to loosen up her dad. "Forget reality!" she cried.
Since way back when Princetonian Brooke Shields was in Buster Brown's, six of the eight league schools have found reality eminently forgettable. Princeton or Penn, Penn or Princeton had won 17 straight Ivy titles. It took an irrepressible and irresistible team to crash the P schools' alliterative aerie atop the Ancient Eight, and that Brown is.
For irresistibility, consider this: The Bruins scored 55 points in the first half against Harvard Friday night without committing a turnover. As for irrepressibility, try this: Playing host to Cornell two weeks ago, the Bruins held a one-point lead with four seconds remaining, and had two free throws and possession coming because of a flagrant foul. Yet somehow, nightmarishly, they lost. Afterward, Cingiser strode into his tearful locker room and said, "You guys have 15 minutes to mourn."
Who exactly is this man who, before this season, had lost more than twice as many games as he had won? Who, during much of his first season, 1981-82, superstitiously kept a stuffed Bruin on his bench? Who, while on the summer-camp lecture circuit, wows 'em by knocking down free throws with his eyes closed? And who, as a feisty guard at Brown, helped start a melee in which a teammate suffered a serious injury that Cingiser to this day believes cost the Bruins the '62 Ivy crown? Cingiser, 45, is a man who has coped with phlebitis and licked cancer, and who coaches in a golf shirt as if to say (and he does), "This is just a game played by long people in short pants."
The longest Bruin is the 6'9" Turner, the likely Ivy Player of the Year and a first-team academic All-America. He scored 1,330 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was valedictorian of his Long Island, N.Y. high school class and carries a 3.67 grade point average with a major in applied mathematics and economics. "He has one or two B's," says Cingiser. "That's what I had, and I was proud of it." During Brown's victory at Penn on Feb. 7, the first time in 52 tries that Brunonia had won at a P place, Turner heard the Quaker band strike up the theme to Hawaii Five-0 during a timeout. So he made like he was paddling an outrigger canoe, right out on the court. In the clincher Saturday night in Hanover, he scored 29 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
The team's Bird-brained floor leader is guard Mike Waitkus, a kid from Queens who dips Skoal. Teammates call the 6'2", 165-pound Waitkus "Weightless," and St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca calls him "a Big East player in an Ivy League body." But Waitkus punished Dartmouth with 12 points, eight assists and five steals. "I have a vendetta against them," that urban cowboy explains. "They didn't admit me."
That's how players get fired up in the Ivy, where ethical standards are exalted, academic standards stratospheric, and "forget reality" could be the credo for the entire league. If it sometimes seems that the Ivys have their noses in the air, so be it. At least they don't have to hold them. "I'm tired of apologizing for what we are," says Yale coach Tom Brennan, a not-very-proud graduate of the University of Georgia. "We're doing it the right way."
•Without athletic scholarships. Financial aid is based entirely on need. (Only a few Division I non-Ivy schools—Colgate, Lafayette, Lehigh and Bucknell are four—can make that claim.) "We have to recruit those who are poor enough to qualify for aid or rich enough not to care," says Cingiser. Adds Harvard coach Peter Roby, 28, who's still paying off the loans he took out to attend Dartmouth: "It's still not hard to convince parents of the value of an Ivy League education. But sometimes the kids put pressure on themselves. They think about the money and feel guilty."
•Without missing classes. To keep players on their campuses, almost all league games are played on Friday and Saturday nights. Before he dismisses another Hoosier player for bagging classes, Indiana coach Bob Knight might ask himself what he has done to get the Big Ten to cut down on midweek travel.
•Without special cases. Using a tool called the Academic Index, which considers high school athletes' class rank, GPA, and SAT and achievement scores, Ivy admissions officers make sure that a jock satisfies the same standards as the rest of the student body. An applicant scoring below a certain number simply won't get in. Says Roby, "If I ask a kid how he did on the boards and he says, 'Eight a game,' I know he's not coming here."
