“Fight fiercely, Harvard!
“Fight, fight, fight!
“Demonstrate to them our skill.
“Albeit they possess the might.
“Nonetheless we have the will.’’
— Tom Lehrer, Harvard, 1945
SPOKANE, Wash. — It is a cute bracket entry — “Harvard” — nestled into the long left column, alongside the royalty of the sport from Florida, Syracuse, Michigan State, Connecticut, Virginia, Kansas, Villanova, and UCLA.
Harvard? For those who don’t follow college basketball, seeing Harvard in a bracket is more of a shocker than seeing the Shockers of Wichita State. It’s as if a guy named “Einstein” appeared at the NFL Combine.
Let’s see how you do on the Wonderlic, Einstein.
Let’s see what you got against Michigan State, Harvard.
The Crimson play the Spartans Saturday night for a spot in next weekend’s East Regional at Madison Square Garden. The President of the United States, a man who got his law degree at Harvard, has picked Michigan State to win the NCAA Tournament.
The Spartans and Crimson make for an odd matchup. Harvard and Michigan State are simply not natural rivals. They played four basketball games against one another in the 1940s (Harvard went 2-2 at Jenison Field House), but that was long before 1979 when Magic Johnson, Gregory Kelser, and Jay Vincent put East Lansing on the roundball map, thumping Larry Bird’s undefeated Indiana State Sycamores in the Championship Final.
There’s not much of a natural rivalry between East Lansing and Harvard Square. The Spartans have appeared in 27 NCAA basketball tournaments and made it to eight Final Fours. They are 57-26 lifetime in the tournament. Harvard has been here four times, compiling a 2-4 record, including Thursday’s toppling of top-20 Cincinnati.
We can all be glad Harvard isn’t playing Michigan State in football Saturday night. In 2014, the Big Ten eats the Ivy League for breakfast. The Spartans are an NFL factory, won the Rose Bowl last year, and have won six national championships. They gave the world the late Bubba Smith.
But Big Ten snobs would be wise to think twice before scoffing at Harvard’s place in football history. Harvard won nine national championships between 1890 and 1919 and beat Oregon in the 1920 Rose Bowl.
Football fans everywhere can thank Harvard for the eternal width (53⅓ yards) of a football field. In the early days of collegiate football, the forefathers of the NCAA wanted to widen fields to reduce injuries, but Harvard’s reinforced concrete stadium (built in 1903) featured minimal sideline space. Since it would have been impossible for Harvard to widen its field, the idea was scrapped. The Big Ten Behemoths can thank Harvard’s Teddy Roosevelt.
Harvard and Michigan State football have one thing in common: The most controversial game in the history of both teams ended in a tie. In East Lansing, they still talk about Ara Parseghian settling for a 10-10 tie in the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State Game of the Century. At Harvard Stadium, we forever will have the 29-29 Miracle of 1968, a game that featured Tommy Lee Jones playing the role of a Harvard offensive lineman.
Harvard dropped out of big-time sports back in the days when football and basketball teams were morphing into “programs.’’ Harvard continued to field basketball and football teams, but never sold its academic soul in the quest to build a revenue-producing “program.”
It won a national hockey championship in 1989 (beating Michigan State in the semifinals), sent Don Sweeney and Teddy Donato to the Bruins, and most recently gave the sports world Ryan Fitzpatrick and Linsanity. But most of the Harvard sports stories are rooted in the cute, the quaint, and the quirky (what other school has a fight song that includes words like “albeit’’ and “nonetheless’’?):
■ Joe Kennedy Sr. played baseball at Harvard. His sons Joe and Jack were Harvard sailors, while Bobby, Ted and Joe Jr. later played for the football team. Ted Kennedy caught a touchdown pass in the 1955 Harvard-Yale game.
■ Harvard’s baseball team played an exhibition against the Red Sox in the first game ever played at Fenway Park in 1912.
■ Harvard man Dick Button won two Olympic gold medals in figure skating.
■ Harvard brothers Bobby and Billy Cleary were on the US Olympic gold-medal hockey team at Squaw Valley in 1960 (Harry Sinden played for Canada).
■ CBS’s James Brown played for the Harvard basketball team for three years in the 1970s.
■ Channel 5’s Mike Lynch kicked a game-winning field goal for Harvard in the 1975 Yale game.
■ Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was a Harvard basketball captain in 1987.
■ The Winklevoss twins rowed in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and amused us all in “The Social Network.’’
On Saturday night, Harvard steps into the big time again. There is nothing cute, quaint, or quirky about beating Michigan State and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in New York, New York. That’s serious ball. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.