The Remarkable Story of the Caltech Beavers Men’s Basketball Team

The gym on the campus of California Institute of Technology (Caltech) doesn’t inspire confidence: it is small, perhaps even claustrophobic. There are many high schools in the country that have larger gyms.

Caltech is a school deeply focused on academics. Athletics, for most students here, is an outlet. The school doesn’t offer any athletic scholarships; the athletic department at Caltech operates on a very modest budget of ~$1M.

When I first found out about Caltech’s basketball team, it was via a graduate student (Josh) who was looking into applying there for undergrad as well. At one point during his visit to Caltech, one recruiting student asked him if Josh was thinking of trying out for the men’s basketball team. Josh asked: why do you ask that? The recruiter explained: “You’re 6’2″. You’d be one of the tallest players on the team!”

A recent New York Times article about Caltech’s basketball team, “Caltech Seeks Winning Basketball Equation,” inspired me to write this post.

You see, Caltech’s basketball team holds one of the most infamous records in the history of sports. Caltech has not won a single game in its conference, the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (the SCIAC), since 1985. As of this writing, Caltech has lost 297 consecutive games in conference play: this is the longest losing streak in all of basketball (college or NBA)It’s also one of the longest losing streaks in all of sports. UPDATE (2/23/11): on February 22, 2011, Caltech’s basketball team defeated Occidental College with a score of 46-45, snapping its 310 game losing streak (stretching a total of 26 years!) in conference play. What an amazing achievement.

Though as the New York Times article attests, some think the streak has grown above 300 already:

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. Besides, they think the streak is about to end.

Overall, Caltech’s basketball team appears to be the epitome of loser:

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.

But when Caltech wins, what a jubilation! Such was the case on January 7, 2007, when the Caltech Beavers beat Bard College 81-52. The win was significant, because it snapped Caltech’s 207 game losing streak in NCAA Division III play.

I didn’t attend that game (a new quarter at Caltech would begin the following day, January 8), but news of the victory spread far and wide on campus. Certainly the undergraduates were much more spirited about this news, but the graduate community joined in the fervor as well (can you say Beaver Fever?).

So important was that victory for Caltech, that ESPN showed up (with heavy duty camera equipment) on campus later that week. They were taping a segment that would air for College GameDay; that video is embedded below. One of the segments that ESPN shot was during one of my classes, ACM 95/100 (mentioned here) with Niles Pierce. This was the start of part 2 (of 3) of the course: differential equations. I remember the camera guy mentioning, prior to taping, that he will walk around the classroom to capture some footage. Most of the filming was done from a distance (so as to minimally interrupt the class), but there was this one great moment where the camera guy stepped onto the platform and got within three or four feet within Niles to get this footage (most of the students in attendance laughed at this approach). If you click through that link, you’ll note that the differential equation is rather simple: y’-y=t. I almost felt embarrassed that they were filming this portion (because all of the students in the class solved this kind of equation in their high school calculus classes). So when that video aired, I always made sure to mention (and still do): this was just the second day of class, and believe me, things got a lot more difficult in the coming weeks.

I remember when the class finished, the students rushing out of the doors and wondering what else ESPN was up to that day. Turns out they filmed in a few parts of the campus, though they didn’t use all the footage for College GameDay.

Nevertheless, that victory, combined with national attention, was a tremendous inspiration to students, the faculty, and staff. While many of the undergraduate students were interested in basketball, it was the graduate students (myself included) who suddenly started paying attention. The attendance at the games skyrocketed, people started making signs, and a Beavers fan club was officially born. It was a wonderful experience, even if Caltech couldn’t win again after their victory against Bard College. Later that month, the documentary tracking the Caltech basketball team at the end of 2006, Quantum Hoops, would be released. It was screened to the Caltech community at Beckman Auditorium; the documentary is excellent, and I highly recommend watching it if you’re at all interested in the Caltech Beavers basketball team. Of course, prior to the screening in January, an absolutely necessary addendum had to be made: Caltech won a game!

The whole story is remarkable, really. How do you keep coming back to the court, day in and day out, knowing that you’re likely to get clobbered by your opponent, once again. This was the typical reaction from other schools:

“When you play against Caltech, it’s not about whether you are going to win or not,” whispers Allan Gibson, father of Whittier guard, Marcus Gibson. “It’s about … having a point margin that’s respectable.”

So it’s as though Caltech is expected to lose every single time. And when they win, it’s a statistical aberration (some would call it a miracle). For most people, it’s hard to rationalize how losing at such a profound (and consistent) level affects you mentally. How do you bounce back every night? How does the thrill of playing become diminished when you’ve lost so much, so often (consider that there have been dozens of players at Caltech who’ve never tasted victory in the four years they’ve played for the team)? I don’t have the answer to this question, but it’s something which is worth reflecting.

Asked about the importance of winning, Caltech’s president Jean-Lou Chameau responded:

“Those young people are trying to compete the best they can, so it matters if they win…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.”

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Update: After posting this article, I did some more research about Caltech and stumbled upon this excellent essay “Why Caltech Is in a Class by Itself.” I highly recommend reading it to get a semblance for the great meritocracy that is Caltech (no athletic scholarships, no legacy preferences, and no attention paid to satisfy affirmative action.)