•Without enforcement. There isn't any need. As with the 1954 covenant of the Ivy group presidents, which formalized the league and its academics-first philosophy, subscription to the Academic Index is by gentleman's agreement. A coach might lose a recruit or two to a zealous league rival, but he loses more players to his school's own vigilant admissions office. Indeed, if some of the Ivys' pathfinders had had their way, score might not even be kept in games. "What's this?" former Yale president A. Whitney Griswold is said to have demanded years ago, brandishing a sports page at his athletic director. "Ivy League standings?"
Life is still refreshingly different. Just look around:
At Harvard, returning forward Arne Duncan passed up this season to write his senior thesis. At Cornell, track team members jog around the court in Barton Hall while the Big Red practices. At Columbia, center Mark Murphy missed a game for a med school interview.
At Dartmouth, star guard Bryan Randall came to practice stiff and sore, explaining he had been in an anti-apartheid protest and spent the night on the president's desk. "He's aware of things other than whether he'll be on NBC or not," says Big Green coach Paul Cormier. "As long as he's at practice, I love it."
At Yale, laments Brennan, "when our kids lose, they're adult and understanding about it, and it ticks me off. But in reality, their attitude is right and mine's wrong."
At Penn, the team chaplain slipped coach Tom Schneider a few lines, of Longfellow as fodder for pregame oratory.
And at Princeton—where there's a coach's son named John Thompson III, who can't run or jump and therefore starts—coach Pete Carril likened the league's difficulties in recruiting to problems of rice cultivation in Madagascar.
It took an Ivy Leaguer (Dave Gavitt, Dartmouth '59) to birth the Big East, the young giant that has usurped from the Ivys media attention, top-shelf officials and, indirectly, players. "It may sound silly, but the Big East has had a tremendous impact," says Roby. "Before, schools like Boston College and Villanova were lumped in with Holy Cross and Manhattan and the like, and we took the next level of player. Now Holy Cross and Manhattan are the next echelon, and we get the third tier." Adds Carril, "Instead of blue-chippers, you get grays."
And even the grays are likely to balk at coming up with the green required for an Ivy degree. And, of course, the Ivys can't let stupid kids in, a fact that poses problems of its own. "Imagine yourself on a bus from Hanover, New Hampshire to Ithaca, New York in a snowstorm, trying to motivate a bunch of guys who are reading Thoreau," says Providence assistant Gordon Chiesa, who worked at Dartmouth from 1979 to '83. All a coach can do is what Carril does: implore his players to follow the Zen-like stricture, "There's nothing more important than what you're doing when you're doing it."
In spite of these handicaps, the Ivys this season have beaten teams they've had no business beating. Penn whupped Southern Cal. Columbia beat Big East arriviste Seton Hall. Brown dressed down Miami in the first round of the Hurricanes' own Christmas tournament. Yale won all four of its games with Metro Atlantic teams, including regular-season MAAC champion Fairfield. Cornell had Georgia on the ropes in Athens, only to lose by three. Princeton, down 16 to Wisconsin at halftime of the Fiesta Bowl tournament's consolation game, shredded the Badgers with backdoor layups to win by five. "People were booing us and calling us boring," says Princeton guard Joe Scott. "By the end, they were cheering us."
And the Ivys have acquitted themselves admirably in postseason play. Their successes aren't always as dramatic as Princeton's 1975 NIT title, which the Tigers won with a star who was an art history major from Lawrenceville; or Penn's 1979 appearance in the Final Four, which the Quakers made with a center who was a concert pianist from Choate. But except for Penn's blowout at the hands of Michigan State in the national semifinals that year, no Ivy team has lost any NCAA game by as many as 15 points since 1974.
So all the big-time coaches who will be ripping the NCAA tournament committee after they're denied a bid might give Cingiser a listen. "We're committed to athletics," he says. "You're committed to making money. Brown spends about $3 million on 30 sports and takes in maybe half a million. A big state school spends $6 million and takes in $8 million. You tell me who's more committed to athletics."
There it is. The NCAA, haughty curators of the term "student-athlete," can't afford not to invite the Ivys. So boola, boola, Ancient Eight. And bully for you, Brown.