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A Dynasty Still Burning for Respect

First of two parts

By Jeffrey A. Zucker

Sheldon Hackney became president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1980. Jerry Berndt became its head football coach, in 1981.

One year later, Penn became the most feared team of the Ivy League.

And many believe it's more than a happy coincidence that the Quakers' arrival as the Ivy Team of the '80s coincided with the arrival of Hackney and Berndt.

In fact, many Ancient Eight observers point directly to Hackney's unprecedented commitment to athletics--and football, in particular--to explain the Quakers' meteoric rise to gridiron prominence.

Harvard Director of Athletics John P. Reardon, Jr. '60 says he's "sure they're going after people who can play better football than they've had in the past."

Others point to the signing of the 47-year-old Berndt to explain how a program that compiled a 1-18 mark in the two years prior to his arrival has won three consecutive Ivy League championships and is currently closing in on a fourth.

Penn's success is attributable to both, Hackney's new emphasis on athletics as well as Berndt, Yale football Coach Carm Cozza says.

"Their president has made a commitment to excellence in athletics, especially football," says Cozza, the dean of Ivy League coaches. "That has allowed them to go after good athletes" in a way that other Ivy League schools cannot because of academic standards, Cozza says.

And the Yale mentor adds, "Coach Berndt has done an excellent job."

In the five years since Berndt inherited the second-losingest Ivy program in history, Penn-which this weekend will meet Harvard in the Stadium--has assaulted the Ivy League record book. Consider that the Quakers:

* are 22-3-1 in Ivy games in the last four years and haven't lost a league contest in two years;

* are 15-0-1 in Division I-AA games in the last two years;

* last year won their first outright title since 1959 by posting the first 7-0 league mark since 1970;

* and last year won their third straight league crown, boasted their first eight-win season since 1928, set a league scoring record of 254 points, and defeated every Ivy opponent by at least 10 points.

The Quakers--who this year have as many league wins as Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell and Columbia combined--are currently off to a 5-0 league start for the second time in history, are one win shy of an Ivy record for consecutive victories, and one win from becoming only the second team in Ancient Eight history to claim four straight league crowns.

While many around the Ivy League contend that the nation's fourth oldest college has sacrificed its academic principles in quest of athletic principals, Penn officials vigorously deny that they've compromised their admissions standards to save a once-sagging football program.

"I would refute any suggestion that our ability to achieve success on the football field has been related to any change in our admission standards of student-athletes," says Lee Stetson Penn's dean of admissions.

"It's a shame that when a program does well, people suddenly think you're doing something wrong," adds Stetson.

Berndt attributes grumblings about his student-athletes to "sour grapes," citing the fact that in his four-plus years in Philadelphia only two Penn football players have failed to earn a degree.

The easy-going, mild-mannered coach--who all Penn officials credit for the historic turnaround--points out that when the Quakers first won the league crown in 1982, the seniors and juniors on that team were recruited and admitted in the pre-Berndt-Hackney era.

But if Penn hasn't changed its academic standards, and if its student-athletes are still representative of the entire student body--as even Reardon says they are--then how does one explain the fact that it had been almost four decades since the Quakers had won as many games in two seasons as they did in 1982 and 1983?

Part of the reason Penn has been able to attract better football players is a result of the newfound national prestige for the school that was founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin.

"The overall image of the University has risen in recent years, and that has helped the University in many ways," says Stetson.

That includes the football program, which this year boasts a native of Nevada for the first time ever. A larger and more diverse applicant pool has enabled his team to attract better football players, Berndt says.

But a good deal of Penn's success is directly attributable to Berndt, even though he credits Penn's success to his assistant coaches.

"Almost all of the credit has to go to the quality of coaching," says Stetson, who many credit for raising Penn's national image. "Jerry Berndt came in here and turned around our program with well-organized and targeted recruiting."

Both Stetson and Berndt emphasize that the coach's reputation in the Midwest, a region in which Penn never had much recruiting success, has allowed the Quakers to attract football players they never could have in the pre-Berndt era.

"We can now recruit in the East and the Midwest, where he had a reputation and was known," says Stetson.

And Berndt--a native of Toledo, Ohio and graduate of Bowling Green--admits that he expanded the Quakers' recruiting to include the talent-laden areas of Chicago and St. Louis, which had been strictly off-limits to almost everyone but Harvard and Yale.

What's more, Berndt's ability to turn the 1982 team--recruited almost entirely by his predecessor--into college football's biggest surprise of 1982 paid immediate dividends.

Stetson and Berndt both say it has been directly responsible for a new outlook on the Philadelphia campus each fall, has prompted an increase in alumni giving, and has prompted athletes who might not otherwise have applied to give Penn a closer look.

But maybe it was Reardon who best explained Penn's unparallelled success.

"They went out and hired a great coach," he says.

Tomorrow: A look at that great coach

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