Fifteen Minutes: Harvard-Yale Football: Who Cares

     The 1999 season has been a strange one for the Harvard football team. After two wins to open the season,
By Aaron R. Cohen

The 1999 season has been a strange one for the Harvard football team. After two wins to open the season, the team dropped consecutive contests in heartbreaking fashion to Colgate and Cornell. They rebounded strongly, winning their next three games before falling to the Brown University Bears--the team ranked number one by most Ivy League preseason polls--to all but mathematically assure the team of a finish short of the championship. Their fate was sealed last Saturday with another tough loss, this one at the hands of the Pennsylvania Quakers.

"It's kind of tough on the team," said Carl Morris, a freshman wideout who has emerged as the primary deep receiving threat for the Crimson this season, after the Brown game. "We had such high expectations for ourselves. We still realize that we have a slim shot, but we're also playing for pride right now."

The Ivy League football season is so short--teams play only 10 games total, seven counting for conference standings--that a team that loses its first few games all but eliminates itself from competition for the league crown. This year, for example, after losing its first two games, highly touted Princeton only sealed a final nail in its coffin by losing to the Crimson at Soldiers Field on Oct. 23. With three losses, they were finished, and the balance of the season was good only to salvage some Tiger pride.

Also worth noting is the absence of any Ivy League playoff system or tiebreaker to determine final champions in close seasons. If, by chance, two or three teams finish with the same record, it makes no matter which of those teams beat which during the season--each will be crowned league co-champions at the conclusion of the season.

"The feeling over the years," explains Ivy League Commissioner Jeff Orleans, "is that the round robin schedule [versus head-to-head competition between top teams] matters a lot. If three teams have the same record against the entire league, they should be co-champions. You have to pick one philosophy."

Which brings us to Saturday. After a crushing defeat at Brown two weeks ago, featuring five Harvard turnovers and a gaggle of other critical mistakes, the Crimson fell a game behind Brown and another team with just two to go, and was officially eliminated from contention with last week's loss against Penn. Of course, after much of the team's fate was sealed in Providence, players took some heart in looking on their calendars and realizing another option--playing the "spoiler" and sealing the title for the Bears. You see, the team sharing first place with Brown is the Yale Bulldogs. If Yale wins on Saturday, they get their first piece of an Ivy title since 1989. If they lose, and Brown wins (they are playing Columbia, one of the weaker teams in the league), they finish in second place, and the trophy is sent to Providence. There are no playoffs; Saturday's game will, indeed, decide it all.

The excited freshman is Anna-Marie Lopez '03. A native of Puerto Rico, she now makes her home in Matthews Hall. So far, probably the most excitement she's had as a freshman is dealing with the wave of robberies that swept her dorm earlier this fall. Even though she hasn't been to a football game yet this season, she's looking forward to going down to New Haven for her first Harvard-Yale Game. "It's something you can't miss--it's Harvard-Yale," she says.

Lopez admittedly isn't that into sports. "I don't follow it--I sort of know what's going on. It'll definitely be better if we win, but I'm not going to be devastated if we don't win." She'll be going down, staying overnight, the whole nine yards.

"It's tradition, and something you can't miss," she reasons. "It's a college experience."

The first football game between Harvard and Yale took place when Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a five-year old pre-schooler and the Science Center probably referred to a collection of Bunsen burners somewhere in the basement of Sever Hall. The 1875 competition--which was in reality more a rugby match than anything else--was actually not the beginning of the Harvard-Yale rivalry. That had begun more than two decades earlier with crew. No helmets or equipment were worn--the teams wore hats, knickers and britches for uniforms. The game was not played in the first year of so-called football competition for either school, either--Yale had begun playing in 1872 and Harvard in 1874.

In 1873, representatives from Yale met with individuals from Princeton, Rutgers and Columbia to create official rules for American football; what emerged was a game more resembling traditional European football--soccer--than anything else. Harvard pursued its own idea of the sport, closer to rugby and an early version of today's American football. In any case, in 1875, The Game was played without formally established rules, complicating the final tally: While the official record shows Harvard winning by a margin of four touchdowns and four goals to nothing for Yale, The Crimson credited the margin to be five goals to nothing.

But The Game in its premiere showing also reflected what it has evolved into today, that is, an event more than a football game. It was played in New Haven, and about 150 Harvard men accompanied the Harvard team to Connecticut in carriages. Everyone was put up at a lodging called the New Haven House, and on Saturday morning, rather than tailgate, the Yale men drove their Cambridge counterparts around New Haven, showing off objects of interest in town. The game started at 2:30 p.m. (this year's game starts at 12:30) and was played at a place known as Hamilton Park. The price of admission was 50 cents. On a sour note, seven Harvard students were arrested on Saturday night in the city for creating disturbances by hooting and singing in the public streets. They would be fined $5.29 a piece.

