It dominated the opposition as no modern-era Crimson squad has—including this year's 8-0 team. It has been the benchmark of excellence that Harvard Coach Tim Murphy has reminded his team of time after time. Yet if the Crimson beats up on Yale next week, it is the 1997 squad that will find itself dashed into obscurity.
"I knew as much as anyone how much they were getting sick of hearing it," Coach Murphy said. "But you know what? It was for a reason, and I think deep down they knew that and responded. Now, good, bad or indifferent, the team that everyone will judge as the standard is the 2001 team. And they deserve it."
No team that simply bulldozes through its opponents could be anywhere near as endearing as a group that triumphs despite adversity. This year's squad knew it could come back from an early 14-0 deficit because its entire season has been one big comeback.
It's been about coming back within individual games, like overcoming a 21-0 halftime deficit against Dartmouth two weeks ago. It's been about coming back from injuries to key players just about every game—Neil Rose and Josh Staph have led a season-long parade through the infirmary that didn't slow the Crimson's momentum one bit.
And it's been about coming back from last year's nightmarish end. With a flurry of big plays in the fourth quarter, Harvard forever banished the ghosts of a 2000 season that saw too many late collapses.
Big plays, especially on defense. There was junior safety Niall Murphy on Saturday, erratic for much of the season, sacking near-legendary Penn quarterback Gavin Hoffman on a third-and-long to end a drive. There was junior Rodney Thomas, taking advantage of Penn miscommunication to block the ensuing punt. There were seniors Marc Laborsky and Eric LaHaie, nailing Hoffman on consecutive plays in the next drive. The Laborsky hit sent Hoffman's helmet flying.
Big plays, all of them—but only because they came in big situations. Regardless of how dominant the 1997 team was, this year's edition is probably the greatest show you'll ever see at the Stadium.
And the fans who filled the home half of the stands during the game and left them to storm the field at its end appreciated that. The celebration wouldn't have been as wild had the game not been so close—as almost all of them have been.
Coach Murphy also realizes the dramatic appeal.
"If you're a dominant team, it seems easy," Coach Murphy said. "Heck, I don't think in '97 we had any close games. This one is a lot more special for that reason. It took a lot more character to get where these guys got this year."
But if the season has been cinematic because of the way the team has overcome constant adversity, it has also resembled a movie in that it was all essentially written out ahead of time. The 2001 script, penned by Coach Murphy and an experienced, senior-laden nucleus, consisted of simply knowing what the team needed to win.
From the very beginning of the season, the coaching staff emphasized holding on to the ball. The Crimson has fewer turnovers than any school in the nation and, just as importantly, has yet to turn the ball over in the fourth quarter. From the beginning of the season, Coach Murphy has highlighted the need for the big play late in the game on both sides of the ball. Junior tailback Nick Palazzo broke free on a 2nd-and-7 to pick up 14 yards, extending a drive that enabled the Crimson to milk the clock and hold a dwindling lead.
"We've had unbelievable playmaking all year long," Coach Murphy said. "That's what separates a good team from a championship team."
As much as most of the games were great theater, the Crimson has done the same thing through all of them. It has simply found ways to win, rather than finding ways to lose.
It has often done so in dramatic fashion. It's a tough break for the 1997 team. That group was far more efficient, but much less exciting. Soon, to fans and future Murphy pupils alike, it will be a distant memory.