Dec 15, 2010
Caltech Believes It Will Break 297-Game Conference Losing Streak

PASADENA, Calif. — Of all colleges, it would seem, the California Institute of Technology should have the least problem doing the math. Yet its basketball team was left guessing about the precise length of its conference losing streak, which began in 1985.

Caltech’s Ryan Elmquist looked to shoot on Monday as Eastern Nazarene’s John Cramer went up for a fake.

In the university’s cafeteria the other day, shortly after the Nobel Prize -winning chemist Robert Grubbs stopped by to chat, Caltech Coach Oliver Eslinger and part of his team debated the answer to a problem that began years before any of the players were born.

“You guys all got 800s on your math S.A.T.’s, Eslinger reminded the players.

The freshman guard Mike Paluchniak did the rough multiplication in his head — years times conference games per season — and said that the streak must be around 300. Collin Murphy, a sophomore guard, said he received a text message from a friend before a game late last season reading: If you guys lose today, it’s 300 straight. Good luck.”

Eslinger, the third-year coach, thought it had slipped past 300, too.

Frankly, it is one answer they do not really care to know. After all, current coaches and players had nothing to do with most of Caltech’s losses. And, besides, they think the streak is about to end.

“It’s not if we’re going to win, Paluchniak said. It’s how many we’re going to win.”

Conference play in the N.C.A.A. Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Association begins after the holiday break. Caltech’s losing streak sits at 297, according to the athletic department.

It is a daunting and remarkable history of losing, yet there is an unfamiliar bravado brewing. The season’s first victory, over American Sports University, broke an overall 44-game losing streak that dated to January 2009. A blowout 87-53 home victory Monday against Eastern Nazarene gave Caltech its first two-game winning streak in 18 years.

The last time Caltech (2-5) won two games in a season was in 2001-2. The last time it won three was in 1996-97. The last time Caltech had a winning season was 1954.

“We’re out to show that we’re going to beat you, said Eslinger, a 35-year-old former assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a doctorate in counseling and sports psychology. “And you’re going to come work for us.”

The bold declaration surprised his players. Eslinger found a softer tone.

“We want to win with the smartest students in the world, he said. That is my mission, essentially.”

Caltech is widely considered one of the nation’s top research institutions. Faculty and alumni have won 32 Nobel Prizes. About 35 percent of its graduates go on to earn a Ph.D. One quarter of its 967 undergraduate students arrived this fall with S.A.T. scores of 2, 330 (out of 2, 400) or better, and 98 percent of them were in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class.

The university has a long history of athletics — it was a founding member of the S.C.I.A.C. in 1915 — but a short one of winning. Even now, as Eslinger tries to re-engineer the program, the baseball team has lost 163 straight games, dating to 2003, and has not won a conference game since 1988, a streak of 407 losses. Since joining the conference (which includes California Lutheran, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, La Verne, Occidental, Pomona-Pitzer, Redlands and Whittier), the women’s volleyball team has never won a conference match, a string of 154 losses dating to 2000. The university has not had a football team since 1970.

“We have young people at Caltech who are clearly brilliant, Caltech’s president, Jean-Lou Chameau, said. “They are driven to be the best scientists, the best engineers in the world. They are quite unusual people. You want them to have opportunities to explore other avenues, and they want to. Many of them are musicians, many of them like to be in the theater. They do all kinds of things. And sports are one of those activities we want to encourage.”

Chameau, who arrived in 2006 after serving as the provost at Georgia Tech, hesitated when asked if winning was important.

“Those young people are trying to compete the best they can, so it matters if they win, he said. They really want to win, and we should do everything we can do to help them win. But it does not matter the way it matters at a place like Georgia Tech.”

A basketball in Eslinger’s office is covered in autographs — not of basketball players, but the five Nobel laureates currently on the faculty. Eslinger took over a program in September 2008 that had won 4 of 148 games under its previous coach. Pointing to a photograph of the team he inherited, he counted 5 among the 17 players who had played high school basketball. There were more valedictorians than starters.

Before Eslinger’s arrival, the combination of brains and bungling basketball led to a 2008 documentary called “Quantum Hoops.” It was well received by critics. Eslinger bristles at its mention. It is not the kind of attention he wants, he said.

This year’s 15-member team includes four freshmen and eight sophomores, and the heights of the players in the starting lineup ranges from 6 feet 2 inches to 6-7. None of them have Division I talent, but erase any revenge-of-the-nerds imagery.

Players come from 10 states, and Germany and Australia. Eslinger learned of some from Caltech’s admissions office, which pointed him toward students about to be accepted for their academics and who mentioned in their application that they played basketball.

