The Secret Behind the Greatest Upset in College Basketball History

UMBC’s big win wasn’t a miracle; it was a well-executed plan.

USA Today Sports / Reuters

People now know the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as the ultimate Cinderella, an overnight social media sensation, the team that magically emerged as the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the history of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. But our story is far less fairy tale than it is classic American dream. Our magic comes from questioning expectations, putting in the hard work, and staying focused.

The nation saw the results on the court Friday night. My colleagues, students, alumni, and their families came to the game knowing the team would give the game their all. Our men’s basketball team embodies our definition of grit. We knew the players were bringing both passion and preparation to the game. We knew that they would listen to the guidance of head coach Ryan Odom, support one another, give their individual best, and get tougher and tougher as the game went on.

Nevertheless, like the rest of the world, we were stunned—not only by the outcome but by their execution to the end. Everybody thought it couldn’t be done because it hadn’t been done. And then we did it.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I know much more about mathematics than basketball, and I continue to learn about the game from coach Odom, my mentee Jairus Lyles, and others. What impresses me about this team is its can-do attitude—one that said that even though they had lost 23 games in a row to Vermont, we could win the 24th and the America East Conference championship. An attitude that said that, despite the odds, they could beat Virginia, an outstanding team from one of the oldest, wealthiest, and most-respected public institutions in the country.

What makes our story so appealing is that the players not only have a strong sense of self, they have hope. It is not idle hope, and that showed on Friday, too. Even the few people who thought we had a chance to win never thought we would do so by 20 points. Our win wasn’t a fluke. We won convincingly because we had worked hard to be ready. Rigorous preparation can lead people to reach goals they didn’t think were possible.

We’ve defied the odds before. Three decades ago, nobody believed you could close the achievement gap between white and underrepresented minority students, who were disproportionately likely to be lower-income and to be less academically prepared, without adjusting academic standards. But UMBC and the philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff didn’t believe it had to be that way. We believed you could set high expectations and, with appropriate support, not only help minority students succeed but also excel in some of the toughest fields. We started the Meyerhoff Scholars Program to support, challenge, and mentor underrepresented minority students in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Today, the university is a top producer of African-American graduates who go on to earn PhDs in the sciences, and is the leading producer of ones who go on to earn MD-PhDs. The lessons learned have spread across the campus and across disciplines, and we are now graduating students of all races and of all socioeconomic backgrounds who go on to earn PhDs and join the faculties of some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, from Harvard to Duke. In fact, in the audience Friday were three alumni who are on the Duke medical faculty, two of whom were UMBC athletes. In just the past two years, we produced a Rhodes Scholar, and we saw a researcher and exemplary mentor to students elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Even as a young research university, we’re in the top 20 in funding from NASA, and numerous humanities faculty are receiving prestigious national and international awards. Everybody thought it couldn’t be done because it hadn’t been done. And then we did it.

This week has been a mountaintop experience for the UMBC community. On Monday, I accepted a lifetime achievement award on behalf of the university from the American Council on Education. The award honored the careers of so many people on campus who have transformed the lives of thousands of students. I reflected on my TED talk on the four pillars of college success in STEM and how my thinking over the years has evolved. I’ve come to appreciate that the pillars are true not only for science, but also across academic disciplines and in other aspects of education: setting high expectations; building community; having experts draw people into the work and building relationships; and evaluating results and revising strategies. We saw Coach Odom and the team demonstrate that on Friday—and throughout the year. It’s no coincidence that two of our strongest players, Jairus Lyles and Joe Sherburne, earned 4.0 GPAs this fall, or that Joe was just named a First-Team Academic All-American.

In other arenas, we continue to tackle seemingly intractable problems. Our Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program trains some of the best students in math and science to teach in middle schools in challenging city environments. Our Center for Women in Technology and its scholars program are working to reverse the substantial decline in the number of women in computing. Our Linehan Artists Scholars and students in our BreakingGround civic engagement program use the arts and humanities to help address problems in Baltimore and other cities, including documenting the impact of deindustrialization.

What we saw Friday night reflected inclusive excellence, people of diverse backgrounds, races, and economic classes working together. It’s clear from commenters in the media, on social media, and in other venues, that many people were impressed by the rich diversity of our community, not only on the court, but in the band, on the dance team and cheer squad, and in the audience of alumni, faculty, staff, and students. We encourage broad participation and interaction among all groups—and in so doing, we are reflecting what we hope America will become.

The Maryland legislature chartered UMBC in 1963 with the idea that it would serve students of all races at a time when much of America was still segregated. That same year, I was jailed as a 12-year-old for participating in the Children’s Crusade in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and Governor Wallace took his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door.” Even those who were fairly progressive still questioned whether people of all races could study alongside one another and succeed. Everybody thought it couldn’t be done because it hadn’t been done. And then we did it.

Because of institutions like ours and forward-thinking legislation like the Higher Education Act of 1965, American society has been transformed. In the mid-1960s, only about 10 percent of American adults had earned bachelor’s degrees. Only about 11 percent of white adults and 4 percent of African American adults had reached this level of education. During that period, most families of all races did not expect their children to attend college.

Fifty years later, perceptions about college accessibility have changed dramatically. According to a Pew Survey, 94 percent of parents now expect that their children will attend college. A third of the adults in this country already hold bachelor’s degrees and another 10 percent hold associate degrees from community colleges. The percentage of African Americans with bachelor’s degrees, while still lower than that of Asian Americans and whites, has increased almost six-fold to 23 percent.

However, while we have moved to desegregate higher education, there’s a fundamental question of whether we’ve integrated higher education. Perhaps the reason UMBC is considered one of the most innovative institutions is that we encourage difficult conversations and ask challenging questions, and we welcome different points of view with the understanding that we can agree to disagree with civility. We tell students to “get beyond your comfort zone, to get to know people different from yourselves.” It’s in that space beyond comfort that true education occurs.

That is the connection between what’s happening on our campus, what we saw Friday night, and what needs to happen in our country. America needs people from different racial groups, different backgrounds, different points of view trusting each other and—even against the odds—working to achieve their common goals. It takes grit to achieve moments of greatness.