Yardfest 2016. Students sprawled outside Widener Library. Afternoon sunlight slanting through trees. Young grass like peach fuzz. Everywhere the weight of nostalgia.
At one end of Tercentenary Theater, four Harvard football players struck up Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” Molasses chords slid through the air: “If I leave here tomorrow / would you still remember me?”
Scott Peters (safety), Adam Redmond (offensive lineman), Luke Roberts (linebacker), and Cole Toner (offensive lineman) had all played their last college snaps. But they were playing together now—a final encore for the 2015 football team.
In one month, football seniors would graduate with a 36-4 record, tied for best in school history. Since 2013, Harvard won three straight Ivy titles.
In fact, since 2000, the program boasted a 123-26 record, best in FCS football. Coach Tim Murphy had won nine championships and prepped 25 players for professional contracts. That cohort included Toner and Redmond, who would sign with the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts, respectively.
Of course it was sunny on Yardfest.
At least one trophy remained elusive—a championship four-peat. In the fall of 2016, powered by new seniors, the Crimson aimed to achieve that feat.
For three years, Harvard football had walked a tightrope of excellence. Peters, Redmond, Toner, and all other seniors basked in that accomplishment.
But the tightrope extended past the fall of 2015. Always, the next season beckoned. And always, the expectations grew heavier.
That weight burdened the 2016 team. Statistics will say that Harvard faced 10 opponents. In reality, the Crimson faced one—itself.
Few challenges would prove stiffer.
Trappings of grandeur surround Crimson football. Start with the institution. Harvard, the oldest college in the nation. Stained-glass dining halls. Turrets on the Charles.
Traditions do not guarantee trophies, though. Between 1988 and 1996, Harvard posted a 32-57-1 record and never topped .500 in a season.
Those numbers can seem outlandish now. Since 1998, the Crimson has not suffered a losing year.
Much of the credit belongs to a man who himself experienced a sudden transformation. In 1978, Tim Murphy was a part-time assistant at Brown, working a graveyard shift at a mill to meet expenses.
Eight years later, the former linebacker became the youngest head coach in college football when he joined Maine. And two years later, he became the youngest head coach in Division I when he joined Cincinnati.
"One thing that Coach Murphy harps on a lot...is grit. That brings all of it together—facing adversity [and] bouncing back," senior safety Kolbi Brown said.
All Harvard players know the concept of “Murphy Time.” Under these guidelines, an event that starts at 3 p.m. really starts at 2:55 p.m. So people should show up at 2:50.
Murphy Time applies not only to meetings but also to career paths. Most head coaches blossom in middle age; Murphy did so a decade earlier.
Certainly, the Kingston, Mass., native was anxious to get going when he grabbed the Harvard job. Arriving before the 1994 season, he surveyed a program that had gone 3-7 in each of the last two seasons and declared that the Crimson would win a title in the next four years.
That promise paid out on schedule, with Harvard going 9-1 in 1997. Cue the start of the Murphy era.
“One thing that Coach Murphy harps on a lot…is grit," senior safety Kolbi Brown said. “That brings all of it together—facing adversity [and] bouncing back.”
The coach brought idiosyncrasies besides timeliness. At Maine, the Black Bears had a regular fight song. At Harvard, Murphy discovered “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” Now the Crimson belts the lyrics after every victory.
Moreover, the title of the song adorns Harvard helmets. The words invoke bravado but also the thousands of men who have passed through Murphy’s program—passed through and left, in each case, with at least one championship.
“You’re not going to be perfect every day,” senior defensive lineman James Duberg said. “The best part is holding yourself to a higher standard that you know you can achieve.”
Since 1998, Harvard has enjoyed steady success, but the three seasons before 2016 brought especially intense moments.
In 2013, the team went 9-1, including a 34-7 trouncing of Yale.
In 2014, the team never lost. The campaign ended with Hollywood drama when Harvard bested Yale on a last-minute score.
In 2015, the Crimson extended the longest win streak in the FCS to 22 before losing to Penn. Still, Harvard topped the Bulldogs for a third-straight championship.
Success reflects unique practices. During the season, morning workouts start at 6:30 a.m. In winter, players cross Weeks Bridge despite darkness and caustic winds. Spring culminates in a team-wide scrimmage. And over the summer, scores of players take Boston internships and participate in optional workouts.
“It’s never easy waking up all spring at 5-something-a.m.,” Brown said. “That’s all part of the game…[but] it’s tough to do that for four years.”
Other tendencies matter, too—such as the decision to elect a single captain. Linebackers have accounted for five of the last seven selections. And the last 13 leaders have all played defense.
Prior to 2016, such traditions delivered steady results. If the first 19 years of the Murphy era—from 1994 through 2012—comprised a steady climb, then the next three years—from 2013 through 2015—comprised a peak.
In Sept. 2016, with Murphy at the helm for his 23rd season, Harvard took a new step, away from the summit and onto the ridgeline.
