Princeton-Georgetown: It Was 25 Years Ago Today • by Chuck Yrigoyen
TigerBlog On Princeton-Georgetown
Chuck Yrigoyen was the Director of Athletic Communications at Princeton from 1983-1989 and was the men's basketball contact for the Office of Athletic Communications and color commentator on WHWH radio on the night of March 17, 1989 - 25 years ago today - when Princeton lost to No. 1 Georgetown 50-49 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Now the commissioner of the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Chuck shares his thoughts on that big night in Providence a quarter century ago.
CBS-TV’s “NCAA Tournament Selection Show” for men’s basketball is high drama. It is, after all, the culmination of a successful regular season and the event that triggers office pool mania in every corner of the country. Some schools wait … and wait … and wait to find out where they’re going and who they’re playing, or if they’re playing at all.
For the 1988-89 Princeton Tigers, champions of the Ivy League and near-future darlings of the basketball world, the wait was short.
The first region announced was the East. The first site announced was the Providence (R.I.) Civic Center. And the first game announced was No. 1-seeded Georgetown against No. 16-seeded Princeton. As Director of Athletic Communications at Princeton that March, the news hit me like those anvils that Wile E. Coyote took regularly from the Roadrunner.
Why? This was a Georgetown team with future NBA players Alonzo Mourning, Charles Smith, Dikembe Mutombo and Jaren Jackson. This was a Georgetown team that went 23-4 in the regular season and a BIG EAST tournament championship that produced Sherman tank-like wins against Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
Princeton, on the other hand, sort of limped into the tournament after losing twice in the final week of the season at Penn and Dartmouth before the Ivy title-clincher at Harvard on the final night of the regular season. The Tigers had Bob Scrabis and Kit Mueller and Matt Lapin and George Leftwich; household names on their own campus at best.
But Pete Carril, the veteran Princeton head coach, WAS a household name in college basketball, eventually making it to Springfield’s Hall of Fame Class of 1997. Nobody liked playing Carril’s teams because they were disciplined, they were crisp, and they won. Ivy titles galore and a .600-plus winning percentage in a career that began in the late 1960s, Pete Carril was up to the task of preparing for the monster that was Georgetown.
And, even better, Carril was one of the real characters in the game. “I think we’re a billion to one to win the whole tournament,” Carril said the week of the game, “but I think to beat Georgetown we’re only 400 million to one.” Carril’s opposite coaching number was future Hall of Famer John Thompson, Jr. Thompson’s son and current Georgetown coach, John III, played for Carril from 1984-88.
“I’d say he’s rooting for Georgetown but at the same time would like us to play well,” Carril speculated about the younger Thompson’s thoughts on the game. “I don’t believe a guy could root against his father unless he beat him up every day as a kid, which I know didn’t happen (laugh).” Carril didn’t know “Coach-speak.”
But there was something greater at stake in this mismatch. At that time, the NCAA Division I Committee was talking about the future of the tournament — a future that might not include what it felt were inferior teams from the weaker conferences. In October, 1988, The NCAA News carried the headline, “Change in automatic-qualification procedure recommended.” Since going to 64 teams, the bracket allowed for 30 automatic berths and the coveted 34 at-large spots. Beginning in 1991, because Division I membership had expanded and new conferences had been created, the number of automatic berths would grow to 31.
The tournament was beginning to make a lot of money for schools and conferences, and the power of Division I exerted itself to say “No thanks” to another automatic. The Committee’s solution was to eliminate the lowest-ranked conference from the tournament field, based on the Association’s computerized system know as the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). Several alternatives were proposed by the “powerless,” including a playoff for the final spot rather than elimination by machine.
“We examined the playoff possibility from every angle,” said Cedric Dempsey, then-Division I Basketball Committee Chair and University of Arizona Director of Athletics. “But we rejected it because we were committed to limiting the tournament bracket to 64 teams.”
The issue festered throughout the year. USA Today published a piece during the January NCAA Convention entitled, “Conferences consider battling for berth rights.” The first line of writer Steve Wieberg’s article began, “Tempers are beginning to flare and at least one school is hinting at legal action as a number of conferences fight to ensure they won’t be locked out of future NCAA basketball tournaments.”
Letter writing and furious behind-the-scenes communication went on during the rest of the winter, but the action ON the court kept the attention elsewhere. The media hadn’t lost sight of the controversy. Indeed, Carril commented during the small press gathering inside Princeton’s Jadwin Gym after the Georgetown anvil hit. “I guess you could say that,” Carril remarked when asked if he felt more pressure because of the NCAA’s emerging attitude towards tournament inclusion, “but I think we should play well because that’s what we try to do. If I were younger maybe I would be thinking, ‘This is so darn important,’ but I’m not thinking that way.”
The talking stopped on Thursday evening, March 17, 1989. Princeton and Georgetown in an ESPN telecast that most everyone felt would be decided by the second TV timeout, max. First TV timeout — Princeton 8, Georgetown 4. Midway through the first half — Princeton 11, Georgetown 10. Four minutes left in the half — Princeton 22, Georgetown 14. Halftime — Princeton 29, Georgetown 21.