The disinterested senior is Alistair Isaac, who was originally a member of the Class of 1999 before he took a year off. He's not much of a sports fan but has attended the previous three Harvard-Yale games. For a long time, The Game commemorated his first meeting with his former girlfriend, as they had first dated during Harvard-Yale weekend years ago. But things have changed.

"I'm not interested in football from the start, period," Isaac says. "It was sort of amusing for the first few years, but I'm a senior now and pretty blase about it...and everything."

The Harvard-Yale football rivalry heated up quickly in the years of The Game's infant years. The clash between America's most elite educational institutions, already competitive off the field, guaranteed that The Game would have a larger resonance. Furthermore, football in its early years was even more of a game of force--versus elaborate strategy and skill--than it is today; naturally, any such activity relying on brute combat was certain to stir the tempers and emotions of both the players and fans. The Yale teams were less than observant of the developing set of football rules, and according to various reports, the Crimson retaliated with frequent punishment in the form of throttling, punching, and what appears to be an early ancestor of clotheslining. Without a hint of Ivy League etiquette, the games were known for their violent grappling and attempts to maim for victory. The play grew so ugly that in early 1885, the Faculty of Harvard College sent a letter ordering intercollegiate competition prohibited, limiting football to Harvard intramural competition until it was "possible to eliminate all objectionable features from the game." Fortunately for the future of intercollegiate football, though, the rough spots of competition were smoothed out--or, probably more accurately--accepted. The game went on the next year, with a single impartial referee--recent Yale graduate and American football pioneer Walter Camp.

For the balance of the 19th century, the Harvard-Yale game represented the clash of the two strongest teams around. Despite outscoring opponents by the likes of season marks of 765 to 41, 660 to 23, and 588 to 26, Yale beat Harvard in all but two of their meetings through the turn of the century. In 1892, the Crimson introduced the controversial and soon-to-be-outlawed flying wedge offense, creating havoc for the Yale defense. Also, though the Harvard Faculty had backed off, the roughness of the game continued; strong but weaker-than-Yale Harvard teams compensated for their inferiority by stepping up the physicality of the contests, leading once in 1894 to a rumor that a Yale tackle had been killed after a game. (It would later be confirmed that in fact the player was suffering simply from "contusion of the brain," and he returned to action six days later.)

The success of both football teams continued, and the rivalry flourished. With Harvard so dominant during the balance of seasons, the Yale game became something of a test for the Crimson and always one of the toughest games of the season. In undefeated seasons in 1890, 1898, 1899, 1910, 1912, 1913 and 1919, the Crimson was awarded the national championship by the Helms Athletic Foundations.

That understood, the early years of the Harvard-Yale football rivalry in a sense defined much of the modern sports rivalry, not to mention the modern sports event. Along with the intensity of The Game came a magnitude of spectating rarely seen before in the platform of American sport. The 1883 Game was played at the famous Polo Grounds in New York City, in front of a record 10,000 spectators. By 1902, at Yale Field, 30,000 showed up to watch Yale win 23-0. The hard-crunching action of the sport of football combined with the natural competitive fire of upper-crust Ivy League culture combined to create an event that players, students and alumni could look forward to each year. It was a precursor to any college football Big Game of today; Florida/Florida State; Michigan/Ohio State; Stanford/Cal--they're all descendants of the original Game, a test to determine the best team in a league, region, or, in especially exciting seasons, country.

Caroline Turcotte '00 is the fellow athlete. She's a senior on the women's rugby team, the closest thing the University has to a female football team. Despite the connection that the sports have on the field, Turcotte has a bit of trouble drawing a bond to the football players, reasoning that "we mostly play for ourselves as opposed to an audience."

She'll probably go to The Game, though, to be a part of the 25,000 or so who will be in attendance. "I definitely care if they win," she says, but if they don't, "It won't affect my weekend. It's a school pride thing. And I'm definitely a very competitive person."

In the far right corner of Dillon Field House sits the office of the Thomas Stephenson Family Coach for Football Tim Murphy. The size of the office complex rivals that of any other occupant of an endowed chair at the University, with a large lobby and waiting area decorated with choice artwork, generous plaques and panoramic photography of Harvard football. Nearly every piece on the four walls of the lobby is related to the Harvard-Yale game; a painting of a Harvard receiver pulling down a pass against a Yale defender; a faded black-and-white photographer's rendering of the 1911 Harvard-Yale game; a blown-up snapshot of Harvard's championship celebration two seasons ago after a 17-7 win against Yale. Buried in the corner, near a side entrance to the field house, is an eight and a half by 11 plaque commemorating Harvard's lone appearance-in 1919 in the Rose Bowl, traditionally celebrated as college football's most storied bowl game. Harvard, if you're curious, defeated the Oregon Ducks 7-6 to win its final national championship.