“Obviously you have to target math, science and engineering prospective students, who also score well on their S.A.T.’s and are in the top 10 percent of their class, Eslinger said. But we have the whole world to recruit from.”

Caltech has no athletic scholarships. But the chance to play basketball, and “to be on the ground floor of developing our program into a competitive one, as Eslinger put it, was a clincher for many.

I was looking for the best education I could get in the country, and I also wanted to continue to play basketball, said Paluchniak, a 6-2 freshman from Oostburg, Wis., where he was president of one team (chess), captain of another (basketball) and class valedictorian. (There were only 80 kids, he said with a shrug.)

Across the table, Murphy, a 6-foot sophomore from Wasilla, Alaska, wore a T-shirt that read, I’m no rocket surgeon.” He once tried to argue a foul call, to no avail, by explaining conservation of momentum principles to the referee.

Their biographies are a mix of past basketball exploits (all-conference honors, state playoff participants) and brainy stereotypes (science fair winners, math club captains). Six players had internships at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory last summer. Another worked for Apple.

One of the top players, the senior Ryan Elmquist, missed a practice last week while interviewing.

“In the next couple of weeks, he’ll have a job — making more than you and I combined, probably, Eslinger said.

With no real pressure to win, Eslinger finds himself in a rare position in college athletics. But with a serious and earnest demeanor, he wants to change the culture so that victories are not merely celebrated, but expected.

In October, Caltech held a Midnight Madness, mimicking the showy pep rallies that mark the first day of practice for many programs. About 600 people came, turning Caltech’s tiny gym into an enthusiastic hive.

Now the team wants to convert those fans into believers.

People are going to be surprised, said Alex Runkel, a 6-5 sophomore from Germany. That’s good.”

Runkel said he knew nothing of the conference losing streak when he arrived. Players, like their coach, do not take responsibility for something that predates their birth.

Still, they admit that a 297-game conference losing streak is astounding. It may defy laws of probability. For 25 years, there has not been one game where the team came out hot, the opponent was cold, and the Caltech Beavers slipped away with an upset?

“If you took a complicated equation, on the face of it, you’d say, Wow, that is really, really difficult, Eslinger said. But when you break it down, you say, Well, that makes perfect sense.”

He looked at his players for further explanation.

“Isn’t there an equation or a math theory about that?” Eslinger asked.

Nope. Not that anyone knew.

Caltech Believes It Will Break 297-Game Conference Losing Streak

New York Times

PASADENA, Calif. — Of all colleges, it would seem, the California Institute of Technology should have the least problem doing the math. Yet its basketball team was left guessing about the precise length of its conference losing streak, which began in 1985.

Caltech’s Ryan Elmquist looked to shoot on Monday as Eastern Nazarene’s John Cramer went up for a fake.

In the university’s cafeteria the other day, shortly after the Nobel Prize -winning chemist Robert Grubbs stopped by to chat, Caltech Coach Oliver Eslinger and part of his team debated the answer to a problem that began years before any of the players were born.

“You guys all got 800s on your math S.A.T.’s, Eslinger reminded the players.

The freshman guard Mike Paluchniak did the rough multiplication in his head — years times conference games per season — and said that the streak must be around 300. Collin Murphy, a sophomore guard, said he received a text message from a friend before a game late last season reading: If you guys lose today, it’s 300 straight. Good luck.”

Eslinger, the third-year coach, thought it had slipped past 300, too.

Frankly, it is one answer they do not really care to know. After all, current coaches and players had nothing to do with most of Caltech’s losses. And, besides, they think the streak is about to end.

“It’s not if we’re going to win, Paluchniak said. It’s how many we’re going to win.”

Conference play in the N.C.A.A. Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Association begins after the holiday break. Caltech’s losing streak sits at 297, according to the athletic department.

It is a daunting and remarkable history of losing, yet there is an unfamiliar bravado brewing. The season’s first victory, over American Sports University, broke an overall 44-game losing streak that dated to January 2009. A blowout 87-53 home victory Monday against Eastern Nazarene gave Caltech its first two-game winning streak in 18 years.

The last time Caltech (2-5) won two games in a season was in 2001-2. The last time it won three was in 1996-97. The last time Caltech had a winning season was 1954.

“We’re out to show that we’re going to beat you, said Eslinger, a 35-year-old former assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a doctorate in counseling and sports psychology. And you’re going to come work for us.”

The bold declaration surprised his players. Eslinger found a softer tone.

“We want to win with the smartest students in the world, he said. That is my mission, essentially.”

