Ivy athletics, especially football, stand at a crossroads, though you’d never know it by the looks of things on Saturdays.
The Ivy League, long considered a bastion of exceptionalism in college athletics, is facing a series of choices and a few challenges to its traditional structure—changes which have Harvard front and center in the debate.
The first of these changes is the departure of Jeff Orleans as executive director of the Ivy Group of Presidents—the closest thing the Ivy League has to a commissioner. Orleans, most famous for his role in the drafting and implementation of Title IX, was appointed to the post in 1984 as the organization’s first full-time director. The context then was one of turmoil. The Ivy League had just walked away from Division I-A football during the split into two divisions, choosing instead to remain in the newly formed Division I-AA, where the eight schools in the conference had been relegated after the 1981 season.
Part of that controversial move was the decision to also abstain from the Division I-AA playoffs, a move that Orleans became well-known for defending. The argument voiced by the Ivy League’s presidents, then and now, is that football is just different from other sports, and that the pursuit of gridiron glory would encourage Ivy schools to cut academic corners in pursuit of highly skilled athletes.
However, as many observers of the Ivy League will tell you, Orleans was in many ways simply a mouthpiece for those he worked under, the presidents of the Ivy universities. But both the composition of the group he works for and the environment of college football have shifted since Orleans took office. The presidents, who once so strongly opposed involvement at the highest level of college football, and the playoffs are gone, including Harvard’s own Derek Bok, one of the most vocal opponents of playoffs for the Ivy League. President Faust is on the search committee for a new executive director, although she has given no hints as to who the league might select or her own views on the place (or risks) of football at an Ivy institution.
The league’s teams themselves are changing their outlook. There have been several efforts in recent years to schedule some lower-level Division I-A opponents by Ivy schools; Harvard briefly had Army on the schedule before the Black Knights entered Conference USA and had to remove the game. Yale had Army scheduled for 2010 and 2012, though those games are no longer listed in the schedule for the Bulldogs (Army’s sports information department claims those scheduled games were always unofficial and declined to comment on why they were no longer listed). The odds of getting Army back on the schedule, for the moment, seem slim.
“For whatever reason, our division doesn’t count towards a bowl,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy explains. “They’re less excited to play teams in our division, simply because you need six Division I, quote unquote, victories to make the minimum requirements for a bowl game, so it seems like there’s less opportunities for future scheduling.”
While it may seem a small (and, for the moment, ineffective) change in scheduling philosophy, the suggestion that Ivy schools might again play with teams from the top division—schools, like Army or Navy, that are often among the most traditional and storied rivals the programs have—is a tantalizing one, and a change nonetheless.
This trend might itself be aided by the changes to the landscape of college football. Last year’s tumultuous season in Division I-A, which saw the first two-loss national champion in the BCS era, has been partially blamed on nationwide scholarship reductions that made powerhouse programs like Alabama, Notre Dame, and Michigan less able to stockpile talented players, as they had in the past. The resulting trickle-down effect of talent has meant that upsets are more likely within Division I-A, as well as in matchups between Division I-A and I-AA squads (the most famous example being Appalachian State’s stunning upset of Michigan last season). These changes in college football’s talent distribution seem to have helped academically strong schools at that level.
“For those who wonder why we didn’t stay in Division I-A as Duke, Stanford and Northwestern did, I would ask, what do you think of their football experience this year?,” Orleans said in an interview with the New York Times in 2006. “One could argue that the Ivy League has had the better football experience than those institutions have had for the last 25 years. You might want to ask why they didn’t do what we did.”
Indeed, at that time, Orleans was right. Duke was an abysmal 0-12 in 2006, Northwestern went 4-8, and Stanford finished 1-11. But with the slow redistribution of talent taking place in college football, those teams appear to be on the rise; Stanford is 3-3 this year and upset No. 1 Southern California last season, Northwestern is 5-0 and ranked No. 22 in the nation, and Duke is 3-2. Vanderbilt, another highly regarded academic institution, is 5-0 and ranked No. 13 in the nation despite playing in what is regarded as the most difficult conference in college football.
While there are no earth-shaking changes on the immediate horizon for Ivy League football, the selection process for a new executive director is well worth watching, since it will tell us as much about the attitudes of the current group of Ivy presidents as it will about the future of the league’s football.
—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at email@example.com.