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Not everyone who went to Harvard or Yale has been to more than even one football game in their lives. But pretty much everyone I know from either school has a story about “The Game” during their senior year.
The rivalry started in 1875, and Yale dominated for much of the early years—after Harvard won 4-0 in the first hotly contested duel between the two schools, Yale went unbeaten in the next 11 contests. Winning by scores of 1-0 on many different occasions, the Elis dominated the Crimson up until 1889.
During many of those seasons and again up until Harvard won the Rose Bowl in 1919, the Ivy Leaguers—and Harvard and Yale in particular—established themselves as some of the most dominant teams in college football. Not in the Ivy League, and not simply against Yale, but against the college football world at large.
In many ways, the recent winning ways of Harvard under Tim Murphy represent a renaissance for Ivy League sports and in particular for the Crimson. If Harvard captain and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is able to lead the Crimson to the fourth consecutive victory over Yale on Saturday, then this group of seniors will be the first Harvard class since 1922 to defeat the Yalies in four straight contests. Interestingly enough, that was also the last group to win a Rose Bowl, as Harvard defeated the University of Oregon 7-6 to win the Jan. 1, 1920 contest in Pasadena, Calif. and finished undefeated on the season, 9-0-1.
With a win today, this senior class—led by Fitzpatrick, wide receiver Brian Edwards, linebacker Bobby Everett, and many others—will have replicated the unbelievable feat of that class of 1922 and proved it deserves to be ranked among the top two or three senior classes in Harvard history.
Yet due to an agreement forged long ago among the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown and Penn, Fitzpatrick’s classmates will not have that same chance to compete in a postseason contest.
In drafting the “Ivy Group Agreement,” the presidents of the universities in the 1930s and 1940s agreed to “continue intercollegiate football,” while maintaining a necessary “proportion to the main purpose of academic life.” When the football world was split up again into today’s Division I-A and Division I-AA, it became clear that the Ivy League would join Division I-AA.
It only made sense because Harvard did not want to get involved in the rigors that Division I-A football has put on so many prestigious academic institutions. The situation with Maurice Clarett and Ohio State is only the latest reminder that Harvard seems to have done the right thing.
Yet the current policy by the Ivy League presidents means that Fitzpatrick’s class will not be allowed to compete in the same way that classes such as that of 1922 have, and that group won’t be able to prove that while beating Yale is truly something, winning a national championship is really everything. In fact, Fitzpatrick’s own classmates such as hockey star Noah Welch and women’s hockey star Nicole Corriero will have the opportunity to do just that this year.
Nobody is saying that Harvard should try and go back into Division I-A. Yet the work put in on a consistent basis by Murphy and his staff to recruit the best talent and the effort that Fitzpatrick and his classmates expend on a daily basis is undermined by the current policy of the Crimson not being allowed to compete in the Division I-AA playoffs along with the rest of the country.
My colleague at The Crimson, Michael R. James, has often taken up this subject, but I thought it would be especially appropriate to bring it up just days before Harvard has a chance to establish itself as truly dominant over the Yalies once again.
In my job at the Harvard Alumni Association, every time I meet someone from a different class, they can tell me about the victory or loss against Yale in their senior year. Yet many of the older classes will tell you about how much better their victories over other big schools were.
Shouldn’t Edwards and Everett and Fitzpatrick have the same chance to tell kids in the Class of 2055 at their 50th reunion that they finished 10-0 in the regular season and then won out over two or three schools to retain the Division 1-AA crown?
I really believe that the reason the Ivy League presidents don’t change the policy is because of the enormous amount of respect they have for their predecessors, and with good reason. President Lawrence Summers has been preceded by luminaries such as Charles Eliot, A. Lawrence Lowell and Nathan Pusey, and I agree with his respect for these extraordinary men.
But why should Fitzpatrick and Murphy’s efforts not be able to be on par with those of Coach Robert T. Fisher (1919-1925) and his players? Ivy League football is that good again. The academic index is high, the players work their tails off to finish their studies and play good football, and if they don’t make the grades they don’t play on the team.
This is the exact same thing that is done by Noah Welch and his classmates on the hockey team. So, if and when Fitzpatrick and company are celebrating a 10-0 season and a perfect four years against Yale on Saturday, just wonder what could have been.
Because this team will be one of only two Harvard classes ever to win four in a row against Yale—the other two won national championships—shouldn’t Fitzpatrick and his mates have a chance to win some kind of a national championship, no matter how insignificant the Ivy presidents deem it to be?
It’s too late for Fitzpatrick and Edwards and Everett. If they defeat the Elis today, their senior campaign will rank right up there with those of 1922 and 1968—the team that came back to tie Yale 29-29 after trailing by 16 with just 42 seconds to play—but they will not have the same chance to compete for something extra.
Harvard football is having a renaissance and it has shown that is possible for it to remain competitive in the classroom in the world of the Division I-AA football.
Welch and his teammates on the hockey team prove that. So just ask yourself once more: Isn’t it time we treat them the same?
—Staff writer Robert C. Boutwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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