Caltech is widely considered one of the nation’s top research institutions. Faculty and alumni have won 32 Nobel Prizes . About 35 percent of its graduates go on to earn a Ph.D. One quarter of its 967 undergraduate students arrived this fall with S.A.T. scores of 2, 330 (out of 2, 400) or better, and 98 percent of them were in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class.

The university has a long history of athletics — it was a founding member of the S.C.I.A.C. in 1915 — but a short one of winning. Even now, as Eslinger tries to re-engineer the program, the baseball team has lost 163 straight games, dating to 2003, and has not won a conference game since 1988, a streak of 407 losses. Since joining the conference (which includes California Lutheran, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, La Verne, Occidental, Pomona-Pitzer, Redlands and Whittier), the women’s volleyball team has never won a conference match, a string of 154 losses dating to 2000. The university has not had a football team since 1970.

“We have young people at Caltech who are clearly brilliant, Caltech’s president, Jean-Lou Chameau, said. They are driven to be the best scientists, the best engineers in the world. They are quite unusual people. You want them to have opportunities to explore other avenues, and they want to. Many of them are musicians, many of them like to be in the theater. They do all kinds of things. And sports are one of those activities we want to encourage.”

Chameau, who arrived in 2006 after serving as the provost at Georgia Tech, hesitated when asked if winning was important.

“Those young people are trying to compete the best they can, so it matters if they win, he said. They really want to win, and we should do everything we can do to help them win. But it does not matter the way it matters at a place like Georgia Tech.”

A basketball in Eslinger’s office is covered in autographs — not of basketball players, but the five Nobel laureates currently on the faculty. Eslinger took over a program in September 2008 that had won 4 of 148 games under its previous coach. Pointing to a photograph of the team he inherited, he counted 5 among the 17 players who had played high school basketball. There were more valedictorians than starters.

Before Eslinger’s arrival, the combination of brains and bungling basketball led to a 2008 documentary called “Quantum Hoops.” It was well received by critics. Eslinger bristles at its mention. It is not the kind of attention he wants, he said.

This year’s 15-member team includes four freshmen and eight sophomores, and the heights of the players in the starting lineup ranges from 6 feet 2 inches to 6-7. None of them have Division I talent, but erase any revenge-of-the-nerds imagery.

Players come from 10 states, and Germany and Australia. Eslinger learned of some from Caltech’s admissions office, which pointed him toward students about to be accepted for their academics and who mentioned in their application that they played basketball.

“Obviously you have to target math, science and engineering prospective students, who also score well on their S.A.T.’s and are in the top 10 percent of their class, Eslinger said. But we have the whole world to recruit from.”

Caltech has no athletic scholarships. But the chance to play basketball, and “to be on the ground floor of developing our program into a competitive one, as Eslinger put it, was a clincher for many.

I was looking for the best education I could get in the country, and I also wanted to continue to play basketball, said Paluchniak, a 6-2 freshman from Oostburg, Wis., where he was president of one team (chess), captain of another (basketball) and class valedictorian. (There were only 80 kids, he said with a shrug.)

Across the table, Murphy, a 6-foot sophomore from Wasilla, Alaska, wore a T-shirt that read, I’m no rocket surgeon.” He once tried to argue a foul call, to no avail, by explaining conservation of momentum principles to the referee.

Their biographies are a mix of past basketball exploits (all-conference honors, state playoff participants) and brainy stereotypes (science fair winners, math club captains). Six players had internships at NASA ‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory last summer. Another worked for Apple.

One of the top players, the senior Ryan Elmquist, missed a practice last week while interviewing.

“In the next couple of weeks, he’ll have a job — making more than you and I combined, probably, Eslinger said.

With no real pressure to win, Eslinger finds himself in a rare position in college athletics. But with a serious and earnest demeanor, he wants to change the culture so that victories are not merely celebrated, but expected.

In October, Caltech held a Midnight Madness, mimicking the showy pep rallies that mark the first day of practice for many programs. About 600 people came, turning Caltech’s tiny gym into an enthusiastic hive.

Now the team wants to convert those fans into believers.

People are going to be surprised, said Alex Runkel, a 6-5 sophomore from Germany. That’s good.”

Runkel said he knew nothing of the conference losing streak when he arrived. Players, like their coach, do not take responsibility for something that predates their birth.

Still, they admit that a 297-game conference losing streak is astounding. It may defy laws of probability. For 25 years, there has not been one game where the team came out hot, the opponent was cold, and the Caltech Beavers slipped away with an upset?

“If you took a complicated equation, on the face of it, you’d say, Wow, that is really, really difficult, Eslinger said. But when you break it down, you say, Well, that makes perfect sense.”

He looked at his players for further explanation.

“Isn’t there an equation or a math theory about that?” Eslinger asked.

Nope. Not that anyone knew.






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