For the past two days, The Harvard Crimson has printed Dan Fernandez's wonderful column on The Game, where Fernandez wistfully argues that, "It Shouldn't Have Ended This Way."
As a Harvard student, it's hard to disagree with the sentiment, but as an objective observer of the Harvard football team for the past four years, I'm sorry to report that it should have ended this way.
Saturday's fourth quarter meltdown was quintessential Crimson football under Coach Tim Murphy. And, quite frankly, I'm tired of pampering it and waiting until next year. I don't have any years left. It's time to ask some hard questions about the state of the Harvard program.
Before I get off on a rant about some of the inexcusable losses Harvard has suffered over the past couple of years, I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not directed against the players of the team. Each player on the Harvard roster has always given it his best on the field and has made daily sacrifices that often go unnoticed and unappreciated by the greater community.
But there are some cold, hard facts that would be very troubling in any sport, at any level.
For the past three Games, Harvard has led Yale in the fourth quarter and came out the loser each time. For the past two seasons, Harvard has either been ahead or tied in the fourth quarter in each game that it lost. Even the great Ivy League championship team of 1997 had a similar glitch, opening a 20-0 lead over Bucknell that slowly frittered away.
After each game, these defeats have been met with the same response by Murphy. Just take a look at a sample from the past two Cornell losses:
"I take full responsibility," he said after the team blew a 28-0 halftime lead to Cornell in October. "When you're up 28-0 there's no reason why you should lose, period. I've never had this happen before."
"In my 21years of coaching, I've never had something like this happen before," he said after Harvard blew a 13 point lead with 4:00 to go at Cornell in 1999. "Cornell deserved to win, but not because they were the better team."
When a team falls victim to a comeback once, any number of factors can contribute to the collapse, including rotten luck. After a point, however, the situation reaches its dew point and the blame must fall somewhere.
For example, in 1999 Penn quarterback Gavin Hoffman completed a Hail Mary pass at the buzzer after his foot appeared to cross the line of scrimmage. That can only be chalked up to pure luck. However, when Hoffman pulled the trick again this year--erasing a five-point deficit with just three minutes to go--things become more suspicious.
Only two areas can explain such a discrepancy: preparation and play calling. Both reflect upon the coaching staff, and a closer examination of recent defeats will highlight Harvard's deficiency in each area.
Against Penn, Harvard had the ball with about three minutes remaining and a five-point lead. Instead of trying to run out the clock, Murphy turned to the air on second down (Rose ended up running anyway) and passed again on third down. Harvard could've whittled another minute off of the game clock before punting.
It didn't, and instead Penn had a full two minutes to orchestrate a game-winning drive.
On Saturday, Harvard was buried by interceptions. The Crimson turned the ball over on nearly every possession in the fourth quarter, raising questions about the team's preparation for just this sort of (familiar) situation.
Most disturbing were Murphy's comments after The Game:
"Now they are all trying to do their job out there, but quite frankly, they must understand that [in the future] I am not going to accept performances like this."
Excuse me, in the future? Granted Murphy tried to protect his players, but there shouldn't there be some level of accountability right now?
The Game is the pinnacle of the Harvard sports season, and one would think that at this point, Murphy would have already made his expectations clear.
"Next year, everyone has to play with killer instinct," Murphy said.
Harvard has not had a killer instinct since it won the Ivy title. This is a serious deficiency in the Harvard program and it is an issue that Murphy must fix, or Harvard ought to reevaluate his tenure.
This is not intended to be a "Tim Must Go" piece more typical of the New York Post. After all, Harvard has won an Ivy championship in the past four years. But Athletic Director Bill Cleary '56 needs to take a closer look at the state of his football team.
In fairness, Murphy has done many things right with the program. The players he has sent to the NFL are a testament to his recruiting ability. As both a reporter and student it is a pleasure to deal with him on a personal basis. He has a vision for Harvard as a football school and has implemented it with consistency.
Murphy does his homework and does it with charm, but after a point, his teams need to execute on the field more consistently. A certain former men's hockey coach also was an excellent recruiter and schmoozer, but he never could translate the talent to actual game success after his initial years on the job.
While the 1997 Ivy title still hangs over the mantle, it's hard to argue with his execution. If Harvard could hold on to late leads, however, the outcome of The Game this year would've been irrelevant, and there would be another trophy in Cambridge.
But until Murphy's game calling gets sharper, the preparation tighter and the execution cleaner, fourth quarter meltdowns will remain the norm for Harvard.
Sorry Dan, it will keep ending that way.