FOOTBALL '07: Divisions Compete, Compare Notes

Gap within Division I football narrows as coaching staffs share pearls of wisdom

On the face of it, the Harvard offense wouldn’t seem to need much tweaking. The unit has consistently ranked near the top of the Ivy League in both scoring and total yards over the last decade, including first and second, respectively, in those categories in 2006. But that doesn’t stop the quest to improve.

“I’ve used the same offensive system since 1985,” head coach Tim Murphy says. “But you tweak it every year­—you try to build a better mousetrap.”

That “better mousetrap” is often aided by visits to or from coaching staffs at other schools at both the I-A and I-AA levels. In the past, Harvard has consulted with a wide range of teams on both sides of the ball. The former head coach at Brigham Young, Gary Crowton, paid a visit to Harvard before becoming the offensive coordinator for Louisiana State. Clemson offensive coordinator Rob Spence was consulted while he was the head coach at Toledo. And last year, there was a meeting of the minds with coaches from Massachusetts—a team that Murphy says “has a similar defensive philosophy.”

And, of course, a little personal camaraderie or old friendships never hurt either.

“We consulted last year with Rutgers—[running backs coach Craig Ver Steeg] was formerly my quarterback coach here and at Cincinnati,” Murphy says.

Ver Steeg is responsible for grooming star Rutgers tailback Ray Rice, hardly a bad model to emulate if you’re a visiting program.

The content of the meetings can be varied—sometimes little more than drills or ways to teach particular skills, while at other times plays themselves are exchanged.

All this exchange may seem a bit strange, given the competitive nature of college football. Indeed, the information traded between schools is subject to certain unwritten, but certainly inviolable, rules. Teams who will face each other never exchange staffs, and information gained from one team cannot be passed on to an opponent. For example, information would never be passed from Harvard to a Toledo opponent following a Toledo visit. And while the possibility of a meeting between Harvard and a Toledo opponent is remote, the gap between I-AA teams like Harvard and I-A schools is rapidly shrinking.

As any football fan who’s paid a lick of attention to the first three weeks of college football this season would know, I-AA teams have made a real statement. A stunning 34-32 victory by Appalachian State, last season’s I-AA champion, over then-No. 5 Michigan was only the first of several victories by I-AA teams over I-A opponents so far this year. Nicholls State also downed Rice, while New Hampshire defeated Marshall.

“What it tells you is that if you take the top 20 teams in the country at the former I-AA, you take the top 10 of those, and they’re as good as the middle 50 [in I-A],” Murphy says, based on his experience as the head coach at I-A Cincinnati.

PLAYING WITH THE BIG BOYS

Ivy League teams have traditionally shied away from matchups with I-A schools, which usually function as glorified scrimmages for the larger schools. But there are signs that attitudes toward those games are changing within the Ivy League.

Yale is scheduled to play Army in 2010 and 2012, restarting an ancient rivalry. Penn’s athletic director, Steve Bilsky, told the New York Times last November that he “will try to schedule more such games against academically strong I-A schools—teams like Northwestern, Duke, and the service academies.

“You can envision the situation where those schools and the Ivies might find some common ground that’s comfortable,” Bilsky told the Times. “That’s a long-term solution that offers some appeal.”

Harvard, for its part, has not joined Yale in scheduling I-A teams.

“We’ve looked at trying to get some of those games but haven’t had much luck,” Murphy says. “Part of the reason is that our schedule is so far out there, the games we just recently scheduled.”

“Army would be a great game,” he adds.

The Black Knights, meanwhile, have a history of playing I-AA teams, including an overtime victory over Rhode Island earlier this season, one of several close matchups between the two divisions. The Crimson’s schedule is set through 2010, with one opening in 2011 when the current series with Patriot League opponent Lehigh is completed.

But whether it’s sharing playbooks or battling on the field, there’s no question that the relationship between I-A and I-AA football has never been closer. The top teams in I-AA, Murphy says, have every bit the talent of a mid-major program.

“On a rare day, they’re going to be able to do what they did against Michigan,” Murphy says. “There’s no difference between them and the Mid-American teams, there’s no difference between them and Purdue, there’s no difference between them and Northwestern or Duke. There just isn’t.”

—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at bhinshel@fas.harvard.edu.

Tags