Editor’s Note: Dean Oliver is a former player and assistant at Caltech. He currently works as Director of Production Analytics at ESPN.
Caltech is known for some of the smartest science and technology graduates in the world.
It is also known for pranks. Changing the Hollywood sign to “CALTECH.” Changing the 1984 Rose Bowl scoreboard from “UCLA 38, Illinois 9” to “Caltech 38, MIT 9.” Distributing T-shirts to MIT freshman that read: “MIT: Because not everyone can go to Caltech.”
Then there was that basketball drought. Ah yes, the basketball drought. That was also something Caltech was known for.
The hoops program was recently chronicled in an acclaimed documentary, Quantum Hoops, for not having won a conference game since 1985. Various national media outlets picked up on the story through the years and the losing streak lived on, season after season.
Then, just like that, news came across here at ESPN last night that the Caltech basketball team had broken the losing streak, winning 46-45 over Occidental College (the school that President Obama briefly attended). After 26 years and 310 straight losses in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the Beavers were finally -- at last -- victorious.
As a Caltech grad and player in the early part of the streak (when no one thought of it as a streak), I celebrated the news with the sort of pride that perhaps only a student or an alum can truly feel. This morning, I was inspired to wear my Caltech shirt to the office and to coin the phrase “Caltech Nation” when talking to co-workers (Google “Caltech Nation” and you won’t get any hits for this phrase, so I must have coined it).
Then it occurred to me that it could all be one big masterful prank. Suddenly worried that Calvin I. Techer had fooled the world, I dug in a little bit to confirm that it is indeed real.
Much to my delight, it is. It actually happened.
My ties to Caltech are stronger than just my playing days. I am one of the rare Caltech grads who works in sports. I thought about basketball and differential equations simultaneously for much of my four years as a student. Coach Gene Victor, a longtime successful junior college coach before taking over at Caltech in 1987, gave me the opportunity to use stats to help him coach. He installed me as an assistant coach while I was a junior.
Then, when I went to the University of North Carolina for graduate school in engineering, coach Victor put me in touch with Bill Bertka, an assistant coach with the Lakers, to get me a job doing advance scouting. That ultimately led to many years in the NBA with the Seattle SuperSonics and Denver Nuggets, applying statistical methods to evaluate draft picks, trades and coaching tactics. I only recently joined ESPN to help them build a sports analytics group. But Caltech basketball gave me this career, a career that didn’t even exist back in the 1980s.
In watching the videos from last night’s game, I saw a big day in the life of these kids, one that creates long-lasting memories -- for them and for those of us who played there. Having to suffer through losing in order to “learn” is not easy for anyone, especially when a lot of the Caltech kids have been the best at most things their whole lives.
There were lots of reasons for us to play basketball there through the losing, reasons often given to support having athletic programs at universities -- teamwork, camaraderie, discipline, stress relief. But last night, it was the win that mattered. We ultimately played basketball to win the games after all.
So thanks to Coach Oliver Eslinger and thanks to the whole team. Even if we weren’t there to see it, for those of us who love Caltech and what it stands for, we’ll always remember this win.