Life of Brian: Ivies' Motto: Just Go .500, Baby

Levien Gym, home of the win-starved Columbia men’s basketball team, was in face-saving mode this weekend. On the verge of the Ivies’ first winless campaign in 40 years, the embattled doormat hosted two of the league’s next-easiest marks, Harvard and Dartmouth, in its penultimate chance to spare itself some embarrassment.

Saturday night was also Senior Night, and the arrival of the Crimson—down on its luck as well after a setback at Cornell Friday and a pretty lousy season in general—gave Levien Gym a halfway decent shot at witnessing a sight unseen in almost three months. A win.

But Harvard, despite some late scares, took the opportunity to kick the Lions while they were down, winning 66-63 and making Columbia 0-12 in Ivy play. With the Lions’ two remaining games coming at Penn and Princeton, the loss likely assured them of a winless season. Speculation abounds that a pink slip may now await their coach, Armond Hill.

Not that Hill’s dismissal would be fair. But this new low at Morningside Heights has been enough to make even the school’s usually indifferent athletic administration blush.

“I’m obviously very disappointed with where we are,” athletic director John Reeves told the Columbia Spectator last Friday. “There is no way that anybody in their right mind can be satisfied with that record.”

By all accounts, Hill is a decent and principled man, a Princeton alum who brought Pete Carill’s system with him to Columbia, sans the success. He is, admirably, taking the high road through all this. In an interview with the Spectator on Friday, he placed the blame completely on his own shoulders.

“People like to say that you’re in the Ivy League, and it’s not all about winning, but it’s about teaching,” Hill said. “That’s not true—the bottom line is always your win and loss record.”

It probably should be, but is it really? After next weekend, the six Ivy teams besides Penn and Princeton will likely have combined for just four winning league records in the last four years. And, at last count, none of the those non-Killer P’s had secured any more NCAA tourney bids than Hill—that is to say, any at all. Yet, besides Hill, only one of those teams’ coaches has been rumored to be on the way out.

Truth is, the only Ivy coaches who’ll garner much attention in any given year are the ones on either extreme of the standings. Anything in between is safe territory, since it’s plenty possible in this league to make a living out of purely being competitive. Yes, Ivy purgatory is a very comfortable place.

John Feinstein acknowledged as much two weeks ago at a Harvard panel discussion. Asked if he thought the league’s coaches were frustrated by the Ivies’ self-imposed obstacles to competitiveness on a national basis, he suggested that most of them might like the security of the league’s softened expectations more than they think.

“They might realize, ‘You know, our lives aren’t that bad,” Feinstein said.

Hill is a victim of a lot of things in the controversy now surrounding his team, but high expectations are not one of them. At Columbia they’re low to start with, but even more so this year considering the Lions graduated four of their five starters from last year’s team, including 2000-01 Ivy Player of the Year Craig Austin.

Everyone knew a rebuilding year was in store for Columbia, but now that it’s headed for a winless season, people want blood. Losing, it would appear, is not Hill’s sin. The magnitude of it is. A fifth-place finish, as Hill posted last year, doesn’t offend Columbia’s sensibilities. A last-place finish apparently does.

Should Hill lose his job, his fate may have been decided by a matter of 24 points. That was the combined margin of defeat in Columbia’s four closest losses. A different result in those games probably would have been enough to stave off the vultures and give Hill a chance to try his luck again in what figures to be a wide-open race next season.

Hill’s team’s struggles come on the heels of the Columbia football team’s 0-7 showing in league play last fall, a debacle that claimed Lions coach Ray Tellier. Does the rest of the league care that Columbia’s coaches may soon be falling left and right? It should. The recent push to de-emphasize Ivy athletics hurts the league’s top programs a lot more than it does a Columbia, which has competitiveness issues beyond its head coaches and which, should it decide to fire Hill, will all the more appear to be acting for appearance’s sake. Armond Hill may or may not be the best person to lead Columbia basketball, but if he’s not, it shouldn’t be simply because of the shock value of the number in the school’s win column.

Hill’s team this year is God-awful, but then, that’s not the point. There are other Ivy teams that, at one point or another, haven’t been much better.

The lesson in all this appears to be that every coach is permitted a down year or two or four—just not one as bad as Hill’s. It’s OK to stink, just not this much.

—Staff writer Brian E. Fallon can be reached at bfallon@fas.harvard.edu.