“Harvard Voted #IvyFootball Preseason Favorite for Sixth Time in Nine Years,” blared the Ivy League press release on Aug. 9, 2016.
The prediction came despite an unsettled Crimson roster. Fifteen starters. Nine first-team selections. Four NFL signees. All gone in the twist of a clock, and all needing replacements.
That plug-and-go narrative contrasted with Penn, which polled second. The star trio of Alek Torgersen (quarterback), Justin Watson (wide receiver), and Tre Solomon (running back) returned to lead the Quakers attack.
Fresh faces versus the veterans—already the playbill was set. Ironically, it was the fresh faces trying to preserve a history of success, while the veterans sought to forge a tradition of their own.
For Harvard, Anthony Firkser represented a bridge to the past. Currently, 13 Crimson graduates hold NFL contracts. Four played tight end in college.
In 2014 and 2015, Firkser backed up Ben Braunecker, now a member of the Chicago Bears, but still landed on the All-Ivy second team. Senior year offered a chance to break out.
In week three, facing Georgetown at home, Firkser tallied four catches, 134 yards, and two touchdowns—in the first half alone.
That performance helped Harvard secure a 31-17 victory and allay any fears about an early-season collapse. In each of the first three games (against Rhode Island, Brown, and Georgetown), the Crimson eclipsed 30 points and won by double-digits.
"You're not going to be perfect every day. The best part is holding yourself to a higher standard that you know you can achieve," senior defensive lineman James Duberg said.
In October, then, Harvard launched into conference play with a spotless résumé—just as everyone had expected. A 29-13 triumph over Cornell did nothing to dispel the idea. Beneath the surface, though, intrigue boiled.
In the first four games, senior quarterback Joe Viviano had thrown seven scores without a turnover. But a hurt knee ruled him out for the Oct. 15 contest at Holy Cross. Injuries also sidelined sophomore wide receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley and junior rusher Semar Smith.
Harvard entered Worcester, Mass., with a depleted cast, and the Crimson did not fare well, falling 27-17.
Even with the asterisks, the loss came as a shock. Harvard had won its last 16 nonconference matchups. And, in a particular point of pride for Murphy, the Crimson had not dropped a road match since Nov. 2012.
With those streaks over, the subsequent matchup at Princeton loomed as a major test. Despite facing a 14-0 deficit, the Tigers clawed back to tie the contest at 17.
Against all momentum, Harvard held steady. In overtime, 2017 captain Luke Hutton broke up a third-down pass to force a field goal, and on the next possession, Viviano scrambled for a third-down conversion.
Two plays later, when the quarterback fell over the goal line, the Crimson could take a deep breath. A 5-1 overall record was not perfect, but a 3-0 league mark was all that mattered.
Week by week, the Harvard four-peat was coming together. But then it all fell apart.
For the Crimson, no rival means more than Yale, but Harvard reserves a special hatred for Penn. The Quakers are tied with Dartmouth for the most Ancient Eight titles (18). Crimson players still relay the legend of how Penn snuffed out championship cigars on the Harvard Stadium turf.
In 2015, the Quakers upset the Crimson, 35-25, to break a 22-game win streak. Nov. 11, 2016 offered a chance for revenge.
After one-score wins over Dartmouth and Columbia, Harvard arrived at Franklin Field with a perfect league record. But on a blustery night, the offense froze. Viviano threw three interceptions in the first half.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Crimson faced a 14-6 deficit. Harvard mounted a tying push, capped off by a 26-yard touchdown pass.
With three minutes to play, though, the Quaker offense revived. Penn marched down the field, and with 15 seconds left, wide receiver Justin Watson plunged the dagger—a slant touchdown.
“The aftermath was disappointment, immediately,” Duberg said. “[But] you can’t keep beating yourself up. That’s not going to help you.”
Crimson players would not get revenge. All they could hope for, in the best of worlds, was a split Ivy title. That result hinged on the last weekend—meaning the Harvard-Yale game. The historic four-peat was at stake.
Absent from the Penn game was cornerback Sean Ahern. An October shoulder injury had limited the captain. Each week, he suited up. And each week, he stood sentinel on the sidelines.
As a sophomore and junior, Ahern had made the All-Ivy first team. In 2016, he was back for a grand finale—if not for this injury.
“I could see the pained look on his face every single practice,” Duberg said. “Every single game, that pain had magnified 10 times over.”
A few days after the Penn game, Ahern reflected on what the Harvard-Yale game might mean. Biting his lip, he gazed across Harvard Stadium.
“It’s definitely tough not being out there with the guys,” the captain said. “That’s why I came back, to play 10 games…. [But] those three championships didn’t just happen. Now we have a chance to do four.”
Every year, The Game takes place on a Saturday. Which means that the Last Lap takes place on Thursday. Per tradition, seniors circle the field and shake hands with all teammates and coaches.
