Mid-major universities tend to fall in one of three categories. There are the expensive and tiny religious schools in remote and leafy locations, flame-keepers of Christian subsects born out of the Great Schisms. You have your specialized colleges: the teacher's schools, the agriculture and mining institutions, the technicals and polytechnics, the private liberal arts outlets named after dead guys. And then there are the public universities established by state school boards of ed that are intended to serve smaller cities and towns, the ones that had the misfortunes of springing up too far away from the motherships. These directionals and satellites often find themselves living on scraps, with money piped through a tube that is just about as thick as the hyphens in their titles. Or perhaps those represent ten-foot poles.
With the exception of the Ivy League, which predates basketball and the wheel and fire itself, mid-major colleges produce much of America's middle class. We are cubicle dwellers with Japanese vehicles and multiple mortgages and children who don't always get what they want for Christmas. We are passed over though we work harder, and we take jobs that are all too similar to "guarantee games," exchanging humiliation for pittances.
We are mid-majors, and most of the time our glass ceiling is middle management.
We are underdogs in the business world as well as on the hardcourt. We don't have nationwide alumni organizations that wield great power, rule golf-course clubhouses, and serve as I-know-a-guy networks that write letters of recommendation and easily pick locked doors. For example, the San Francisco alumni chapter of my own school, Drexel, is a group that meets once a summer when the Phillies come to visit the Giants. I've seen the pictures, and it looked much more like a "Deadspin Pants Party" than a high-powered business summit.
We tend to lack the rolls of famous, wealthy and globally successful alumni that schools in the Big Ten and ACC have; most of the schools we went to are lucky if they can boast a Nobel chemistry laureate or a country singer. This is no more evident than in March, when the announcers are trying to fill space during Championship Week or during a NCAA No. 2-vs.-15 walkover.
We sell ourselves out, and we sell out where we come from. We adopt teams that don't remind us of ourselves and represent what we aspire to be. We don the powder blue of Carolina, or the medium blue of Kentucky, the blood-red of Louisville, just to be in the same conversations as the others. They eventually ask, "What year were you?" And the sad reply is something like, "No, I didn't go to Illinois. I went to Eastern
Illinois." "Awww, bummer," comes the response.
Basketball is all we have. Those are our ambassadors out there, sweating and bleeding -- and a lot of the time, losing -- for us
. To turn your back on your true team, to frontrun for the sake of frontrunning, is to deny a piece of who you know you really are. Their struggle is your struggle, our struggle.
Embrace it. Embrace the struggle.
Root on your boys whether they're 23-8 or 8-23. Learn your team, know their names. Get involved, watch them when they're on TV, even if it's ESPN-U. If your team isn't doing right by your school, do something about it. Write a letter to the athletic director and tell them that you're ashamed of the team's performance, let him or her know that your
basketball team is letting you
down. Let them know that you want so badly to care.
And I can feel the tide turning, even if it's just a little bit. Everywhere I go, I see new fan sections sprouting up, named in honor of their head coaches or utilizing the team nickname prefixed with "Crazy" or "Rowdy." I see it on new websites where fans of small schools congregate, plan game outings and road trips, and make up derogatory nicknames for their conference rivals. I see it in my online chats, where I hear from Big West graduates in flourescent-lit cubicles who are sick of pretending they like USC and UCLA so they can make chit-chat in the breakroom. There is pride and passion in the veins of mid-major America, and it's beginning to course.
The ultimate payoff, of course, comes in March. This is when paupers upend kings, when basketball can serve as the safe and bloodless kind of class revolt. If that's your teen-seed out there running around the court like idiots after the final buzzer, that celebration belongs to you. And who knows, maybe the frontrunners will even start wearing your
I'll never forget a moment I had at the Final Four in Indianapolis two years ago. At the designated George Mason hangout bar,
I met a few alums, including a nice middle-aged woman who was holding a 20-oz. cup of green-dyed "Kryptonite Ale" -- one, apparently, of a long series.
"I got my master's there, yeah," she said when I asked about her connection to the school. "But I went to Virginia for my bachelor's. So for years I was all like, U.V.A.! Yeah!!!"
[This is where she made a hand gesture which may or may not be considered offensive in some countries.]
"Now," she continued. "Now I tell people I went to George Mason."