It would be the lone postseason appearance in Harvard football history. In 1922, the Big Three--Harvard, Yale and Princeton--would make an agreement not to enter postseason contests, only enriching and emphasizing the competition between themselves while preventing the teams from competing with schools like Michigan, Notre Dame and other emerging national football powers. In 1954, the Ivy League was formed, and its regulations, including those regarding the prohibition of athletic scholarships, were made fully operational in 1956. While the rest of the country was heading in a direction that some might refer to as the professionalization of college sports, Harvard and its league compatriots were taking a stand that emphasized superior academics first and athletics second.

Russell D. Rivera '00 is the play-by-play announcer. All season long, he's been offering play-by-play commentary on WHRB for fans listening at home in Cambridge. Russell's been covering football since 1996, and he's not too keen on the idea of this being his final Harvard-Yale Game.

"It's only my last as an undergraduate," he reminds a visitor. "I don't know if it's excitement, but it will be great to call it."

Russell is leaving no room for error. "I'm going to do the best play-by-play job I can do--it's my last game calling the marquis sport. I owe the best to myself, and to everyone listening who couldn't be there to see it.

"I'm going to spend 40 hours prepping. I'm going to know every single player on both rosters and talk to the Yale people. I'm not happy with the job I've done this year, but if I were happy, then I wouldn't be a good broadcaster."

The greatest Game of them all was in 1968. Both Harvard and Yale brought undefeated 8-0 records into the pre-Thanksgiving face-off, the lone time in history that has happened. The Crimson were led by 5'6 halfback Vic Gatto, the captain, who guided a steady offense that supported a deep, veteran defense that only gave up 41 points going into The Game. The Bulldogs countered with a powerful offensive squad, with running back Calvin Hill, a future NFL star and father of Detroit Piston Grant Hill, and Brian Dowling, a quarterback who had not lost a game as a starter since junior high school and would later gain most fame as the inspiration for the character of B.D. in Gary Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic. A powerful Yale team had defeated an emerging Harvard unit narrowly the year before, setting the stage for a showdown for the Ivy League championship.

The game went according to form for about 57 minutes, with slightly favored Yale maintaining a 29-13 lead. Then the poetry began at Soldiers Field. Harvard scores, but fails on the two point conversion, remaining 10 points behind. No wait, pass interference--a second opportunity proves worthy; Yale 29, Harvard 21, 42 seconds remaining. Onside kick. Harvard recovers, quickly drives down the field. Three seconds remaining, eight yard line. On the final play, Gatto catches touchdown pass for the score. Down two, no time remaining. Two point conversion successful, game ends in 29-29 tie. Both Harvard and Yale finish with identical 8-0-1 records.

Over 30 years later, what is striking is not just the comeback itself, but the fact that the stars had aligned themselves such that with under a minute remaining, Harvard needed two touchdowns plus two two-point conversions to tie the game. No room for error whatsoever. There would be no possibility of a win, only a tie. Circumstance so rarely affords any team or individual to play out a heroic miracle such as that; when and while it happens, it almost seems preordained that the miracle outcome might manifest.

Kevin P. Daly '00 is in charge of the band. His official title is manager--he looks after the finances, the budget, the general stability of the instrumental corps. The band attends every game but one--a non-conference away game--and definitely looks forward to Harvard-Yale for its own reasons. "The night before," he explains, "we go to New York City and perform a concert for the alumni at the Harvard Club." During that show, traditionally President Rudenstine comes over to the stage and conducts a number.

For the national anthem, the Harvard and Yale bands create an H-Y pretzel and play together, and then at halftime, the band's student staff changes over.

"It's absolutely the biggest performance of the year for the band," Daly says. "We hope that it's our funniest show and our best show musically."

But does the band care about the football game? Do they even know what's going on?

"I think the members of the band care--it's more fun that way. It's more fun to watch a winning team than a losing team. We knew that the [Brown] game for them was the key game for them, and it didn't quite happen.

"The band does it's own thing. But better football teams make for a happier band."

The 1990s, all in all, have been a bit frustrating for Harvard football. Legendary long-time coach Joe Restic retired in 1993 with a winning percentage over .600, but his last winning season had been in 1987, and the program he turned over to former Cincinnati coach Tim Murphy was in need of revitalization. Murphy, who had succeeded at each of his previous two coaching jobs masterfully, had mediocre results in his first three seasons before putting it all together in 1997, the first season he coached an entire team he had selected in the recruiting process. The 1997 team went 9-1, including an undefeated 7-0 in the Ivies. A strong, senior-led defense coupled with a younger, steady offense guided the Crimson all year long in lopsided wins against Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown and Penn, all teams that had beaten the Crimson the year before. It was the best performance that the Crimson had put together since the 1919 Rose Bowl season. But last year, the team faltered with the same offensive core, failing to win crucial games and finishing meekly to a 4-6 finish. This year, same story, though thanks to a 5-2 start, the team can still finish with a winning record with a victory in New Haven, not to mention play spoiler to Yale's championship aspirations.

