No scholarships, no problem for Cornell

Steve Donahue had big dreams when he took the head-coaching job at Cornell.

But big can be a subjective word depending on where you stand in the basketball food chain.

Ten years on the Penn bench made Donahue both a dreamer and a realist. He believed Cornell could go from conference afterthought to conference player, but he also knew that in terms of national prominence, there would always be a glass ceiling for Ivy League schools.

In one magical weekend of basketball, Cornell has managed to both raise the roof and shatter the ceiling.

Ali Farokhmanesh may be the new face of Cinderella, but Cornell is living the ash girl's dream. When the Big Red face Kentucky on Thursday night -- a battle already billed as a battle between future NBA draft picks and their future financial advisers -- it will be the first time an Ivy League school has played in a Sweet 16 game since 1979.

It's been 12 years since an Ivy team won a tournament game, for that matter.

"We had three NBA players at Penn [on the 1994-95 team],'' said Donahue, referencing Jerome Allen, Matt Maloney and Ira Bowman. "There's no way anyone can ever envision something like this."

To really appreciate the Ivy drought, consider who has come and gone on Ivy League benches in the past 31 years.

Pete Carril, the Hall of Fame Princeton coach and man whose offense is used on NBA courts from Sacramento to Philadelphia, made 11 trips to the NCAA tournament. He won one game.

Fran Dunphy, Donahue's formeer boss and mentor, won 10 Ivy League titles at Penn, each with a ticket to the dance. He won one tournament game.

John Thompson III resuscitated Georgetown from floundering has-been to Final Four team in three years. In his four seasons at Princeton, he never won an NCAA tourney game.

"Cornell has the four ingredients that you need for success: great leadership, excellent shooters, they are beautifully coached and they got a pretty good draw,'' Carril said. "But really what they're doing, it's impossible, just impossible.''

What Cornell has done this season isn't just surprising. It's borderline miraculous.

While the NCAA is busting renegade schools and coaches for slipping backdoor benefits to players, Cornell can't even slip its players a scholarship.

At Ivy schools it is pay to play in the literal sense, the member institutions of the Ancient Eight holding onto those ancient principles of no athletic scholarships and damning its flagship programs to compete with two arms and a leg tied behind their backs while hopping on the other foot.

The price tag at Cornell this year for tuition, room and board: $50,114. Even though Ivy schools can work out creative financial aid/grant packages, the sticker shock is often enough to turn most families away.

Mix in a basketball budget of $821,000 in 2008 (compared to $8.5 million for Kentucky) and the dollars and cents don't make sense.

"It can turn off a lot of people,'' Donahue admitted.

The money is one thing; grades are the other. It's not exactly breaking news that Ivy requirements are a touch more taxing than that of their collegiate competitors.

Cornell's academic challenges are all the more complicated by the school's unique setup. The university is both privately endowed and the state of New York's federal land-granted institution. Students are admitted to one of seven undergraduate colleges and schools, and each one has its own admission standards, policies and faculty.

Donahue not only has to find kids who can either afford Cornell or aren't turned off by the price, but also can find their academic niche and earn admission.

"It's very hard for all of us to compete on a national level basketball-wise,'' Donahue admitted. "I understand this is a very, very special group. Believe me, I know that.''

That the Big Red has moved on without the benefit of a high seed is all the more remarkable. For one week Cornell was poised to earn the Ivy League's Holy Grail -- a seed out of the double digits. The Big Red joined the Top 25 rankings on Feb. 1, rose to No. 22 a week later and promptly lost to a struggling Penn team on Feb. 12, spiraling them out of the rankings and any chance of a high seed.

Cornell is a 12.

In the past 20 years, an Ivy League team has been seeded as the favorite just twice. In 1991, the Tigers were the 8-seed and lost by two to No. 9 Villanova.

In 1998, Bill Carmody's Princeton team, ranked in the Top 25 since December and as high as eighth by the end of the regular season, took a No. 5 seed to Hartford, Conn., to score that surprise Ancient Eight victory, beating UNLV. The Tigers lost to No. 4 seed Michigan State in the second round.

"We played Georgetown, Arkansas, Villanova, the best teams in the country,'' Carril said. "That's what always makes it so hard, so, what seed is Cornell? A 12? That's pretty tough, so it's great what they're doing.''

No one knows and appreciates that more than Donahue. When he arrived in Ithaca, it had been 10 years since the Big Red registered so much as a hiccup on the Ivy League Richter scale. Cornell had but one conference crown before he came to the shores of Lake Cayuga.

He had yanked his wife and kids out of their Philly roots and wondered more than once if he had made a huge, even career-killing mistake.

But through stubbornness or desperation or a combination of both, Donahue stuck it out, keeping his goals low and his expectations in check.

"We won at Dartmouth four years ago to finish 8-6 in the league and I was absolutely thrilled,'' Donahue said. "We had a winning record. So on Sunday when I'm standing there in that arena and the people in the stands are chanting, 'Cor-nell, Cor-nell,' I stopped and just listened. I mean, who could have dreamed this?''

Only a man with a dream sprinkled with reality.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.