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First Person

We're Rough, We're Tough, We Are the . . . Lil' Nippers

May 25, 1999|JOEL GREENBERG | TIMES SCIENCE/MEDICINE EDITOR

My alma mater, Boston University, launched a satellite into Earth orbit last week.

It broke.

The 274-pound satellite was going to break new scientific ground by producing 3-D images of the ionosphere to "help scientists understand space weather that can disrupt communications and power systems on Earth," according to the university.

But shortly after the craft reached its desired altitude, it became clear--as TV newspeople like to say--that something had gone terribly wrong. The solar panels refused to point toward the sun, and like a Cadillac in Death Valley, the $12.3-million satellite "seems to have run out of battery power," the university said.

I am worried that BU will become an extraterrestrial target of ridicule--not only because of this failure but also because of the name of the satellite, which is also the school's nickname.

The fate of TERRIERS, "Tomographic Experiment using Radiative Recombinative Ionospheric EUV and Radio Sources," is not likely to bolster the stature of the longtime BU mascot. Though it is a large institution (30,000 enrollment) with perennially one of the best hockey teams on the planet, that nickname is, well, wimpy.

While the prototypal, black and white Boston terrier is known to natives as an alert, pugnacious little fellow, most people hear the word and envision an annoying little yap dog. Plus, there's something decidedly un-macho about yelling "terrier" in the heat of athletic battle, which has been the case since the university voted to adopt the tiny hunting dog as its mascot in 1922.

Others can freely bellow "Go Bruins" or "Go Trojans" in any sports arena or bar of their choosing. But a Boston University fan usually leaves it at "Go-B-U," rather than risk being overheard whispering "On, you Terriers."

I thought I'd have the opportunity to face that decision again when it was announced that the collegiate hockey championships--dubbed "The Frozen Four"--would be held last month in, of all places, Anaheim.

Ironically, however, my school's saving grace in the macho arena, the hockey team, failed to make the NCAA final rounds this year, finishing with its poorest record in recent memory. I had mixed feelings about that: On one hand, I wanted to wear my ancient BU hockey shirt and root wildly for my alma mater at the Arrowhead Pond. On the other hand, I was relieved I wouldn't have to vocalize my support for my Terriers--at least not in the presence of fans from the Frozen Four finalists: the Wildcats, the Spartans, the Black Bears and the Eagles.

But even if our nickname had been the Bombers, there is another source of BU-related embarrassment that I feel the need to divulge: We dropped football. We didn't drop a football--we dropped the entire sport.

Two and a half years ago, on a visit to Boston, my then-8-year-old son and I were given permission by security guards to take our miniature football out to BU Field and romp around the site of the university's football games.

There we were on a cold January night, just the two of us, scoring touchdowns and kicking field goals as I told stories of Terrier players who had gone on to the pros: cornerback Bruce Taylor to the 49ers; receiver Reggie Rucker to the Browns; utility player Jim Jensen to the Dolphins. . . .

A few months later came the news that the university, for financial reasons, had given up football as an intercollegiate sport. My son and I were crushed, but at least we had the memory of being among the last football players to perform at BU Field.

I realize that unless I matriculated at a place like Nebraska (Cornhuskers), I shouldn't base my entire collegiate identity on my school's sports fortunes.

It's just that there are other weird little BU-related things that seem to crop up, one of which I will also now reveal. A number of years ago, the Terriers came up in a conversation with my then-managing editor at Science News magazine in Washington, D.C.

"I went to BU," I told her cheerfully. She looked at me in the strangest way, and then left my office.

It wasn't until later that day that she told me she thought I had said, "I want to be you."

That awkward misunderstanding would not have occurred had I attended UCLA. (Although on a recent drive on a clear day, I spied Los Angeles miles in the distance and asked my son, "You see L.A.?" He looked at me in the strangest way.)

Maybe I'm making too much of this nickname thing. It certainly didn't hold back BU grads the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Faye Dunaway, F. Lee Bailey and, um, Howard Stern.

Nevertheless, I got a sinking feeling when Boston University sent me a postcard last month proclaiming that the name of the satellite was indeed TERRIERS.

I can hear the Russians snickering already.

Joel Greenberg can be reached by e-mail at joel.greenberg@latimes.com.

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