AFTER DECADES OF IGNOMINIOUS DEFEATS, CALTECH FINALLY HAS A FORMULA FOR TURNING THE TABLES ON ITS CONFERENCE FOES
This is an article from the Nov. 23, 2015 issue
PICTURE A solitary figure, shooting baskets and muttering. The man is pale and skinny, with round glasses and wispy brown hair. Looks fortyish, as if he should be teaching calculus. But instead he's here in an otherwise deserted gym, in Pasadena, on a warm fall morning, and he's—well, it's not clear exactly what he's doing. But whatever it is, he's taking it very seriously. He shoots, mutters, shoots again.
Get closer and you can hear him. "Fourteen for 22," he says. The man is a coach, and he is conducting an experiment. He has rewatched every shot his team took last season—because this is the type of thing he does—and noticed something peculiar about home games. On one basket in this gym, his players made shots. On the other, not so much. Was that a fluke? Are the windows at the north end distracting? He wants to know, because he needs every edge he can get.
So now he shoots, and asks his assistants to do the same three times a week. All because the coach believes he's onto something, a philosophy of academia and athletics that will enable him to turn around the most un-turn-around-able program in the history of college basketball.
If, that is, he can just get his players to stop studying so much.
PERHAPS YOU are familiar with the California Institute of Technology, a school of 1,000 in Pasadena, and, if so, perhaps you are also familiar with its contrasting reputations.
Academically, Caltech has few peers. It's regularly ranked as the top research university in the world, and faculty and alumni have won 35 Nobel Prizes. Albert Einstein once mulled his theory of relativity on campus, not far from where Richard Feynman hit upon the concept of nanotechnology. Students who survive the grueling course load make an average salary of $82,000 upon graduation. Most have paid off the bulk of their debt by then, working summers at places like Google, Microsoft or Uber, bringing in up to $30,000 in three months. When the entertainment industry needs to depict really smart people, they're often from Caltech, from Real Genius to Numb3rs to the Big Bang Theory to Modern Family.
Athletically, Caltech has few peers, too, though for entirely different reasons. The baseball team has lost all of its conference games this millennium. The football program was euthanized in 1993. But the hoops team's struggles are the most infamous. The Beavers once went a quarter century without winning a game in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC). Occasionally, players did homework on the bench, because at least that way they were being productive.
It's been easy to treat the team as a joke. Context is important, though. Unlike the Ivies or other Division III schools, Caltech makes no allowances for admitting athletes. Only a handful of students have the grades (3.8 GPA) and median SAT scores (2230 to 2340) to get in, and only a handful of those have any interest in basketball.
Then there's the matter of time, or the lack of it. Students regularly study eight to 10 hours a day, slogging until the gray light of morning. Starting guard Andrew Hogue arrived at practice having gone sleepless for more than 30 hours on at least five occasions. Once, after he slumped into the campus's lone minimart to purchase yet another bottle of 5-Hour Energy, the cashier threatened to cut him off. "Dude," Hogue recalls the man saying, "you really can't keep doing this to your body."
Hogue's classmates couldn't figure him out. Here he was, a computer science major who had spent his summer working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a kid whose future was assured. Why not just skip practice? Why play basketball at all?
It's a valid question: Why would anyone sacrifice, and work so hard, when all he is going to do is lose?
OLIVER ESLINGER sat on the saggy couch in his apartment in Somerville, Mass., in the summer of 2008, staring at his laptop. Two hundred sixty-nine. He pondered the odds of a college team losing that many conference games in a row.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" his wife, Austin, asked.
After six years as an assistant at MIT, Eslinger, then 32, had been hired as the coach at Caltech. The job paid only 10 months a year. He'd have to teach a P.E. class too. And move cross-country.
Still, Eslinger was an optimist by nature, fond of saying, "Well, if you look at it as an advantage," when confronted with a problem. The dirt around his childhood backyard hoop in Broken Arrow, Okla.? An advantage; it forced him to keep his dribble low. The lack of competition in the burbs when the family moved outside Albany, N.Y.? An advantage; it forced him to venture to Washington Park, where his real basketball education occurred.
