CBKB: Cornell story touches campus in many ways
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Steve Donahue knew for a while that something special was brewing at Cornell. He just never dared to dream so big.
"It's just been overwhelming in a great way," Donahue, head coach of the Big Red, said Wednesday after practice in the Carrier Dome. "People back home have been stopping, honking their horns, rolling down their windows, just exuberant in celebration. It just makes you feel good that people are enjoying the success of our program just as much as we are."
Cornell's run is unprecedented in the Ivy League. With nine seniors, many of them castoffs, Cornell (29-4) has won more games than any school in the history of the league and is the first from the Ivies to advance to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament in more than 30 years.
Two more wins, beginning with top-seeded Kentucky on Thursday night, and the 12th-seeded Big Red will become the lowest seed to reach a Final Four.
Not bad for a coach who compiled a 74-117 record in his first seven seasons.
"I've been here for 10 years," said Donahue, who never made a dime coaching basketball until he was 33, selling paint so he could feed his passion for the game. "Now I walk in the same steps I've always walked and I get a totally different reaction where I never got reaction."
These are heady times on the Cornell campus. The women's ice hockey team, seeking the school's first national title in a women's sport, made it to its first national championship game before losing in triple overtime to Minnesota Duluth on Sunday. The men's hockey team has a Division I playoff game Friday night.
Amidst the athletic glee is a pall of gloom that hangs over the picturesque campus in Ithaca, N.Y., an hour's drive south of Syracuse.
The Ivy League school, situated in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, is known for its spectacular gorges. It attracts the best and brightest — future lawyers, doctors, captains of industry.
It's also haunted by a reputation for suicides. The steep, rocky gorges add to the beauty of the school of 20,000 students, who must cross over at least one of them to enter the main campus town.
"There were three (suicides) one semester when I was there," said Rick Luciani, a 1986 Cornell graduate and now a social worker in Syracuse. "The following year they put up more gates to make it harder to jump. It was an alarming time. I do remember it pretty vividly."
This year has been brutal. After three years without any deaths, six students have taken their own lives this academic year, an 18-year-old freshman economics major from Florida, a sophomore from Maryland, and a junior from Indiana among them.
"It's kind of been a weird feeling with the tragedies," senior star Ryan Wittman said. "I think what we're trying to do is give people something else to think of. Give them something to take their minds off of that.
"We've been seeing and feeling a lot of support from our students, from the locals around the community," he added. "It's kind of a difficult situation. We're not trying to make people forget about it, just allow them to think about something else for a little while."
Cornell took the extraordinary step of posting lookouts on bridges that span the gorges and going door-to-door to check on students after the suicides. The school hosted a "Lift Your Spirits" gathering that featured music and a wall for students to write their thoughts.
"I hope that they feel better about everything that's going on on our campus and somehow will get through this," said Donahue, a father of five. "As a parent, that is always your concern. To see it happen on your own campus is extremely difficult."
The suicides have affected the basketball players, too.
"It was kind of shocking that kids our age are going through stuff like that," senior Jon Jaques said. "I hope in some way our run helps the school. I can't say whether it's helped touch people personally, but I know it's made people on campus get happy and excited."
It sure has.
"The mood was pretty down. I actually knew one of the people that passed," said Sarah Song, a junior from Vineland, N.J. "A lot of people didn't know how to handle things. It (the team's success) has helped. Everyone is just ecstatic, and it's going to last. It's definitely put everyone in a great mood. When they go back, they're going to be like local heroes."
They already are.
Since coach Mike Dement's 1987-88 Cornell team went 17-10 and 11-3 in the Ivy League to earn the school's second NCAA tournament bid (the 1953-54 team won the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League and the school's first NCAA berth two years before the Ivy League formed), the Big Red had just two winning seasons until going 16-12 and 9-5 in the Ivies in 2006-07 under Donahue.
In winning the league three straight years, Cornell has broken through one of the most consistent monopolies in college basketball. Since 1969, Penn or Princeton had either won or shared the Ivy League title in all but three years.
Donahue traces the program's turnaround to a horrific accident in practice four years ago. Sophomore guard Khaliq Gant dislocated two vertebrae in his neck in a collision with two teammates that left him temporarily paralyzed. He underwent a seven-hour operation to fuse the vertebrae and secure them with plates and screws and has since recovered.
Although his playing days were over, Gant remained an integral part of the team as manager, and the Big Red excelled.
There's a chance Gant will be here Friday night, when the Big Red face their biggest foe of the season in Kentucky.
Donahue rolled his eyes in amazement at the thought.
"I knew we had something special, but it exceeded my expectations," he said. "It's hard to imagine what they (the seniors) have accomplished in four years."