For another perspective, watch the video below (it aired on ESPN’s College GameDay on 01/20/2007; ESPN came to film at Caltech after the Caltech Beavers men’s basketball team beat Bard College, snapping Caltech’s astonishing 207 game losing streak in NCAA Division III play). The transcript of the video is below. Note that the titles I cite in parentheses are correct as of the 2007 release date of the video…

Rece Davis: While we’re enjoying the Air Jordan program, the other programs have more faceplants than Johnny Knoxville. The unknown losers grab a moment in the rarified air…

Travis Haussler: “And we said, ‘Hey, if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to win this one. It’s not maybe we’ll win this and maybe we won’t. It’s we are going to win this.”

Rece Davis: The basketball antithesis of North Carolina is Caltech. Caltech’s trophy case boasts more than 30 Nobel Prize winners. But Caltech’s mission is to investigate the most challenging fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial interdisciplinary atmosphere. Sounds like really good work if you can get it. But at a school where quantum mechanics problems are routinely solved, quin-tec’s movie about in a 94 by 50 rectangle was positively vexing. Chris Connolly tells us how the Beavers finally made a quantum leap.

Chris Connolly: California Institute of Technology in Pasadena takes pride in their 31 [as of this writing, 32] Nobel-prize winning lecturers, professors, and alumni. And their two unforgettable moments in sports. First, at the 1961 Rose Bowl, when students cracked the flip card code, for the University of Washington cheering section, producing an unexpected tribute to Caltech. Then at the 1984 Rose Bowl, between UCLA and Illinois, when enterprising Caltech-sters hacked into the scoreboard.

Caltech doesn’t have a football program. It does have a basketball program, that from 1996 until this year [2007] had lost 207 consecutive Division III games.

Wendell Jack (Caltech athletic director): Our student athletes are very focused on what they’re doing academically and what their career goals are. I don’t think we have anybody that has aspirations to play in Europe, or the NBA, for that matters.

Travis Haussler (Caltech junior forward): Well, basketball at Caltech means an outlet for me. It keeps me sane, mostly, here.

Niles Pierce: This is our differential equation…

Chris Connolly: Just completing the school’s famously tough assignments, known as problem sets, requires arduous work that stretches into the wee hours.

Roy Dow (head coach): Collectively, the challenge is that they don’t get any sleep. Like I know when we played Occidental the other night, I know that…that at least half the roster was up until 4 or 5 in the morning doing work.

Chris Connolly: At Caltech since 2003, coach Roy Dow knows fatigues isn’t his only hurdle. Finding players with experience is.

How many of these players were valedictorians of their high school class?

Roy Dow: This year I think we’re down to four. Um, last year we had eight valedictorians and only six guys that played high school basketball.

Chris Connolly: The numbers are no more rational this year. Take Chris Yu, an aeronatics major with a pilots license, who’s already interned at NASA.

Chris, did you play basketball in high school?

Chris Yu: Uh, not for the school team.

Chris Connolly: You didn’t play high school basketball?

Chris Yu: No. No.

Chris Connolly: And you all of a sudden just said: “I want to be on the basketball team in college”?

Chris Yu: Yeah. That’s basically what happened.

Roy Dow: We are going to improve. And hopefully our competitive level is going to improve. But the wins right now, with the makeup of our roster, the reality is that…that there’s not going to be a lot of wins.

Chris Connolly: These students, to achieve at a high level in the classroom and in the lab, have faced relentless defeat on the court. As much as 63 points.

Ryan Sinnett (Caltech senior guard): I mean, I guess that’s life, right? You can’t always win. And if you win at everything, you’re not going to be ready once you get out of here. It’s kind of a nice contrast to academics.

Travis Haussler: We play the same teams every year. And to lose to those teams every year for twenty years is hard.

Chris Connolly: Then on January 6 [2007], all the way from New York State, the Eagles of artistically-rarefied Bard College, came to Caltech’s Pasadena campus for a game. Caltech, wearing the home whites, found itself jumping out to an early lead.

Travis Haussler: Half time was great. We were up seven. And the locker room was like you’ve never seen it. Just yelling and screaming. Just completely electric.

Chris Connolly: At the start of the second half, Caltech went on a 21-6 run.

Travis Haussler: Then with five minutes to go, we were up in the mid-twenties. Maybe up 25 points. And we just knew.

Ryan Sinnett: I’ve actually convinced myself that we’re going to win, you know, every game we go into. So that was how I felt in Bard. And then it came true, and it was like “Wow, this time I was right.”

Chris Connolly: By a score of 81-52, the streak was over and the party was on. What was the scene in the locker room like afterwards?

Ryan Sinnett: Just people were knocking, slamming into lockers, throwing each other all over the place. I am sure we would have been popping champagne bottles if we had them.

Chris Connolly: Instead, they [The Caltech Men's basketball team] celebrated at In-N-Out Burger.

Chris Yu: I’ve done a lot of stuff at this school that have been really rewarding, and this has got to rank up there.

Wendell Jack: I really believe this is the way college athletics was intended to be when it first started out. And this is … this is pure amaterusm. These are kids that play because they want to play. Because they love to play. Because they have the opportunity to play.

Roy Dow: I think college basketball needs Caltech as much as it needs Stanford, or Duke, or UCLA.

Chris Connolly: Further experiments may be necessary. But winning at Caltech may be contagious. Last Saturday, as the men’s team cheered them on, the Caltech women’s team won the first conference game in the history of the program. As one Caltech lecturer [Albert Einstein] might have put it: athletic success really is relative.

Caltech Men’s Basketball Team: GO TECH!