At D-III Clark in Worcester, Mass., Eslinger had been shorter (6'1"), skinnier (a buck-sixty) and less springy (as in, not-at-all springy) than his teammates. His solution: Work harder and be smarter. He took three giant strides off the line during suicides to create "competitive separation." After one set of sprints, a teammate stood nearby, panting. "You actually like this s--- don't you?" he said. To Eslinger, it was the greatest of compliments. Around the same time, he fell in love with sports psychology, and later titled his dissertation at Boston University, "Mental Imagery Ability in High and Low Performance Collegiate Basketball Players."
Now, Eslinger had big dreams: To win the SCIAC. To make the NCAA tournament.
And then he met his team.
They were smart and nice and one—center Ryan Elmquist, a computer science major who is now a software engineer at Google—was even tall (6'5") and bouncy. But the roster contained more valedictorians than high school basketball players. During the second practice Eslinger told them to do the weave, a sixth-grade-level drill. He never tried it again.
Even so, Eslinger's preseason entries in his journal, a black moleskin notebook, were infused with hope. He wrote of "shocking the world." Then the Beavers—so named because they are "nature's engineers"—engineered a 90--25 loss to SCIAC rival LaVerne in one of Eslinger's first games, turning the ball over 32 times. "How do you get students to play basketball confidently if they've never played?" the coach wrote. "Is it impossible?"
At least it once was. The Beavers won their lone SCIAC basketball title in 1954, and there were occasional bright spots in the years that followed. In 1980 they beat Pomona, then under a first-year coach named Gregg Popovich. In '85 they defeated LaVerne. And then ... nothing. The team went 0 for the 1990s. By 2008, losing had become a badge of honor at Caltech; being really bad at sports just showed how smart the students were. "There were some dark years," says Robert Grubbs, a Nobel-winning chemistry professor. "The first time I took my older son to a basketball game here, by halftime he was cheering for the other team." Athletics were such an afterthought that in 2006 the administration considered eliminating NCAA sports.
To change the culture, Eslinger needed allies. He contacted alumni. Spent long lunches at the campus cafeteria. Launched a p.r. makeover consisting of e-newsletters, a redesigned website and tri-fold recruiting brochures.
None of it muted the pain of losing. Near the end of the 2008--09 season, Caltech was 1--22, 0--12 in conference. The players ran hard but played soft.
"What else can I do?" Eslinger asked Amherst coach David Hixon, after losing to the Lord Jeffs by 50.
Hixon was stumped. Finally he said, "Get some players."
IN THE spring of 2009, Jeff Bowker, the coach at Colony High, outside of Wasilla, Alaska, received an email from a college coach in California who was interested in one of his players, Collin Murphy. Bowker was shocked. The 6-foot Murphy was a terrific kid, tough as they come, with 2190 SAT scores, but, as he wrote to Eslinger, "He is not a very skilled basketball player." A shooting guard, Murphy couldn't shoot (two three-point attempts all season), score (6.0 points per game) or handle the ball (Bowker forbade him from bringing it up court).
Still, Eslinger persisted, asking for film. So Bowker scraped together "highlights" of a wild-haired blond kid setting screens, sprinting on the break and throwing his butt into people on box outs. For reasons Bowker couldn't fathom, Eslinger remained enthused.
In Murphy, Eslinger saw a tough kid who could help him change the culture of Caltech basketball. Murphy spent the summer after his high school graduation living with his dad in an 8-by-12-foot shack on Main Bay, in the Prince William Sound, hauling salmon from 5 a.m. to midnight, until they caught enough to support the family for a year. On busy days, when the six-pound sockeyes were slamming into the 100-fathom nets, they rarely stopped to eat. Who cared if the kid wasn't good at basketball?
By the fourth game he was bringing the ball up, for lack of a better option. He guarded 6'5" forwards and quick point guards, outworking and outthinking them all. Murphy also stepped on shoes, locked down off-arms, grabbed jerseys. "He was," says Eslinger with awe, "exceptionally dirty."
Sarcastic and goofy, Murphy wore shirts that read, I'M NO ROCKET SURGEON and yelled, "Shooter in the corner!" whenever he spotted up in scrimmages. He spent his free time in the basketball office, watching film. From the start, Eslinger knew he wanted Murphy as his assistant one day.
And yet, loss followed dispiriting loss. Against Claremont, the Beavers fell prey to, as Murphy calls it, "an 87--21 run." They finished 0--25. The streak stood at 297 games. "It was," says Murphy, "straight awful."
