On mornings like this, with all of America proclaiming the triumph of the Retrievers of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, over the University of Virginia Cavaliers as the greatest upset in college basketball history, I take you back to an evening in the spring of 1996 for a sense of sweet perspective.
It was UMBC’s graduation night. There were exactly 1,999 graduates lined up to collect their diplomas. There were so many that it took a full hour-and-45-minutes to call every one of their names, thus leaving me enough time not only to kvell that one of the Bachelor of Arts grads was named Erik Olesker but also time to read the names of 63 Ph.D. candidates listed in the commencement program, along with the topic of their doctoral theses.
Here was a fellow named Steven Barash, getting his Ph.D. in statistics, who wrote his thesis on “Detection and Estimation of Conserved Signals in Multiple DNA Sequences.”
I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “If I’d gone on to get my Ph.D. in journalism, I’d have called my thesis, ‘Your Friend, the Comma,’ or ‘How to Write Grammar Good.’”
Then there was a fellow named Kijuan Wang, whose chemistry thesis was titled, “Synthesis and Biochemical Studies of Ring-Expanded Nucleoside Analogues Containing the Imidazo Diazepine Ring System.”
My point? In all of the Cinderella coverage of UMBC’s basketball triumph, there was a sense of perspective from those who work and study there: ballgames are nice, and we exult in the victory, they seemed to say, but we do other things here as well.
They bring in smart, serious youngsters at UMBC, and they send them out into the world with the right kind of survival skills. Much of that is a testament to Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, UMBC’s acclaimed president since 1992.
For six recent years in a row, UMBC was named the No. 1 “Up-and-Coming” university in the country by U.S. News and World Report, which also named the school No 5 in all the nation for “Best Undergraduate Teaching” one year.
Also, UMBC does have a rich sporting history. They’ve won six national championships — in chess.
Winning basketball games is nice, too, and I do not mean to minimize the win over Virginia. Applause, applause. This is a moment to be savored forever, a triumph that gives UMBC a national profile it’s never had.
But what makes it so special is its stunning unexpectedness. It’s like Talmudical Academy beating Dunbar.
Here’s another piece of perspective: the new list of the highest paid state employees. The top three are coaches at the University of Maryland in College Park. All earn seven figures a year.
The next two highest-paid state employees make six figures a year. One oversees the surgical teams at 12 hospitals. The next is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
(For the record, Terps men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon tops the state list at $2.7 million. UMBC Coach Ryan Odom signed on last year for $160,000.)
There’s your sense of perspective, folks.
They do things differently at UMBC, and that’s what makes their basketball victory such cause for celebration.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.