Mike Gorman did the play-by-play for ESPN that night. Even though he hadn’t taken the time to read how to properly pronounce Kit Mueller’s name — called him “MYOO-ler” instead of the correct “Miller” — Gorman and partner Ron Perry knew they had seen something special. They sent the broadcast back to a stunned John Saunders and Dick Vitale in the Bristol studio.
“I guess ‘speechless’ would be the only way to describe us here,” said Saunders, who gave way to Vitale. Before the broadcast, Dickie V. had promised the TV audience that if Princeton won, he would go to Providence and serve as the Tigers ball boy for the second round. As only Vitale can do, he broke down the first half with his trademark enthusiasm and shtick.
The nation got sucked in as well. The game ended up as the highest-rated basketball telecast in the burgeoning mega-outlet’s history. Telephones rang in the homes of basketball fans everywhere in the country. “You gotta turn on this game!”
Inevitability bites. Mourning and Co. asserted themselves in the second half and methodically cut into the lead. Mourning also methodically cut into Mueller’s lip on a blatant elbow that the officials either missed or ignored. The only double-digit lead of the game — 31-21 at the 30-second mark of the second half — shrank to four with 14 minutes left. The Hoyas took their first lead with 10:25 left, 39-37, and the teams were never separated by more than two points from there on out.
Jerry Doyle’s layup put the Tigers up 49-47 with under two minutes left. Mourning answered with two foul shots. He then blocked a shot at the defensive end and made 1-of-2 free throws with 23 seconds left. Two final attempts — Scrabis’s long jumper that was blocked again by Mourning, and Mueller’s jumper that was blocked by … well, you know … and one for the ages came to an end.
Asked in the postgame press conference if Mourning got a little bit of Mueller’s arm on the last shot, Carril said, “We’ll have to take that one up with God when we get there.” The night WAS basketball heaven for anyone not rooting for the talented Hoyas. The famous headline from the 1968 Harvard-Yale football game seemed to fit. The Crimson came from 16 points down in the last two minutes to tie the game, but the newspaper accurately proclaimed, “Harvard Wins, 29-29.” Indeed, Princeton beat Georgetown, 49-50.
While it may not be accurate to say that Princeton also beat the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee, its performance did much to focus all parties. By June, Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan) was conducting public sessions in Washington with men like Roy Kramer, then-Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Conyers’s concern was the effect on the two historically black conferences (MEAC and SWAC), but governmental involvement was something new … and probably scary. Kramer came with an offer of a full first-round money share to all qualifying conferences but held firm that the final at-large-eligible team was out of the tournament.
And the pressure continued to come from Conference Commissioners like Ivy League Executive Director Jeff Orleans. Orleans and his colleagues had no problem with maintaining the 30 automatics/34 at-large format. They simply wanted the chance to “play-in” to the tournament. “A conference champion that wins a ‘play-in’ game,” wrote Orleans, “will play the same first-round game as either it or the losing champion would have played if only one of them had been selected in the first place — except that the team which is able to play in that first-round game will earn its chance on the court, where tournament qualification ought to be determined …”
The conversations, letter-writing and Congressional hearings worked. The NCAA issued a press release, dated November 29, 1989. The headline read, Additional Conferences will ‘Play In’ to Future NCAA Basketball Championships, and Committee Chair Jim Delany had this back-peddling quote: “We initially were opposed to this concept, but the Executive Committee asked us to re-examine the issue and we have. The basketball committee believes that this ‘play-in’ is in the best interest of the membership and maintains the integrity of the current tournament format.”
Princeton went on to a couple more narrow NCAA tournament losses in succeeding years before finally breaking through in the famous UCLA game in 1996. The Bruins were the defending national champions, and Princeton pulled off a massive first-round upset. The Tigers actually rose to a number-five seed in 1998, defeating UNLV in the first round and losing a close one to Michigan State in the second round. The University of Pennsylvania, also from the Ivy League, won a first-round NCAA game in 1994 as well.
But there were other Cinderellas in other tournaments throughout the 1990s. 15th-seeded Richmond beat 2nd-seeded Syracuse in 1991. 13th-seeded Valparaiso beat 4th-seeded Mississippi on Bryce Drew’s famous last-second shot in 1998. Number-15 Santa Clara, with a young guard named Steve Nash, upended Number-2 Arizona in 1993. These are the games that make the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year.
Primarily, St. Patrick’s Night of 1989 gave college basketball junkies and NCAA tournament pool novices alike, 40 minutes they would never forget. In the weeks and months following the game, the Office of Athletic Communications at Princeton received scores of requests for a taped copy of the game. Demand was still high years later when the Princeton-Georgetown replay became a staple on the 1995-launched Classic Sports Network, now “ESPN Classic.”
Ultimately, this is not Hoosiers and it’s not Miracle because Princeton didn’t win. This story, instead, shows just how important the effort is … even without a fairy-tale ending. The game that has its 25th birthday today still turns heads for the millions who remember it … and it will turn the heads of a new generation that still loves what really puts the “mad” in “March Madness.”