At least the 2010--11 season began auspiciously. Some nonconference wins. A few close SCIAC losses. Still, by the eve of the season finale, at home against Occidental, Caltech's streak had reached 310 games. That week Murphy sat with Elmquist, now a senior, in his dorm room, downing vodka shots. "I can't believe," Elmquist finally said, "that I'm going to go four years and not win one f------ game."
SOMETIMES INSPIRATION comes from unlikely places.
The weekend before the Occidental game, Eslinger played pickup ball with Doug Eberhardt, a coach from Vancouver in town for the NBA All-Star Game who had recently embedded for a week with the Knicks. Eslinger, an NBA junkie, peppered him with questions until, finally, Eberhardt said, "Why don't I just give you [coach Mike] D'Antoni's playbook. I've got it out in my car."
For Eslinger, it was basketball nerd heaven, and studying the diagrams, he had an idea about how to combat Oxy's switching defense. What if he ran only pick-and-rolls between the 6'5" Elmquist and freshman point guard Todd Cramer, whose arrival had moved Murphy to the two?
And so, the following Saturday, in front of a relative throng of 400 on senior night in Braun Athletic Center, the Beavers came out in an unorthodox D-III scheme: two shooters in the corners, one on the wing, and Elmquist and Cramer in the roles of Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash.
With eight seconds left Caltech had the ball in a tie game. Eslinger ordered up another pick-and-roll. Elmquist slipped the screen. Cramer lobbed it high. The whistle blew. Foul. Two free throws.
For the first time in a life of constant inquiry—of subjecting everything to a decision matrix—Elmquist's mind went blank. He heard nothing, remembers nothing.
After missing the second, Oxy's desperation heave fell short. And then: nerd bedlam. Students stormed the floor. Nobel winners pumped their fists. Twenty-six years of losing to conference rivals extinguished in one surreal night, 46--45.
In the heady days to come, in between appearing on ESPN and talking to The New York Times, Eslinger remembers a sneaking feeling. Everyone was celebrating one win. But Caltech made only 12 field goals and shot 24.5%. Occidental's best player was injured, and Elmquist was graduating.
After all, the goal wasn't to win one game. It was to turn the program around.
LOOKING BACK now, it sounds comical: NCAA violations at Caltech? But integrity matters, even for losers. When Betsy Mitchell, a former Olympic medalist in the backstroke, was hired as athletic director in August 2011, she realized that, because the school allows students to "sample" classes for three weeks before officially registering, a total of 30 athletes in 12 sports had been briefly ineligble over the past three academic years.
Caltech self-reported the violations to the NCAA, punished itself with a fine, vacated ineligible wins, banned off-campus recruiting for a year and instituted a postseason ban on all 12 sports. To which the NCAA, clearly with nothing better to do while scandals raged at USC and Miami, added public censure and a three-year probation. Wrote Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times, "[Caltech] has chosen to vacate wins it doesn't have, shut down the recruiting it doesn't do and be ineligible for championships it never wins."
But that wasn't true. The basketball team had won; to everyone's relief, that Occidental victory stood.
When Dave Briski was hired as an assistant that spring, he made a common mistake. Briski, 22, who had spent four years as a student manager at New Hampshire, drank life out of 24-ounce steins. He was a scruffy, enthusiastic bulldog of a man whose recruiting notes at elite academic camps included technical terminology like, "Plays his f------ ass off"; "STUD, Big, great hooks with both hands"; and "Fast as f---, lefty, tremendous passer."
Now, Briski tried to connect to the players by talking academics. I don't want to talk to you about computer science, 6'6" wing Kc Emezie finally told him. I want to talk to you about basketball. Thank god, thought Briski.
It made sense. The students spent the rest of their lives geeking out. For many, basketball became an escape from schoolwork or, as guard Arjun Chandar says, "a coping strategy." Elmquist liked that during practice he could "turn my brain off." But of course that wasn't truly possible. Not with these kids. If players were burnt from all-nighters, Eslinger held them out. He explained the purpose of drills, lest students raise their hands to debate the rationale. After all, they were trained to think outside the box. Or, as school president Tom Rosenbaum puts it, "to try to solve unsolvable problems."
