Before the Harvard wrestling team could finish celebrating its best season in history, the joyous screams of victory turned into groans of dismay as the Crimson was stripped Wednesday of its first Ivy League title because of a technical weight violation in a meet last month. The ruling by Ivy League commissioner Jim Litvac changed Harvard's 24-16 triumph over Columbia on February 13 into a 22-20 loss, giving the Lions a 4-0 1 record in the League, and dropping Harvard into a three-way tie with Yale and Cornell for second place at 3-2.
That verdict means it'll be a long summer for the grapplers, who thought they'd iced the title the week after the Columbia meet with their 18-15 decision over Yale in their final match of the year.
The problems started with Harvard wrestling against Cornell on Friday night and Columbia on Saturday afternoon. According to prior agreement. Harvard had arranged to weigh-in for both matches on Thursday night at Cornell.
In an apparent strategic move, Harvard Coach Johnny Lee had made a change in his lineup, moving Fritz Campbell down one weight class to the 142 lb. division and advancing top wrestler Andy McNerney up to 150 lbs.
But that strategy backfired when Campbell lost a close match at the lower weight class, as other poor performances and bad luck helped Cornell nip the Crimson. 21-20. The aura surrounding the Crimson miracle season faded away in that match as the coach and the team assumed that they had lost their chance for the crown.
McNerney had weighed in the night before at 148.5 lbs. fully clothed, for the official weigh-in, a ceremonial act since he had wrestled the lower 142-lb class all year long. After the match with Cornell, Coach Lee decided that McNerney should return to the lower weight class against Columbia to see if the move would have any change.
McNerney worked out after the match, using the one-pound leeway to get within the lower weight class, under 143 lbs: immediately afterwards, he boarded the already late bus and the team departed for Columbia. But no official witnessed his second informal weight-in-this one at under 143-lbs.--and that proved fatal for Harvard.
On the following day, the Ivy title race changed markedly. While Yale clipped Cornell, 19-16, Harvard enjoyed the strong victory over Columbia with McNerney wrestling--and winning--at 142 lbs. Those two events set up Harvard's successful title shot against Yale and left Cornell and Columbia behind., But then, the sledgehammer of fate turned on Harvard.
After his team lost to Yale, Cornell, Coach Andy Noel decided to exploit the Crimson's technical mistake, bringing the matter to the attention of the Columbia athletic department. Rick Beller, Harvard's 126 lb. wrestler--who had known Noel previously--says he is "not surprised" by the coach's apparent ruthlessness: "It was in character for him," Beller said yesterday, after hearing the shocking news. He said the team feels it "deserved" the title--that the Crimson was the best team and proved it.
Noel said he's disappointed that the Ivy title turned on a technicality, that his decision to report the violation was a tough one, and that "the last thing I wanted to do was cost Harvard the championship." But he explains, he "owed it to Columbia Coach Ron Rousseau," adding, "We should not try to find the impetus of the decision: it was a set of circumstances, an obligation from one coach to another."
Harvard Athletic Director John Reardon said yesterday he's resigned to the verdict: "We had a technical failure: we failed to meet the rules," That technical error may spark a lightening of rules to prevent a similar mishap in the future, but for the wrestling squad, it means they'll have to wait another year to prove that they deserved the little.