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Around the Ivies: The Ballad of Touchdown the Bear

By Andrew R. Mooney, Crimson Staff Writer

My apologies, dear reader: there is simply too much to say about Ivy basketball this week to give you anything more than a pithy introduction. Harvard and Yale are tied at the top of the league, Brown, Princeton, and Columbia, are still in the mix, and the Crimson travel to the Killer P’s this weekend. I’m interested to see what the headline guy or gal comes up with for this—how about “Writer, Though Handsome, Neglects Duty”? That ought to work. Onto the games.

COLUMBIA V. BROWN

This should be a fun one. Columbia forward Alex Rosenberg is coming off of a 53-point weekend, including a career night against Harvard in which he put up 34 in a double-overtime loss. The Ivy League’s second-leading scorer, Brown guard Sean McGonagill, has slowed down a bit, going eight-for-30 in two games last weekend, but at least we know he won’t be shy. I’m hoping for some reckless threes and lots of points.

Pick: Brown

PENN V. HARVARD

I have never been to Penn’s home arena, the Palestra, and if I were to inform a veteran college basketball writer of that fact, I would inevitably get some variation of the following:

[Writer swivels head, checking suroundings; takes massive backward step to clear space; waves all limbs in a counterclockwise spiraling motion] “You haven’t been to the PALESTRA?! You HAVE to go to the Palestra! I mean, my God, it’s the PALESTRA!”

The Palestra—known as “the Cathedral of College Basketball”—occupies a special place in college basketball lore because of the uniqueness of its structure and the fact that it is nearly 90 years old and has played host to important basketball games for just about all of its history. But my expectations have been built so high by all the gushing I’ve heard over the years that they’d have to trot out James Naismith arm-in-arm with Yoda for a pregame fête to live up to the hype.

Pick: Harvard

CORNELL V. YALE

Hey, Cornell got its first Division I win last weekend! The Big Red nearly blew it by coughing up a 15-point lead in the space of five minutes, but it held on for a 70-67 win over Dartmouth. But have no fear: with dates against Yale and Brown this weekend, Cornell should quickly return to its getting-blown-out ways. The Bulldogs will cruise to set up their Sunday showdown with Columbia.

Pick: Yale

PRINCETON V. DARTMOUTH

In considering what to say about such an inconsequential game, I am reminded of the efforts of our collegiate papers’ news sections, which occasionally are forced to use very generous definitions of “news” in order to fill up their pages. Take this story from The Daily Princetonian: “Princeton says no injuries due to ice, but students report falling.” Or as it could alternatively have been titled, “It is winter.” The recently elected President of our own paper, Samuel Y. Weinstock, also got his start tackling hard-hitting seasonal stories. In his Pulitzer-winning “Yard Services Recycle Leaves into Mulch,” Weinstock dove into the gripping underworld of regional leaf collection, even interviewing a worker “moments after climbing down a ladder from the roof of Wigglesworth Hall.” Sometimes, during a low moment, I will call to mind the image of an intrepid young Crimson reporter asking a sweaty dude on a roof if he can interview him for a story. (“And, sir, could I trouble you for that middle initial again?”) And then I will smile.

Pick: Princeton

CORNELL V. BROWN

For this battle of bear-affiliated universities, it’s time to bring to light one of the darkest chapters in mascot history: the story of Touchdown, the Cornell bear. Touchdown has one of the more remarkable Wikipedia pages I’ve seen in a while, and if all contained therein is indeed true, then Cornell’s early 20th century athletic directors have a lot to answer for.

Between 1915 and 1939, Cornell had four different live bears as mascots, and for some reason, everyone thought it was pretty much okay to let them loose among crowds of people. The first Touchdown escaped a photo op in Atlantic City, ran into a candy store, and then jumped off a boardwalk into the ocean. After getting rescued by two football players, Touchdown then “walked back to the hotel alone,” because godless, marauding killing machines never require supervision on their trips back to continental breakfast.

That was just the start. Cornell’s football team reportedly left the second Touchdown on the field after a loss to Penn, who took the bear in and brought him on their upcoming trip to the Rose Bowl…where he was never heard from again. That’s right, the Wikipedia page tells us, “The bear’s whereabouts after the trip are unknown.” Again, no one could be troubled to look after what would one day become a 1500-lb destroyer.

The third and fourth Touchdowns met similar fates. Touchdown III was let loose in the Cornell Club in New York City and then disappeared forever (traditional Ithacan sacrificial rite). After a big win against Ohio State, Touchdown IV was allowed to terrorize a Cleveland nightclub before being returned to the wild in the woods of Pennsylvania.

Let’s check in with the head of Cornell’s Athletic Association at the time, Romeyn Berry, for his thoughts on the ursine era. According to Berry, the original Touchdown was “hungry, mean, ill-bred, and dangerous,” and Touchdown III was a “disagreeable beast” with a “fetid odor.” Okay, then. Conclusions to be drawn here: the United States had no laws in the 1910s, and I wish Touchdown would make his long-awaited return to devour an Ithacan or two.

Pick: Brown

PENN V. DARTMOUTH

Speaking of mascots I want to stay far away from, I present to you the Penn Quaker, who goes by the name of…Quaker. Quaker is a cardigan-vested killer whose maniacal, fixed grin is the last thing his victims see before he gobbles them down through his plush jaws. The thought of seeing Quaker in person this weekend is pretty jarring. I might have to turn to the far more comforting unofficial mascot of Dartmouth, Keggy the Keg, for something to soothe my nerves.

Pick: Penn

COLUMBIA V. YALE

Yale may have found the Ivy League’s next big star in sophomore forward Justin Sears, who just captured his second straight Ivy Player of the Week honor. Sears is averaging 15.8 points to go with seven rebounds per game and has been a monster on the offensive glass, currently second in the league in that category. While Sears will be a handful down low, the Lions’ strength is on the perimeter, with Alex Rosenberg and Maodo Lo sustaining their hot shooting from deep as two of the conference’s top three three-point shooters. Columbia has the size to match up with Yale’s big bodies, and I predict the Lions will provide Harvard with a massive assist by dealing the Bulldogs their second Ivy loss.

Pick: Columbia

PRINCETON V. HARVARD

You may have heard at some point this week that Harvard has not won at Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium since 1989. A lot of this is due to the fact that there was a massive gulf in quality between the two programs for many of those years—the Tigers would have dominated the Crimson in most of those games if their jerseys were 100 percent burlap. But there is also evidence that pretty strongly suggests that Princeton also benefits from an uncommonly large home court advantage.

Last March, economics concentrator John Ezekowitz ’13 conducted a study in which he compared the shooting percentages of Princeton and its opponents over the last six seasons for games played at Jadwin and those played elsewhere. Whereas the Tigers show no discernible difference between their shooting at home versus on the road, opponents collectively shot five percent worse than their season three-point average when they took the court at Jadwin.

Ezekowitz hypothesized that the strange layout of the building and the shooting backdrops it creates are to blame for the struggles of the visitors, who, unlike Princeton, are not used to aiming at such a target.

Well, congratulations to the Tigers, I guess; playing in the Thunderdome just might knock Harvard to second in the Ivy League.

Pick: Princeton

—Staff writer Andrew Mooney can be reached at mooney@college.harvard.edu.

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