And yet the losing continued. In 2012--13, the Beavers again finished winless in the SCIAC. Murphy soldiered on. "I'm from Alaska," he explains. "The darkness never bothered me." He finished his career with just that one conference victory.
By this point Eslinger's confidence was nearly shot. He changed the offense from game to game. In his lower moments he couldn't help but wonder if that Oxy win had been a mirage. If maybe it wasn't possible to build a real program at Caltech. If sometimes a problem wasn't an advantage, it was just a problem.
BY THE spring of 2013, Eslinger had changed the culture. Alumni were engaged. He'd initiated Midnight Madness events: Hit a half-court shot and win a ball signed by five Nobel winners! The team understood defense, passing and teamwork. The only thing lacking was the same thing as ever: talent.
And that's when, in Qatar of all places, Eslinger found a brilliant kid named Nasser Al-Rayes who just happened to also be a 6'10" athletic freak. Pursued by MIT, Wesleyan and Williams, Al-Rayes made a flow chart to weigh winning programs against the Caltech coach's assurance that his program was about to win.
Al-Rayes's freshman season was rocky—which is to say, winless as usual. But by last fall, he, and the team, had matured. Hogue, now a senior point guard, rebounded like a forward. Emezie only had one move—drive right and finish right—but it was a hell of a move. And, to Eslinger's delight, Murphy had returned as an assistant coach while also working at a startup.
The 2014--15 season began well enough. Then conference play opened. And, as January turned to February, the new losing streak reached 55 games. Hogue was about to "go donut" for his career.
It was time to take a risk. Eslinger had long-since embraced analytics with a gusto rare for D-III. He videotaped practices. He logged the outcomes of drills, hoping to determine why some players always win. He uploaded game film to a service called Krossover, a do-it-yourself version of Synergy. Now, while scouting Redlands, he and Briski noticed something.
Against the Bulldogs on Feb. 3, the Beavers came out in a new alignment, one akin to what Warriors center Andrew Bogut would do months later in the NBA playoffs: Lay off the nonshooter and keep Al-Rayes in the paint. Flustered, Redlands made just 4 of 15 threes while Al-Rayes clogged the middle. With 17 seconds left the Beavers were still up three. But this was Cal Tech. Emezie missed a free throw and the Bulldogs sank a three. Tie game, Beavers' ball, 9.0 to go.
Hogue dished to Emezie, who, as always, drove right. Only he took off too deep on the baseline. The ball hit the glass at a crazy angle and, against the longest of odds, historically and technically, it spun in.
Joy. Murphy hugging players. Players hugging fans. The final stat line was bizarre: Al-Rayes went scoreless but finished with six blocks. Redlands shot a dismal 25.8% for the game. Hogue dashed off a campus-wide email: "Yo, we're studying after our win. Come by." That night, they stained the ceiling of their group house with champagne.
And if that were the end of the story, it would be fine. Another streak broken. But it's what happened five days later that changed everything. The opponent was Whittier, which had beaten Caltech by 14 a month earlier and was notorious for rubbing it in. Hogue remembers his freshman year, when the Poets were up 57 late in the game but still playing their starters. And pressing. While their fans chanted, "Win by 60!"
By halftime, the Beavers were up nine. And that's when, to the players' surprise, a torrent of students entered the gym, many in formal wear. It was the Wine and Candlelight dinner—the Caltech version of Valentine's Day—and word had gotten out about the lead. In a testament to the culture Eslinger, Murphy and the rest had created, the students left a rare social opportunity and walked 10 minutes to watch a basketball game. Now 200 of them were jumping and chanting, "I believe that we will win!"
The players showed swagger. They slapped the floor on defense. Al-Rayes threw down a thunderous follow dunk off a missed free throw. "Guys," Eslinger shouted as he walked the length of the bench, eyes afire. "We're for real!" And they were. This wasn't a squeak-it-out, low-scoring, ugly Caltech win. This wasn't a fluke. This was an old-fashioned, high-scoring 92--77 butt-kicking. Al-Rayes finished with a fantasy basketball line: 22 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and six blocks.
As the clock wound down, the starters sat on the bench, arms around one another, grinning in disbelief. The buzzer sounded and a wave of students in neckties and strapless dresses crashed onto the court, whooping and hugging the players. Eslinger saved his celebrating for later, when he and Briski bar-crawled through Pasadena, drinking away years of frustration one frothy pint at a time.
