SOONER OR TAITER: Harvard Has Own Brand of Madness

I have an incurable case of March envy.

My best friend from high school goes to UNC, and last year she called me from a noisy and celebratory Franklin Street, where throngs of students in powder blue had gathered in the wake of the Tar Heels’ fifth national championship. When she saw Roy Williams out running around campus, she rolled down her window and screamed at him, and Ol’ Roy fired back with a smile and a thumbs-up.

There’s something about March Madness that makes it maddening to be left out of it. Across town, Boston College is the experts’ favorite to take down Villanova and punch a ticket to the Final Four in Indianapolis. Even Belmont snuck in with a No. 15 seed. Dartmouth will take on Rutgers on the women’s side, and BC’s women grabbed a No. 8 seed.

But here at Harvard, the closest we’ll ever get to the Final Four is this April, when Boston hosts the 2006 Women’s Final Four. Our campus is bereft of painted faces and “villes” named after our coaches, without the sobriquets given to the raucous student section at Cameron Indoor.

As March Madness comes and goes without a Crimson tint to it, Harvard’s athletic prowess looms elsewhere—and it’s up to us to seek it out.

Everybody knows about Harvard-Yale, Penn-Princeton weekend, and Cornell’s annual trip to the Bright Center. Those are yawners for Duke fans who spent Christmas Break sleeping in a tent in Krzyzewskiville.

We of the campus of 42 varsity sports need to get a little more creative. And with a little guidance and a container or two of face paint, it’s not that hard to do. The lights are out at Lavietes Pavilion, but there’s plenty going on here before and after the last whistle of the NCAA tournament.

This week, the Harvard men’s and women’s fencing teams are competing at the NCAA Championships in Houston—and both have a legitimate shot at a national title. They’re not televised on CBS, but rumor has it that Harvard’s fencers are pretty good. The teams boast two Junior World Champions, and three Crimson fencers will compete in April’s Junior World Championships in South Korea. The women rank in at No. 3 nationally; the men are No. 4.

Any Harvard student who bemoans the dearth of big-time championships should spend a day watching the fencing team in action. One, it’s the only team on campus whose members can say, “I have to get my weapons checked,” and they’re not lying or planning a late-night robbery on JFK.

The setup of the fencing room at the MAC—a long, narrow space that features simultaneous bouts with different weapons—makes for the ultimate, and often the extreme, spectator sport. Fans line up along the walls, mere inches away from the action; in particularly aggressive bouts, fans must lean into the wall to avoid, well, getting hurt. In this the year of the men’s first ever outright Ivy League title, they offer the “automatic tournament berth” neither basketball team could muster this season.

And in precious few weeks, the Harvard and Radcliffe rowing teams begin another illustrious season, one full of expectations and built upon past achievement.

In the past three seasons, the men’s heavyweight, men’s lightweight, and women’s heavyweight programs have all claimed national titles. The men’s heavies pulled off a three-peat last season.

Their work is done early, as races often start before sunrise and end in the mist of the young morning. But the 2,000 meter race course on the Charles, bisected by the Mass. Ave. Bridge, is home to some of the most fanatical fans on the Harvard campus. Crowds show up by 7:30 a.m. on race day, and particularly intense spectators ride alongside the races on their bicycles. Crimson signs float from the Mass. Ave. Bridge. Throngs sit poised at the finish line to begin screaming as soon as boats come into view.

And more often than not, they’re screaming for a good reason: the men’s heavyweights have been perfect in dual competition for three years, and the lightweights lost just once last year. The NCAA basketball champion wins six consecutive games to take home a title; the Harvard heavyweights have won 24 straight races.

Those who arise early to watch Harvard crew races are seldom disappointed.

So in the absence of buzzer beaters, Dick Vitale (seriously, who’s missing him?), and bracket busters, fill out your bracket, but don’t lament our near-annual diss from the Big Dance.

As a particularly raucous group of men’s volleyball fans—equipped with a bongo drum, face paint, and a host of articulate insults for the opponent—demonstrated at a recent home game, sometimes you must make your own magic.

—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at