Arkady Gerney '96-'98 and Tim Cullen '96 are tailgaters. They live together now in Cambridge. As a freshman way back in 1992, Tim and a prospective student he was hosting walked all around the outer fields and parking lots in Allston looking for a welcome tailgate and came up empty. With the morning passing by, they took what they had--a bottle of wild turkey--and drank it. What began was the concept of the Wild Turkey Party.

"We've had nine of these parties, every year before the Yale game," Cullen explains. "We've used a bus, a van--last year we had Little Joe Cook from the Cantab Lounge play from ten to noon. Someone took their clothes off in front of him. It really offended Joe--he's a 76 year-old guy."

The party reached legendary status in its third year, when Cullen and Gerney got the Dunster House dining hall to give them bagels and coffee in exchange for a few ID numbers of students who wouldn't be dining in the dorm that day. Two years ago, the last time The Game was in New Haven, they hosted 42 people on a single coach bus.

This year they're looking to defy all expectations. The party's on Trumbull Street, and it's going to have a hero and a heroine, author Jedediah Purdy '96 and actress Claire Danes.

"We'll also have smoke machines," Gerney adds.

If Harvard's stoic Soldiers Field is the Versailles Palace of I-AA football stadiums, then the Yale Bowl is probably best described as its Wal-Mart equivalent. Opened in 1914, the Bowl now has capacity for over 64,000 fans; at one point, before renovations, it could and, on occasion, did hold over 70,000. The stadium spans 12.5 acres, and its wide, flat, bowl-like design sits in stark contrast to the magnitude of the high-rising Soldiers Field in Allston. This year, as it does every odd year, Walter Camp Field at the Yale Bowl plays host to The Game. Tailgates will open as early as 9 a.m., peak closer to 11 a.m., and not die down completely until the Game is decided, probably between 3 and 3:30 in the afternoon. Over six hours of grilling and guzzling, ordinary tailgating pursuits, plus sauteeing and savioring, tailgating pastimes unique to the Ivy League rivalry. Keep your eyes open, and your Luxury wagons in park.

Early on Saturday morning, Sherwood "Woody" McClelland '00 will be duking it out with Yale already--on the chess board. McClelland, the president of the Harvard Chess Club, and accredited "Life Master," will lead the Crimson as they vie for their eighth straight victory in as many years in The Chess Match. The match was first staged in 1909 and held discontinuously until 1986, at which point the teams deemed the rivalry worth renewing on an annual basis.

"We usually play about 9 a.m. on the morning of the game," McClelland explains. "It's nice--after we finish we just go the football game."

The top five players play two games apiece, and in the end, total scoring for wins, draws and losses decides the match. Jacob Chudnovsky '01, a junior from Mason, Ohio concentrating in biochemical sciences, and an accredited "FETE master," is the top-ranked player on the team.

The Match will end, and the chess wizards will wander to the Bowl. "We don't know them that well," says McClelland, figuring that they'll go the Game separately and sit with their sides. "The most important match is the one coming first, but I'm hoping that we can both win this year. I have some friends on the football team."

So The Game arrives for a 116th time on Saturday. With the progression that it has taken in the years since 1885, putting in context what will happen in New Haven the day after tomorrow says much about college football, about Harvard, about Yale and about the people involved. Once upon a time, the Crimson and the Bulldogs did represent the top of the ladder of college football, but with time, as the University presidents and faculty have determined that athletics should take a back seat to academics, the football teams have been surpassed by schools with more lax academic policies, an even greater tradition of winning football and postseason opportunities.

But those are not the only reasons: In 1982, the governing body of college football divided up Division I schools into I-A and I-AA groups. I-A schools have large stadium capacity and large attendance; I-AA schools have small stadium capacities or small attendance numbers. While schools like Harvard and Yale both had stadiums capable of holding over tens of thousands of spectators, attendance at their games was low enough to merit a I-AA classification. Yes, thousands will show up for The Game on Saturday, but the rest of the season, attendances have been dismal--for Harvard, an average hovering around 10,000.

In the end, while The Game is a significant contest for the players involved, it is, and always has been as much--or more--about the events surrounding The Game than the football game itself. It's Harvard meeting Yale. Whether it be in the parking lot, at the keg party or across the chess board, the events surrounding the game make the occasion such a festival. It's an opportunity for people who wouldn't otherwise be somewhere near center-stage to shine, in the band, on the radio dial, wherever. For that, The Game is, indeed, worth caring for, worth going to, and maybe even worth rooting at.