By David Berlin
There’s a scene in the HBO comedy The Life and Times of Tim where someone turns on the lights in a strip club, and all of a sudden the beautiful sexy girls are revealed to be overweight, with C-section scars, cigarette burns, and loads of bad makeup.
That’s kind of how I feel about this year’s NCAA Tournament. Last year, Penn State miraculously won the Big Ten Tournament, went on to the NCAA Tournament, and I was drunk with enthusiasm. This year, I’ve got nobody to root for and the tournament just seems nasty. All I’m seeing are scandals, one year rent-a-players, and porous 2 seeds.
But that’s the thing about attending a school like Penn State – it’s perennially good at football but only good at basketball once in a while. I was just talking to my friend who went to Syracuse for undergrad and he was saying how great it is to see his team in the Sweet 16 again. If ‘Cuse gets to the Final Four, he’s got an excuse to meet up with all his college buddies. I’m jealous. There are only so many times a man can yell “WE ARE PENN STATE” in the mirror with no other fellow Nittany Lion fans around to join in.
As long as I’m sitting in the corner sulking about not having a good NCAA tournament fan experience this year, I’ll share some semi-related insights about my past college fan experiences.
I’ve been in a somewhat unusual position to attend a school that only cares about basketball and a school that only cares about football – George Washington University and Penn State, respectively. Yes – people care about other sports at both schools. I even actually watched Penn State successfully defend its wrestling title on TV last night. Although whenever I watch wrestling I first laugh at the thought of Will Ferrell playing his Greco-Roman wrestling character in The Ladies Man.
In addition to the focus on basketball/football, the schools are also very different in their size and prominence. It is very much an apples and oranges comparison. But so what. You can look at a Porsche and a Prius and say what you like about each.
The house I grew up in was like Rudy Ruettiger’s house, except the only team my family ever watched was Penn State. My father and uncle graduated from Penn State and as far back as I can remember I imagined myself going to Penn State. But somehow, in the fog of high school decision-making, I randomly decided to betray my dad and attend The George Washington University.
GW is the antithesis of PSU- a city school with no campus, no geographical allegiance, and, most revoltingly, no football team. Before I arrived in the fall of 2001, I pretended I was totally confident in my college choice, but deep down I was horrified that I had sinned against my Penn State lineage. My decision wasn’t helped by the horrendous play of the GW basketball team during my freshman year.
Despite the atrocious sports scene early on, the world did not end and I started to have a great time attending G-Dub basketball games. One particular priceless moment involved one of my college buddies screaming at a priest in the Xavier traveling fan section…without getting into the messy details, it looked something like Seinfeld’s David Puddy doing this:
By my senior year GW won the Atlantic-10 and advanced to the NCAA tournament. The year after I graduated GW rose as high as sixth in the national polls before losing to Duke in the round of 32. It was all part of a golden era of Colonial basketball, which saw three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. 11 years later some of my fondest undergraduate memories are from the Smith Center.
Eventually I made things right with my dad by going to law school at Penn State. I traded basketball for football, the A-10 for the Big 10, and a 5,000-seat gym for a 110,000-seat stadium. And I’m not going to lie – it was pretty awesome. (At least before Sandusky. But that’s a whole other essay). You just don’t understand what you’re missing until you tailgate on a Saturday in the fall in State College (Listen here to This American Life’s take on the raucous debauchery and joy of this Central Pennsylvania Autumn ritual).
On its face, Penn State obviously has a superior sports culture to my undergrad days. Frankly it is inferior to few, if any. But really saying which school was better is kind of like dating a girl who has huge gazongas versus a girl who has a great personality. Both are good. Watching GW overachieve for a few years brought its own kind of joy. It takes a lot of patience to be a die-hard Colonial, but when a team nobody thinks about suddenly gains national relevance, the pride you feel is arguably greater than that of watching a perennial contender. (I use the term perennial contender loosely – PSU is certainly perennially relevant).
My advice to the next guy choosing between the likes of a GW or a PSU – If you want a guerilla’s guide to being a college sports fan, go to GW. If you want the all-you-can-eat casino buffet equivalent of college sports, go to Penn State.
Frankly, I think we all look to our “post-undergrad Twenties” trying to re-create some aspect of the camaraderie, youthful buzz, endless energy, and lack of responsibility that makes college so much fun. Many of us even look to graduate/law/medical degrees to keep the college-fun-train going. In the end though, law school is just grasping at shades of what undergrad was, now mired in the misery and stress of real responsibility and job prospects, longing for sun-filled spring days “studying” on the quad.
Alright, maybe it’s not that bad. I’m actually quite hopeful and optimistic about the next chapter. You know, at some point you have the epiphany that you’re almost 30 and you’re just a little too old to pass out on the couch with your shoes still on.
…Well I haven’t actually had this epiphany yet, but I want the world to think I have.