John Yovicsin


The life of a football coach is ideal, any red-blooded American will agree. In the most competitive of leagues, Alabama's Bear Bryant can afford leisurely fishing trips during the off-season and Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd plays summer tennis tournaments with Bitsy Grant. In the little Ivy League, a Harvard football coach should live a relaxed existence. But not quite.

Coach John Yovicsin devotes his total year to the organizing of Harvard football. He spends the off-season reviewing films, compiling statistics on each player's performance, planning the three weeks of intensive preseason practice, digesting scouting reports, and analyzing opponents' tendencies.

During the season he continues to examine loopholes and uncertainty with an almost obsessive zeal for thoroughness. On Sunday Yovicsin spends over 10 hours reviewing films of the previous day's game to find weak spots that must be ironed out at the next day's practice. On Monday and Tuesday he examines opponents' films with the same care. His policy is to squeeze the most teaching possible into the short practice sessions. He demands most from his assistants, and his players agree that it easier to play under him than to coach under him.

There is a certain remoteness between Yovicsin and his players. A mild-mannered man with a subdued sense of humor, he sometimes cracks a grin which might widen into a smile. At games he more often scowls up and down the sidelines. Yovicsin does not have any pretensions of being an inspirational coach. Pre-game speeches are brief and unemotional, and if anybody attempts to arouse the team, it is either a player or an assistant coach.

"No, I don't believe in psychological pressure such as pep talks," says Yovicsin. "That is a thing of the past. Our players generally have enough incentive, and so we don't build up opponents. Anyway, our boys are too intelligent to fall for that. We simply inform them of the opponent's formations and plays, and then try to prepare in technical matters. The best approach to a game is one of technical confidence in all aspects of play -- defense, kicking, and offense." To make his point, Yovicsin stated that Harvard played a better technical game this year against Cornell, when the team responded cooly and efficiently to opportunities, than against Dartmouth, when the team performed brilliantly but at times erratically.


Yovicsin is extremely protective of players who might have blundered during a game. The only individuals he will single out are those who have not received due attention by the press, such as a blocking back or a punter. In post-game press conferences, Yovicsin avoids showing gloatful glee to the extent that it usually looks as though there are two losing coaches sitting next to each other.

For Yovicsin, the most enjoyable part of football is "getting on the field with sweats and personally teaching a player some skill." A former all-Middle Atlantic end and a Philadelphia Eagle, Yovicsin coached the backfield and ends himself during his first years at Harvard, just as at Gettysburg College and several high schools previously. As his staff has expanded and he has had to assume more public relations duties, he has lost the firsthand contact with players. He has gradually become accustomed to the outside responsibilities of a coach, but he reminisces about that "on-the-field coaching which nothing can match."

Yovicsin looks back in nostalgia on his position as head coach at Gettysburg. "Boy, I guess I'll never live like that again," he says smiling, shaking his head. "Our home was adjacent to the fourth hole of a golf course, and right across the fairway was a lake stocked with bass."

When Yovicsin left his cozy position at Gettysburg for Harvard in 1957, the New York Times reported that he was "headed for the coach's graveyard." It was a fairly accurate evaluation of the possibilities open to a Harvard coach. In the 10 years before Yovicsin's arrival, neither of two coaches could win half his games, and for good reasons.

Unlike the seven other Ivy League coaches, a Harvard coach is not permitted to recruit; alumni, ignorant of a team's needs, must do it. Equally stifling for a football coach is Harvard's policy of accepting its share of "athlete-scholars" without regard to the sport instead of trying to concentrate in football and maybe one other sport, as do Princeton and Dartmouth. On all sides, a Harvard coach is forced to work within the limits imposed by a University generally skeptical about the primary importance of any athletics, football above all.

But when he made the difficult decision to leave Gettysburg, Yovicsin told its sports information director straight-forwardly that he was going to be "the best coach Harvard ever had." Now in his 10th year, he has almost reached that goal. Only the legendary Percy D. Haughton '99 has won more games, and only Richard D. Harlow, with 11 seasons, has served longer. His six victories over Yale in nine games top all Harvard coaches, including Haughton. But a Yovicsin team still has not become sole holder of a League title. "That often depends on how much a college wants it," he aptly says.

Yovicsin, shrugging off Harvard's recruiting policy, says "we still get good boys, though never exactly what we need." Eight of his 10 starting centers, for example, never played the position before coming to Harvard. "We usually find ourselves with 25 ends and quarterbacks, but no guards."

To broaden his players, Yovicsin initiated a junior varsity program, which now includes nine games a year. No other Ivy junior varsity plays more than five. He has also started a freshman B program and extended the use of game films to cover all teams from the varsity down. It is an expensive and time-consuming system, but the most admirable aspect of Yovicsin's coaching is his development of lower-level men into solid first-stringers, such as his three interior offensive linemen this season.

With his organizational and publicity demands continually expanding, Yovicsin, now 48, feels that he has about another seven years as a coach. "Then I would like to go into athletic administration," he says. He has been approached from time to time by big-name teams, and offers undoubtedly will continue to come, but Yovicsin says he is happy at Harvard. "While at Gettysburg my view of the top coaching jobs changed, and it was then that I decided I wanted to coach in the Ivy League."

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