KAPALKO: Where have all our Cinderellas gone?

Jamie Kapalko

Five years ago, a summer replacement television show debuted on Fox without much fanfare. The show was rejected by several other networks before getting picked up. It premiered without much advertising.

The show was “American Idol.”

Ryan Seacrest hosted the first humble, unglamorous season of “Idol.” He remains the host and has become a celebrity in his own right. He was incredibly lucky; no one expected the show to succeed, but when it caught on, he was catapulted into the spotlight.

During that first season, Seacrest shared hosting responsibilities with Brian Dunkleman. While most Americans recognize Seacrest’s face and name, Dunkleman’s drew only a blank stare. The show got a makeover between the first and second seasons – besides a bigger set and format adjustments, Dunkleman was dropped. Since the show’s fame came after the first season, most people have no clue who he is.

This week, the first round of intense competition in the show’s sixth season began. Interestingly, it coincides with the first round of another intense competition – March Madness.

One of everyone’s favorite topics for March Madness debate is the Cinderella team. Cinderella enters the tournament unnoticed, not expected to create a ripple in the bracket pond. The team wins a game or two, knocks off a couple of big teams and makes a name for itself. Cinderella is usually successful because one or two players have the games of their lives and the other team underestimates them; luck blends with peaking skill, and a pinch of perfect timing makes the recipe for a winner.

People attempt to predict Cinderellas, but I don’t think it’s worth it. If you could predict which teams will surprise everyone, it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it? If, before the ball, everyone in the town knew that Cinderella was beautiful under the cake-like layer of dirt on her face, the story wouldn’t be quite the same fairy tale. By definition, Cinderella and Cinderella teams must not be predictable.

What does this have to do with “American Idol”? Instead of pondering this year’s Cinderella teams, I’ve been thinking about those of the past – George Mason, obviously, but also older teams like Valparaiso in 1998 and Gonzaga in 1999. Most of them are Dunklemans. Only Gonzaga is a Seacrest.

Most Cinderellas enjoy their moment, garnering media and fan attention for a few months after their big tournament win, and then fade back into mediocrity, from whence they came. Like Dunkleman, they’re center stage just once, and then the show goes on without them. Valparaiso is a Dunkleman. In 1998, it was a 13th seed when it defeated Ole Miss, thanks to star Bryce Drew’s hold-your-breath 3-pointer at the buzzer. Valparaiso went on to beat Florida State and make the Sweet Sixteen before it fell. Babies in the school’s Indiana hometown were named Bryce that year. A plaque on the wall in the coach’s office still plays the radio play-by-play of the final moments of the Ole Miss game.

Valpo hasn’t done anything remarkable since. It still celebrates and holds onto 1998 – just as I imagine Dunkleman cherishes DVDs from 2002.

Then there’s Gonzaga. In 1999, the team made the NCAA tournament for the second time ever. The team caught fire, winning three games until UConn finally defeated it in the Elite Eight. Since then, Gonzaga hasn’t disappeared like the Dunklemans. The Gonzaga Bulldogs are Seacrest, returning to the tournament year after year, becoming a favorite rather than an underdog. Their success in 1999 was not a fluke. It was simply the first sign of their talent, solidified over the next few years by more success and experience.

Last year, George Mason made the Final Four. This year, they didn’t even make the NIT. It appears that it will go the way of most Cinderellas – another team in the long line of Dunklemans. Valparaiso will watch the tournament from home, and Gonzaga will be a part of March Madness for the ninth year in a row.

Obviously, over time, Gonzaga has proven itself to be the best program of the three, just as Seacrest has become a better TV personality than Dunkleman ever was. But in the summer of 2002, watching the first season of “American Idol,” it would’ve been difficult to guess which of the two hosts would go on to earn a star on the Walk of Fame. Both men ran the show the networks predicted would fail – the one that drew 50 million viewers for its finale. Seacrest may have gone on to become a celebrity, while Dunkleman disappeared into obscurity, but for that summer, both of them were on top of the world.

That’s the beauty of Cinderella in March Madness. Over the next few days, a couple of teams will come from obscurity to grip our attention. The odds are that after this tournament they will become unremarkable again. But for a few magical games in March, they will electrify basketball fans across the country. All they – and we – can do is celebrate the moment.

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Jamie Kapalko is a sophomore English major from Belmar, N.J. She can be reached at [email protected]