The Yovicsin Years: Good, Better, Worst

On Saturday, November 23, 1957, first-year coach John Yovicsin walked along his team's bench and asked if by chance anyone had played quarterback in high school. Harvard was being shut-out by Yale on regional television, and all three Crimson quarterbacks had left the game with injuries.

A few weeks ago, Yovicsin announced that this fall will be his last as the coach of Harvard football. He put together ten consecutive winning teams, tied Percy Haughton for most wins as a Harvard coach, and had the first undefeated team here since 1920. But once again, Yovicsin finds himself searching for a quarterback.

Lack of a quarterback was one of the main explanations for 1969's 3-6 record, which has cast such a shadow over the end of Yovicsin's career. Frank Champi, the star of the 1968 Yale game, just didn't come through in 1969, and then he quit.

Joe Roda, John O'Grady, Rex Blankenship, and Dave Smith took turns the rest of the season, but none of them was able to show the consistency necessary for a team to get points. Harvard's passing attack became even more of a laughing stock than it had been (while talented ends Bruce Freeman and Pete Varney had to get their kicks from blocking), and the running simply wasn't good enough to make up for it.

Smith is graduating today, but the other three will be back. Eric Crone, a freshman, and Billy Kelly, a safety who played quarterback in high school, are two other candidates for the position. None of the five is an obvious choice, so they'll all have to fight it out in the September training camp.

Almost inevitably, all the losing of last season has produced some changes. It appears that Yovicsin and his staff, who have always sort of worshipped the "system," ?ll try instead to fashion the system to the material this year.

Defense has always been a strong point for Yovicsin's teams, both at Gettysburg and at Harvard, but he seems willing to alter the set-up somewhat in order to capitalize on the speed of the secondary, make up for a weakness at end, and to compensate for the fact that captain Gary Farneti is an outstanding linebacker on a team which is not blessed with much line backing talent.

The offense is likely to have more punch- certainly not less. A pro-type offense seems to be in the making, though it remains to be seen if Yovicsin has a passer at his disposal. He came to Harvard with a reputation for strong passing teams, but Ric Zimmerman has been the only quarterback here to provide the Crimson with an air attack.

The encouraging thing about this season is that it will be an improvement, as opposed to the attitude with which Harvard was forced to approach the dismal 1969 season after the magic of 1968; there was simply nowhere to go but down, despite all the returning lettermen.

One advantage this fall should be the leadership of Farneti, who was the inspiration- as well as the physical anchor- of the defense as a junior. John Cramer was a nice guy, but a sparkplug he wasn't. And despite the fact that Yovicsin doesn't have great rapport with his players, perhaps they will try extra hard this fall in order to give him a going-away present.

Of course, it was a tremendous surprise to most people that he ever came to Harvard in the first place. Everyone was talking about backfield coach Josh Williams and Davey Nelson, head coach at Delaware and a former Harvard assistant. Meanwhile, Gettysburg coach John Yovicsin was out playing golf and was only mentioned as a dark horse at the last moment.

On Tuesday, March 12, after 95 people had applied for the job and 26 had been interviewed, the CRIMSON ran a front-page banner proclaiming that Yovicsin was the winner. The prize was a football team which had won two games the year before, and three games the year before that at a college where losing had become a tradition ever since the departure of Robert Fisher in 1926.

The man responsible for luring Yovicsin to Harvard was former coach Dick Harlow, who in 11 seasons had been six games over 500. Thanks to Harlow, it was Yovicsin who was coaching the Crimson when Williams routed Harvard by seven touchdowns in a pre-season scrimmage.

Few good players were returning from the 1956 team, injuries and dissatisfaction had caused some squad members to quit the squad, and Yovicsin had a mere 33 men on his bench on opening day against Cornell. The biggest thrill of the season was a near upset over Princeton.

But Yovicsin had mobilized the alumni, who were thrilled to hear someone talk about winning. They went out in search of good football players, and the freshman team in 1958 was the one which was supposed to make Harvard a powerhouse. In both 1958 and 1959, the freshmen were 6-1.