Then, the icing: 10 days later, in its next home game, Caltech beat LaVerne 70--69. In three weeks the team had equaled the number of conference wins from the previous 43 years.
For Eslinger, the future had finally arrived.
Go, Go, Go!"
It's 7:30 on an October morning and the Caltech players are running the weave, the drill that once flummoxed their predecessors. One pass leads crisply to the next until 6'4" freshman Brent Cahill catches it and, with shocking nonchalance, hammers down a two-hand dunk. Cahill, who declined a walk-on spot at UCLA, is a basketball unicorn: a crazy smart kid who can shoot and, if he really tries, come close to grazing his head on the rim.
Al-Rayes is next. He yanks the rim so hard, you fear for its mooring. Rather than working for NASA, Al-Rayes spent last summer at IMG in Bradenton, Fla., training with Trail Blazers forward Moe Harkless and others. He still intends to go to grad school and become an engineer—once he's done playing professionally overseas.
The team is stacked by Caltech standards. There's Emezie, second-team All-SCIAC last year; Galliani, who can stroke it; and 6'6" junior forward Lawrence Lee, who scored 38 in a game last season. Still, because it's Caltech, nothing is easy. Two rotation players chose not to play this year to focus on academics. Murphy left to work at a startup full-time. But this is the new Caltech. No longer is the program about one or two players. No one talks about winning "a" game anymore.
Today's players reject the stereotypes of the past. Lee says he gets "weird, judgmental looks" when he admits that he "only" studies four to five hours a night. It's a fascinating transformation. For decades, Caltech acted as the counterbalance to the bloating of corporate college sports, an exemplar for those trying to put athletics in perspective. But perhaps it went too far. "In the past, being a jock was almost a negative," says Grubbs, the Nobel winner. "At least now it's not a negative." He laughs. "That's sort of progress."
Cahill chose Caltech over UCLA because, "Why would I want to practice four hours a day if I'm not going to the NBA?" Others would have transferred if not for hoops. Despite the crushing academic load, the GPA of athletes at Caltech is just as high as that of nonathletes. But as Elmquist says, "No one at Google cares what grades I got. They cared that I learned stuff and can do things." And guess what he usually ends up talking about over drinks? "That time I helped Caltech break the streak."
The man who spearheaded this change sits in the cramped office he shares with Briski, squinting at a computer screen. On the wall above his desk, in neat cursive script, is a congratulatory note from Popovich. It came attached to a case of pinot noir.
On this morning the coaches are going over potential recruits. The pickings remain slim. Anyone with a GPA under 3.8 gets discarded. Anyone not good enough to play gets bumped. How many does that leave?
"In the whole country?" Briski asks. He does some math, consults his Front Rush recruiting software, then says, "About 250." The vast majority will choose the Ivies or a less-stressful D-III school. Others won't get in. One of last year's top recruits had to settle for his safety school: MIT.
For now, Eslinger can't worry about that. He is fixated on the final step in the program's evolution: shooting. "When we hopped into a shot, we hit 40% of our threes last season," he says. "That was 20% better than when we one-two stepped into it."
He heads downstairs to the gym, eager to demonstrate: Hop and you're already squared up; step and you're out of balance. He is pumped. "I'm going to blow their minds when I show them the video and data!"
Now, as Eslinger shoots, a bald man with a bushy gray beard peeks into the gym. He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, old jeans and sandals. His shirt pocket bristles with pens. He is, naturally, a Nobel Prize winner, the theoretical physicist David Politzer. He ambles over. At this point, the season is still a few weeks away. Eslinger has yet to determine the truth about the basket discrepancy. (In the end he decides it was a fluke, but one worth monitoring.) Likewise, he has yet to institute his dream of a nearly positionless team with Al-Rayes launching threes. And he has yet to break down film from the team's emphatic 86--77 preseason win at Occidental, searching for insight that he hopes will allow Caltech to chase its first SCIAC league crown in 50 years.
No, for now he is just a skinny guy in glasses who looks an awful lot like an older version of the kids he coaches, gleefully shooting jumpers while a Nobel laureate watches, all the while working toward the same goal as every Caltech student: Trying to solve the unsolvable problem.