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Success of basketball team gives Cornell a needed lift

Cornell University is not a stranger to athletic glories, even in the modern era. In 1967 and 1970 the Big Red won the national collegiate hockey championship under Ned Harkness, one of the all-time great college coaches. Ken Dryden, later an NHL Hall of Famer with the Montreal Canadiens, was one of his goaltenders.

The school won three national lacrosse championships in the 1970s.

In 1939, when there was no Ivy League, Cornell football was undefeated under coach Carl Snavely and one of his tackles, Nick Drahos, was named to Street & Smith's 50-year anniversary team.

But in the last 35 years the school has been far better known for famous alumni such as Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann and Ann Coulter or for legendary professors Carl Sagan, who brought the cosmic to the masses via public TV, and Vladimir Nabokov, who mixed science with the sensational best seller "Lolita" when he taught there in the early '50s, than for notable jocks.

Cornell's public personality changed this winter, when its basketball team began doing wondrous things, including upsets of Temple and Wisconsin to advance to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Basketball isn't supposed to be Cornell's game; in Ivy League terms it's Princeton's. The Tigers had one of the land's best teams in the mid-'60s when Bill Bradley, later to be a New York Knicks star and eventually to be a U.S. Senator, was the college game's best player.

But the 2009-10 Big Red was regal, winning 29 games, not only the most it had ever won but more than any Ivy team had ever collected. Cornell is one of the finest universities in America, no question a grind school. As welcome as the basketball team's feats were, there was something else which spread sadness and depression over the Ithaca area: Suicide.

Through the years Cornell has had an unwanted reputation for students taking their own lives. During the previous three school years there were none, but in 2009-10 there have been six. Cornell is situated in one of the most glorious corners of America, the famed Finger Lakes district. The words "High Above Cayuga's Waters" in the alma mater are no stretch. The golf course, designed by another famous grad, the late Robert Trent Jones, America's foremost golf architect, is a centerpiece. The campus' terrain has deep ravines and many steep bridges, difficult footing any time of year much less winter. What creates dismal attitudes in such a beautiful place? It could be attempting to keep up with the best and brightest of such a high-grade student body but that is just one of many theories.

So what does basketball have to do with such sad happenings? By the testimony of many students and the basketball players themselves, the team's nationally-recognized success has allowed the dismal subject to be changed occasionally, to brings smiles to faces which have been grim for too long this year, to allow minds to clear. "It's hard to comprehend that such bad things can happen to kids our age," said one of the players. "I hope what we did on the basketball court helped a little."

For several weeks it brought back the normal noise of automobile horns around campus streets, it brightened conversations in dormitories and returned a certain normalcy to Cornell life. Not even the outmanned Big Red's one-sided loss to Kentucky could erase that.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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