In 2016, the Last Lap took on added significance. Veterans were not only saying goodbye but also making a guarantee—that on Saturday, the Crimson would atone for the Penn loss with a championship celebration.
Confidently, non-players could also make this guarantee. Yale, then 2-7, had not topped Harvard since 2006.
In 2016, the Bulldogs leaned on youngsters, with predictable results. Before The Game, Yale ranked worst in the Ancient Eight in scoring defense, conceding 36 points per go. Moreover, the Bulldogs started freshman quarterback Kurt Rawlings, who had tallied a mere 623 yards through the air.
Before The Game, Harvard publication Satire V sold shirts that read, “Insanit-Y is playing the same team over and over again and expecting different results.” Suspense hardly lay in the outcome. If anything, suspense lay in the margin of Crimson victory.
The first quarter, however, settled into a stalemate. A chastened Viviano threw the ball exactly once.
The dam broke in the second quarter, when sophomore running back Charlie Booker escaped for a 27-yard score. Now for the blowout.
Except that, on Yale’s next possession, the visitors marched 68 yards to tie the game. After 30 minutes, as the two squads headed into their locker rooms, the score stood at 7-7.
Bulldogs coach Tony Reno was not satisfied with this state of affairs. No matter that Yale had surprised most analysts with this low-scoring tie—Reno was impatient for more.
For years, Reno had worked under Murphy, building the résumé necessary to earn a higher-profile job.
This tactic was quite normal. Nine of Murphy’s former assistants have progressed to head coaching jobs. John Harbaugh, the Baltimore Ravens coach, once managed special teams for a Murphy-led Cincinnati program.
What was unusual, though, was Reno’s choice of destination. After the 2011 season, he left for the Bulldogs. Immediately, he transformed from one of Murphy’s closest confidants to his most obvious rival.
Now, with the second half starting, Reno decided to pull a trick. On the opening kickoff, Yale junior Blake Horn dinked the ball 11 yards forward—just enough for the Bulldogs to swoop in for the recovery.
So much for hopes of an early Harvard score. After one minute, Yale had rumbled into the end zone for a 14-7 lead.
The reality of a tight contest set in at Harvard Stadium. The Crimson would have to come from behind.
Finally, the Harvard offense proved capable. With 8:19 left in the third, the Crimson punched in a score to lock the game at 14. A back-and-forth battle seemed likely.
Instead, the scoreboard remained stuck. Early in the fourth, Harvard advanced into the red zone but missed a 35-yard field goal.
The season changed with 11 minutes to play, when Rawlings took the field. Over the next 14 plays, Yale grinded away at the Crimson’s defense. The Bulldogs faced three third downs but converted each one.
The final test came on third-and-goal. Ignoring the jeers of the home crowd, Rawlings fired a bullet to fellow rookie Reed Klubnik. Bulldogs 21, Crimson 14.
Here came Viviano’s turn for heroics. In front of 30,000 fans, he could carve a place in Harvard lore.
The narrative never took hold. In two plays, the Crimson lost 10 yards. And on third down, Murphy dialed up a conservative screen pass. Harvard punted.
Suddenly, the onus lay on the defense, which mounted a stand. Four plays later, the Crimson offense returned to the field, now with 1:13 left but the same opportunity to prolong the season.
Eighty yards separated Harvard from the goal line. Eighty yards to storybook success or anonymous letdown. One way or another, the seconds continued to tick.
The critical play came on fourth-and-11 from the Harvard 47. Viviano lobbed a prayer in the direction of Firkser and Yale’s Jason Alessi. Everything collided and dropped. The ball slapped the turf.
In that moment, as half the crowd erupted in jubilation, Penn and Princeton became Ivy League co-champions. And the 2016 Crimson confronted a strange fact—the certainty of hurt, not just for a minute but for the rest of time.
“[I remember] walking backwards, looking up at Harvard Stadium with my teammates,” Duberg said. “Even though it was a loss, I never want to forget that feeling.”
In 2017, Harvard will return for a revenge tour.
In order to achieve this goal, the Crimson will rely on familiar tactics—linebacker captains (in this case Hutton), early-morning practices, and the like. Murphy remains, as do all his Murphy-isms.
The crucial variable, however, is something that outsiders cannot assess—the months of quiet preparation.
“I tortured myself with the film the week after, watching it probably daily,” Duberg said. “If I had another season at Harvard, I would be very, very sure to prepare as hard as I ever have in my life to beat them next year.”
Despite his mid-season injury, Justice Shelton-Mosley earned a unanimous selection to the All-Ivy first team. That award continued a trend from 2015, when the wideout unanimously won Rookie of the Year.
Heading into the 2017 season, Shelton-Mosley is the most decorated Crimson player. Where he goes, the program likely will follow.
For two weeks after The Game, the sophomore rested. He processed emotions, healed injuries, and enjoyed relative freedom.
By Dec. 7, however, he had returned to work. Always, the next season beckons.
—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.