March 25, 2009

Cornell Academic Calendar Fail

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Athletically speaking, Cornell may have one of the most unfortunate academic calendars.
Like many young sports fans, I grew up mesmerized by the college basketball tournament every March. I got so excited, so wrapped up in the story lines of the various schools I might not have even heard of before. I literally spent time just sitting in my living room, or lying on my bed, imagining what it would be like to be a student at any one of these Cinderella schools — wondering what it would be like to be surrounded by such energy and enthusiasm.
I couldn’t even pronounce Gonzaga in 1999, but I wanted to go there (wherever there was). In 2002 I had never heard of the historic Kent State student protests, but the team’s improbable run to Elite Eight inspired me (to what, I can’t say).
Cornell, however, may never experience this kind of euphoria, and it has nothing to do with the team itself. Head coach Steve Donahue and the athletic administration have done nothing short of an amazing job dragging the basketball team back from the depths of the Ivy League. Even as recently as the 2007 season, the team played in front of scattered, seated fans, afraid there wasn’t enough crowd anonymity to get boisterous.
But the team finally broke through in 2008, earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament, and the campus was nowhere to be found. Everyone was on Spring Break. I was in England. I had waited my whole life for something like this, had literally dreamed about attending a school that would defy Goliath, and I was in another country. Others were in Florida, in New Jersey, on their parents’ couches, visiting old friends –– anywhere but here.
It didn’t even matter that every Cornell student could just use the gift Al Gore gave us and watch the game online in whatever remote location they were exercising their right to one week of freedom.
What mattered was that we all wouldn’t be together. Cornell could have pulled off the biggest upset in this school’s history, and East Hill would have been like the house in Twas the Night Before Christmas. All the fans that had dedicated hours to following the team would have been separated and forced to celebrate through texting and hugging random strangers.
And those who didn’t follow the team closely would never get to see what a big deal it was that Cornell finally played in the tournament. They would never get to see how one game could affect the mentality of a whole campus. They would never get to see how a mere two hours spent watching 10 people run up and down a 50-foot-by-94-foot floor could positively affect the atmosphere of an entire student body.
This all hit home last Friday, when three friends and I were huddled around a laptop in God-knows-where, Florida. We were seven hours into an idiotic 28 straight hours of driving to get back to sub-freezing weather. Ordering two coffees between the four of us, we were piggy backing off Starbucks’ wireless, trying not to draw stares by cheering too loudly.
And Cornell was doing it. The team was hanging in there with big boy Missouri, putting itself in a legitimate position to pull off that once-in-a-lifetime upset. Down only four at halftime, the texts started. That thrill that I remembered feeling as a kid was there. The thought of celebrating among the business casual crowd quietly pecking away at their laptops, doing shots of espresso with baristas, then piling back in a car for another day’s worth of driving didn’t even upset me.
But I kept thinking about what the Cornell community might not have, the opportunity missed to show the sports-cynics the real effect athletics could have.
As many of you know, Cornell didn’t pull off the upset. I checked my email and slouched back behind the driver’s seat.
That night, after passing off the driving duty, I sat in the back of the car as my friend fed me iPhone updates from the men’s hockey ECAC Hockey tournament semifinal overtime win against Princeton. Another opportunity missed.
We were able to make it back in time to watch Cornell play Yale for the title the next night. But if the squad had won, what would we have done? Hit the empty dance floor at Level B? (actually…)
Each year this happens. Students get out of dodge hours, even days before classes are over. We turn off the responsibility switch and forget where we go to school for a week. While we turn a blind eye, Cornell experiences arguably its biggest athletic week of the year. The men’s basketball team potentially gets a shot to go down in NCAA lore, the men’s hockey team fights for an automatic bid to the tiny, 16-team NCAA tournament, the wrestling team battles for a National championship, winning individual titles along the way. Even the men’s lacrosse team gets in on the action, traditionally playing one of its most important non-conference games over Spring Break.
Think of all the people, myself included, who missed wrestler Troy Nickerson accepting his National title at 125 pounds last Saturday. Think of all the hockey fans who didn’t get to see Cornell’s miraculous comeback against Princeton in the ECAC Hockey semifinals.
These are events that often don’t even come once a year for Cornell athletics. An ECAC Hockey title game, an NCAA appearance, an individual NCAA title –– these are three of the most prominent achievements any Cornell athletic team can have, and they all happen over, or around, Spring Break every year.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of a solution to this. The University can’t (to my knowledge) schedule Spring Break around these seminal moments for the Cornell fanatic, although I guess I’ve never actually asked David Skorton.
As it is, it seems that after I (knock on wood) graduate in May, the rest of you fans will just have to hope and pray that if and when that magical moment does happen, the scheduling gods are smiling down on dreary Ithaca.