Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.


Winning hearts

Q: Butler University's basketball team, which was fifth-seeded in its region in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, will play Duke for the championship Monday night. In fact, two of the Final Four teams -- Butler and Michigan State, whose coaches are pictured -- were fifth-seeded in their region. Does a low ranking serve to motivate or deflate? Does having less status than a competitor affect performance?

Moses v. Pharaoh
Ali v. Foreman
Team USA v. Team USSR

By beating Michigan State to face Duke in the NCAA basketball championship game, Butler University has already joined the Legends of the Underdogs. History loves the heroic underdog.

From Hannibal conquering the Romans to the Saints conquering the Colts, the tales of presumably weaker forces overcoming fearsome legions incite the imaginations of every inner child who dreams of winning big. If Rocky could go the distance with Apollo Creed, maybe I can win the Ironman -- in my dreams, of course!

Butler faces considerable odds. Bulldogs v. Blue Devils could be a Duke rout. But the Butler Bulldogs have confounded more than one set of bettors this season, and an upset win would not be unprecedented.

Plus, Butler is playing in their home town. But Duke is still the more talented team. However, many top seeds fell early in March Madness, and the championship game will be the final test of Butler's ability to beat the ultimate odds. A Butler victory would rival the Giants beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

New York Jets beat Baltimore Colts (Super Bowl III, 1969 )
New York Mets beat Baltimore Orioles (World Series, 1969)

Two of the best sports upsets ever took place in 1969, involving professional teams from New York and Baltimore. In pro football, Joe Namath led the surprising Jets,considered to be a far inferior team, to an upset victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, also proving that an AFC team could, in fact, beat the then-powerful NFL.

Later that year, the hapless, hopeless baseball Mets stunned the sports world by winning the World Series over the far superior Orioles. Baltimore mourned; Flushing Meadows was never the same.

Villanova beats Georgetown (Final Four, 1985)

The Wildcats' defeat of the previous year's NCAA Champion Hoyas was a thrilling underdog victory. That game demonstrated the essence of why we root for the teams considered to be less likely to win: There's always a chance for an upset! In fact, the expectation of results that are not pre-determined is the entire basis for sports competitions.

Competition is full of risk and surprise; heavy favorites do not always win. Just ask Lindsay Vonn, who took only one of five expected gold medals in skiing at the Olympics. Or ask James Cameron, whose heavily favored "Avatar" lost both best director and best picture to Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker.

We love the idea of underdogs so much that, in most competitions -- sports, political elections, Oscars -- contestants play down any thought of being front runners in favor of taking a studied underdog approach.

Hillary Clinton was stunned that the hitherto-unknown Barack Obama rocked her frontrunner status early in the 2008 primaries, and her presumptions about being the frontrunner probably hurt her chances, while Obama continued to play the outsider up through the presidential election. He did not want to appear cocky since he knew that his outsider/underdog story was deeply compelling for many Americans.

Why do fans and voters often seem to favor the lesser contestant over the proven power? Our sense of justice, historic antipathy toward power, and love of the game all come into play. We particularly love what we call the "heart" or "character" of the marginal team that makes it to the big game -- "Hoosiers" is the classic film about a team with winning hearts.

Talent is important, of course -- Butler's coach remains insistent that they are no "Cinderella Story" but a legitimate Final Four contender, having won the last 25 games this year and having been nationally ranked throughout the season.

But, still, they are a 5th seed, albeit with mighty talent. In the end, however, what makes Butler a compelling story is their heart -- their all-out passion for the game. Winning hearts win hearts.

English over French (Agincourt, 1415)
Colonials over Brits (American Revolution, 1776-1783)

Some underdog victories have serious long-term ramifications.Think about this: If the French had beaten Henry V and his small band of Brits at Agincourt, France might have won The Hundred Years' War and taken over Great Britain. The American colonies probably would still have had a revolution (France had a big one, remember? Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!) -- but Lafayette might have been our first president, and we might be calling ourselves Les Etats Unis today. Allons Enfants de la Patrie!

Hey, Butler, Le Jour de Gloire Est Arrive! Three Cheers for the underdogs!

By Patricia McGuire  |  April 5, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Underdogs Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Underdogs give us hope | Next: Hoosiers, Part II

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