Commentary

Not exactly on the bubble

Updated: March 1, 2011, 3:05 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

CaltechAP Photo/Damian Dovarganes Caltech's historic basketball win over Occidental College on Feb. 22 garnered extensive national and international media coverage.

Coach K is good, they say. Roy Williams isn't bad. Rick Pitino can coach, I suppose.

But I'd like to see how those guys would've done with a roster of three valedictorians, six National Merit Scholarship finalists, seven mechanical engineers, three computer scientists, one debate team captain and one chess club president.

That's what peoples Caltech's men's basketball roster. Try taking that job. You'd be working at Home Depot inside three years.

How are you going to sneak a center with Size 17 feet and an IQ to match into a school that ranks on many lists as the hardest to get into in America?

How are you going to coach at a school where your players can major in inorganic chemistry but not PE?

How are you going to win at a place where the students get a minimum of three hours of homework every night?

You couldn't beat an egg with that collection of nerdballs. That's why what Caltech's coach just did is so mind-melting.

Dr. Oliver Eslinger's Beavers, who hadn't won a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game in 26 years, finally did last week, beating Occidental 46-45 in the last game of the season. It wasn't a scoreboard hoax. After going 0-for-310, the rocket scientists finally figured it out.

Alumni were so proud that night that their pocket protectors nearly burst.

Nobody goes to Caltech to storm the court. You go there to storm space. You go there to work on the Mars rover, invent a car that runs on oxygen and get a corner office at Microsoft.

Have you ever seen mathematicians storm the court? They looked like bankers at a rave. They were fanning on high-fives and gently patting people on the back. It was such unfamiliar territory that some of the Caltech players doused the coach in water. (Sorry, wrong sport.)

At one point, Nobel laureate Dr. Robert Grubbs was hugging the school president at center court. If that's not a hoops first, I'll eat my calculator.

Nobody goes to Caltech to storm the court. You go there to storm space. You go there to work on the Mars rover, invent a car that runs on oxygen and get a corner office at Microsoft.

Only two guys on the team have girlfriends. The starting forward has Star Wars posters on his wall. The star of the team got a perfect ACT score. The coach starts each week asking, "OK, how many guys will have to pull all-nighters this week?"

This is a team that can figure out its shooting percentage as it's falling back on defense. It's not pretty. This season it was 37 percent. And the school's futility is not just in basketball. The baseball team has lost 415 straight conference games, and the women's volleyball team has never won one.

"My whole career," said Caltech's leading scorer, Ryan Elmquist (a computer science major), "people would say to me, 'You guys are never going to win a conference game. What's the point?'"

Elmquist won one game in his freshman season, one his sophomore and none his junior, going 0-25 last season. But Eslinger managed to recruit a bunch of freshmen who didn't have just beautiful minds but beautiful bounce passes, too.

Suddenly, Caltech basketball wasn't the equivalent of Auburn astrophysics. The Beavers had won a colossal four nonconference games.

This was their chance. Braun Gym was packed to the ceiling -- 387 people. Senior night. It was now or never for Elmquist. Losing by eight points with four minutes to play, never was looking like a very good bet.

"I felt like we could get this done," Eslinger said. "I just didn't know how."

Math is how.

Caltech fans
Caltech AthleticsCaltech celebrated its first SCIAC win over Occidental College since beating La Verne 26 years ago.
"It was simple statistical probability," said freshman Todd Cramer (computer science) of Philadelphia. "After 310 games and getting so close so many times, you're bound to win one game, right?"

Elmquist went out and proved the theory. He scored the game's last seven points, including the winning free throw. What do you know? Spheres do fit in cylinders.

Caltech went absolutely irrational. Suddenly, the Beavers were no longer a null set. You'd have thought that somebody on campus had just solved the Hodge conjecture.

"I won two league championships in high school," Cramer said. "And it was nothing like this."

In a 900-student school that has had 31 Nobel winners -- five of them still on the faculty -- basketball was suddenly making national news. No wonder. None of these guys were even born the last time Caltech had won a conference game.

Elmquist went on the "CBS Evening News" with Katie Couric. Cramer got an e-mail from one of his professors, who celebrated the historic win with an unprecedented gift -- a 24-hour extension on his homework.

What's next? Well, Elmquist will program software for Google. A lot of the guys will end up launching rockets for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory next door to the school. One, guard Mason Freedman, plans to be an astronaut.

As for basketball, Caltech hasn't had a winning season since 1954, a record for heartache eclipsed only by the Detroit Lions. They're probably not ready for that any time soon, but that's their goal.

"When I tell people our goal is to win the conference, they go, 'Oh, that's cute!'" Cramer said. "But, honestly, we're not that far away."

These are space nerds. They know far away.

In the meantime, Caltech is living the dream. The other day, Eslinger got to coach the Washington Generals against the Harlem Globetrotters.

Must've been a comfort to him. The Generals once lost 2,495 games in a row.


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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.


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