The Yovicsin Years: Good, Better, Worst
On Saturday, November 23, 1957, first-year coach John Yovicsin walked along his team's bench and asked if by chance anyone had played quarterback in high school. Harvard was being shut-out by Yale on regional television, and all three Crimson quarterbacks had left the game with injuries.
A few weeks ago, Yovicsin announced that this fall will be his last as the coach of Harvard football. He put together ten consecutive winning teams, tied Percy Haughton for most wins as a Harvard coach, and had the first undefeated team here since 1920. But once again, Yovicsin finds himself searching for a quarterback.
Lack of a quarterback was one of the main explanations for 1969's 3-6 record, which has cast such a shadow over the end of Yovicsin's career. Frank Champi, the star of the 1968 Yale game, just didn't come through in 1969, and then he quit.
Joe Roda, John O'Grady, Rex Blankenship, and Dave Smith took turns the rest of the season, but none of them was able to show the consistency necessary for a team to get points. Harvard's passing attack became even more of a laughing stock than it had been (while talented ends Bruce Freeman and Pete Varney had to get their kicks from blocking), and the running simply wasn't good enough to make up for it.
Smith is graduating today, but the other three will be back. Eric Crone, a freshman, and Billy Kelly, a safety who played quarterback in high school, are two other candidates for the position. None of the five is an obvious choice, so they'll all have to fight it out in the September training camp.
Almost inevitably, all the losing of last season has produced some changes. It appears that Yovicsin and his staff, who have always sort of worshipped the "system," ?ll try instead to fashion the system to the material this year.
Defense has always been a strong point for Yovicsin's teams, both at Gettysburg and at Harvard, but he seems willing to alter the set-up somewhat in order to capitalize on the speed of the secondary, make up for a weakness at end, and to compensate for the fact that captain Gary Farneti is an outstanding linebacker on a team which is not blessed with much line backing talent.
The offense is likely to have more punch- certainly not less. A pro-type offense seems to be in the making, though it remains to be seen if Yovicsin has a passer at his disposal. He came to Harvard with a reputation for strong passing teams, but Ric Zimmerman has been the only quarterback here to provide the Crimson with an air attack.
The encouraging thing about this season is that it will be an improvement, as opposed to the attitude with which Harvard was forced to approach the dismal 1969 season after the magic of 1968; there was simply nowhere to go but down, despite all the returning lettermen.
One advantage this fall should be the leadership of Farneti, who was the inspiration- as well as the physical anchor- of the defense as a junior. John Cramer was a nice guy, but a sparkplug he wasn't. And despite the fact that Yovicsin doesn't have great rapport with his players, perhaps they will try extra hard this fall in order to give him a going-away present.
Of course, it was a tremendous surprise to most people that he ever came to Harvard in the first place. Everyone was talking about backfield coach Josh Williams and Davey Nelson, head coach at Delaware and a former Harvard assistant. Meanwhile, Gettysburg coach John Yovicsin was out playing golf and was only mentioned as a dark horse at the last moment.
On Tuesday, March 12, after 95 people had applied for the job and 26 had been interviewed, the CRIMSON ran a front-page banner proclaiming that Yovicsin was the winner. The prize was a football team which had won two games the year before, and three games the year before that at a college where losing had become a tradition ever since the departure of Robert Fisher in 1926.
The man responsible for luring Yovicsin to Harvard was former coach Dick Harlow, who in 11 seasons had been six games over 500. Thanks to Harlow, it was Yovicsin who was coaching the Crimson when Williams routed Harvard by seven touchdowns in a pre-season scrimmage.
Few good players were returning from the 1956 team, injuries and dissatisfaction had caused some squad members to quit the squad, and Yovicsin had a mere 33 men on his bench on opening day against Cornell. The biggest thrill of the season was a near upset over Princeton.
But Yovicsin had mobilized the alumni, who were thrilled to hear someone talk about winning. They went out in search of good football players, and the freshman team in 1958 was the one which was supposed to make Harvard a powerhouse. In both 1958 and 1959, the freshmen were 6-1.
Since they were only freshmen, Yovicsin had to struggle through another fall with what he had. Then came the first glimpse of light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The score was 8-8 in the final quarter of the Dartmouth game when the Indians, who went on to win the title, passed from their end zone instead of punting.
