And then there's their basketball team, the Beavers.
It figures that athletics at such a prestigious technical university would take a back seat to rocket science and particle physics. But as of the 2005-06 season profiled in the documentary "Quantum Hoops," the NCAA Division III Beavers had yet to win a single Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game in 21 years. The team's last conference title was in 1954.
The history-heavy film narrated by actor David Duchovny, which comes to DVD June 24, follows the Beavers as they attempt to win their first conference game since the 1980s.
Focused on the last nail-biting game of the season against Whittier College, the film took the Top 10 Audience Choice Award at the 2007 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. However, it's probably the only award the team is likely to see, if tangentially, for a while.
Rick Greenwald says the win-less Beavers appealed to him on his first time out as a director. The 36-year-old documentary filmmaker from Chino grew up watching the college's pranks, which inspired the 1985 comedy "Real Genius."
But for all the opportunities to poke fun at the team, Greenwald says he resisted the urge to cut in scenes like Charlie Brown failing to kick a football.
"I abandoned that plan," he said. "I was very sensitive to making fun. I don't use the term nerd once."
Still wanting to score points with Caltech's geek factor, Greenwald hoped to secure Duchovny as narrator based on his "X-Files" credentials. The actor, a college basketball player for Princeton, agreed to voice the film a few weeks before its theatrical release.
"I still can't believe it happened, to be honest," Greenwald said.
The documentary profiles many of the team's quirky student players, but the camera lingers primarily on Roy Dow, a veteran college coach who has helped the team close its average losing margin from the high 50s to roughly 20 points.
While Dow doesn't have the pressures of an NCAA Division I coach, Greenwald says the doc certainly evokes a strong reaction from more sensitive viewers, especially when the coach shouts at players for performing at a level below that displayed in practice.
"You're playing like dumb smart kids!" Dow yells.
Rather than alienating the players, Dow's passion for the game inspires them.
"They respect him, they believe in him," Greenwald said.
The reasons why players join a team as underwhelming as the Beavers varies, the director says, from bragging rites that they played in the NCAA to blowing off steam from the intense academic pressure.
"Once these guys get going, they really want that win," Greenwald said. "They've never failed, statistically, on a level like this in anything they've ever done in their entire life. And I think a lot of them like the challenge of that part."
Caltech basketball on ESPN's College Gameday 1/20/07
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