Hank Keohane intercepted, and moments later Chet Boulris scored what was proved to be the winning touchdown. It was Yovicsin's first big vic-
tory, and one of three Harvard games he remembers most fondly.
The second of those three big ones came against Yale four weeks later. Charlie Ravenel, who had established himself as the Crimson quarterback in the Cornell game, was showing steady improvement, while Yale was losing every league game. Harvard had its eye on avenging that 54-0 loss in 1957.
It was no contest, and the Crimson went home with another losing season, but with a win over Yale and confidence that it had turned the corner.
Ravenel, the "Riverboat Gambler," was a junior in 1959, and Harvard compiled a 0-3 record and finished third in the league. It was the first of ten straight winning seasons.
Ravenel was probably the one who led Yovicsin to give up his hopes of strong passing teams which he had grown accustomed to at Gettysburg and had expected to develop at Harvard. He weighed 160 pounds and was a superb runner, while completing less than 40 per cent of his passes. The offense sort of developed around his style of play, and then it was mostly a question of inertia. And the defense had become superb; it was a Yovicsin trademark which has remained strong ever since.
The Crimson, after dropping three of its first four games in 1961, came on to win the rest and tie Columbia for the Ivy title. Harvard's first in the league's short history.
For the next six years. Yovicsin's teams stayed in the first division, sharing the championship again in 1966, along with Dartmouth and Princeton.
His teams were blessed with more and more All-Ivy selections each season. There were runners like Bill Grana, Bobby Leo. Vie Gatto, and Ray Horn blower: defensemen like Don Chiofaro, Dave Poe, John Tyson, John Hoffman, and John Emery.
Everything peaked in 1968. Yovicsin said at the start of the season, "We're not conceding anything." But there were obvious problems, and it looked like a little "rebuilding" was in order Zimmerman was gone, for one thing.
One by one, things fell in place. George Lalich, a senior with junior varsity experience, played well enough for his team to win every week, and the defense, anchored by Emery and an outstanding secondary, was simply superb.
Cornell and Dartmouth fell. Penn, which along with Harvard was surprising the league, came to Cambridge for what was supposed to be anyone's game, but the Crimson scored early and went on to win easily.
At Palmer Stadium in Princeton the next weekend, it looked as if the dream might end. After gaining an early lead, Harvard was crumbling before the Tigers until Alex MacLean. Pete Hall, and Rick Berne combined for the crucial stops to end Princeton's fourth-quarter threat deep in Harvard territory. Harvard won, 9-7, and needed only two more- but one was against seemingly invincible Yale.
Brown was easy pickings, and all of a sudden, 100,000 people wanted to go to Harvard Stadium (capacity: 35,000) to see the game between the unbeaten teams.
This time, the dream really had ended. The Elis were just too good for Harvard. It was 22-6 at the half, and 29-13 with three-and-a-half minutes left. A couple of moments later. Harvard had scored on an 86-vard drive and had added two points. There were 42 seconds left in which to score eight points.
Frank Champion was throwing the ball, scrambling like a madman. Somehow, Gatto finally caught a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone as time Tan out. Championship had to do it again, and he did, as Varney grabbed the pass and it was done. One of the most incredible games of all time and, almost incidentally, a third Ivy championship.
Then 1969. Yovicsin had gotten a bit older in recent years, and the enthusiasm which had so characterized him at first, had faded a bit. He and Cramer could not fire up the team, and the material never gelled. Even Yovicsin's heart was telling him that it was about time to do something else.
It's the heart condition which has supposedly ended his career at this point. He was hospitalized for eight days two months ago, for he has never fully recovered from the open heart surgery done in 1965. Yovicsin's medication has brought problems of its own. But it's hard not to speculate on other reasons for his departure.
Yovicsin has earned much of the derision he's received in the last year or so. It seems that the talented players he has helped make so matter-of-fact around here have helped cover up some of his other failings in recent years. But Yovicsin's probably gotten more criticism than he deserves.
Ten consecutive winning seasons is no small feat, especially when compared to the mediocrity of the past. As Harvard people think excitedly of the next coach, they should remember that even Dartmouth's Bob Blackman produced a loser two years ago- before Yovicsin.