November 18, 2009

The Perfect Match

by Bob Barton '57

Imagine a Yale football team with six All-Americans. That’s first-team All-Americans. Three other Bulldogs made the second team.

Imagine a Harvard line with two Hall of Famers playing side by side.

Imagine Yale and Harvard defenses that between them had given up nine points in eight weeks. Actually, all the giving up had been by Harvard: one touchdown, one field goal. Yale hadn’t allowed a point.

It happened 100 years ago this week. When the teams met on Nov. 20, 1909, in Harvard Stadium, it may have been – with apologies to the famous tie of 1968 – the biggest Yale-Harvard game ever.

At stake was the national championship. Of the other contenders in 1909, Notre Dame would have a tie on its record, and Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania would each have one loss.

Granted, the football landscape was different then. Arkansas and Washington had perfect seasons that year but were overlooked because they played the likes of Ouachita Baptist and Queen Anne High School. And the game itself was vastly different. A touchdown was five points. The forward pass was legal but rare. The field was 110 yards long, and a team had three downs to make 10 yards (sounds like Canadian football, eh?). Only half the players wore helmets. A player withdrawn from the game could not return.

Yale had a team well suited to the low-scoring, punt-and-wait-for-a-break style of play. In Ted Coy, its captain and All-America fullback, it had the consummate weapon. A 190-pound power runner with speed (he once returned a kickoff 100 yards), he also could punt, drop-kick field goals, even throw the occasional pass. Related to a Yale president (Timothy Dwight the younger), Coy was all a Yale man could want to be: three-sport athlete (baseball, football, track), solid student, singer in the Apollo Glee Club, member of the elite society Skull and Bones.

He wasn’t the whole show. For his 1909 All-America eleven, Walter Camp chose the entire left side of Yale’s line – end John Reed Kilpatrick, tackle Henry Hobbs, guard Ham Andrus, center Carroll Cooney – along with the Blue’s breakaway halfback, Steve Philbin. Hobbs, who had been a starter at Dartmouth before transferring, was Yale’s extra-point kicker. He and Cooney, giant of the line at 238 pounds, were demons at blocking punts.

Yale was a mostly senior team with an attitude that would drive a modern coach mad. When the season began on Sept. 29, Dutch Goebel, the right guard, was in Kentucky and Andrus was in Alaska. Goebel arrived in New Haven for the second game, but Andrus didn’t suit up until the Colgate game Oct. 23. Coy missed the early games too because of an appendectomy.

Coach Howard Jones, however, had so much talent on hand that absences were no problem. Injuries to veteran ends merely gave Kilpatrick, a junior, more chances to shine. At quarterback a sophomore, Art Howe, gradually displaced the 1908 starter, Ford Johnson. Kilpatrick and Howe are in the collegiate Hall of Fame now, together with Coy and Jones.

Harvard was hardly overmatched. Opposite Yale’s line stars the Crimson had captain Hamilton Fish III, 6 feet 4 and 200 pounds, at right tackle, and Bob Fisher, a precocious sophomore, at right guard. Fish, scion of an old political family, and heavy-duty halfback Wayland Minot made Camp’s 1909 All-America. Fisher made it the next two years and would go on to coach Harvard in the 1920 Rose Bowl. Fisher and Fish are in the Hall of Fame along with the man who coached them at Harvard, Percy Haughton.

Coming into the showdown in Boston, Yale had beaten Wesleyan 11-0, Syracuse 15-0, Holy Cross (in a rare midweek game) 15-0, Springfield 36-0, Army 17-0, Colgate 36-0, Amherst 34-0, Brown 23-0 and Princeton 17-0. Army had given Yale a fight – it was scoreless at halftime – before Coy threw a touchdown pass that put the game away. The Syracuse game pitted Howard Jones against his brother Tad, who was coaching the Orange and had Ben Hinkey, kid brother of Yale great Frank Hinkey, playing end.

Harvard had downed Bates 11-0, Bowdoin 17-0, Williams 8-6, Maine 17-0, Brown 11-0, Army 9-0, Cornell 18-0 and Dartmouth 12-3. Williams had scored its touchdown after Harvard quarterback Dan O’Flaherty misplayed a punt. O’Flaherty took some heat in the press for his ball-handling, but his drop-kicking ability helped him keep his job.

The hoopla was what it always is when Yale meets Harvard. Harvard Stadium at the time could hold 38,000; the colonnade and the steel seats that later enclosed the north end had not yet been built. Twelve thousand ticket applications were returned unfilled. Scalpers were offering tickets for 10 and 12 times face value. The New Haven Railroad added 15 trains to handle the surge of passengers from Grand Central. Betting was brisk, with Yale a 9-to-10 favorite.

Yale was in good shape. End Walter Logan and halfback Fred Daly had returned from injuries. And the team was loose. The Wednesday before the game, the Blue was running signal drills with Coy at guard and Andrus at quarterback, using a lemon for a football.

At Harvard, there was apprehension -- especially after Fish, his ribs badly bruised, missed practice on Tuesday. On Friday he sought to allay fears, proclaiming, “Unless I am killed, I will finish out the game against Yale.” His choice of words was not so far-fetched as it sounds today. Three weeks earlier at West Point, Harvard’s game with Army had been stopped after a fatal neck injury to Cadet tackle Eugene Byrne.

True to his word, Fish played the whole way against Yale, though his face was a bloody mess at the end. It was no use. Yale won 8-0.

The game was odd. Writers then kept their own statistics and could differ widely, but by one account Harvard outgained Yale 212 yards to 106, ran 56 plays to Yale’s 33, made eight first downs to Yale’s two. None of that counted so much as Coy’s punting and Harvard’s penalties. Coy averaged 41.6 yards on 15 punts, Minot 31.5 on 19. Yale was penalized just 5 yards, Harvard 105.

The upshot was that Harvard never got past Yale’s 28-yard line. Crimson errors begot frustration and more errors. At times Fish was seen arguing with O’Flaherty, apparently over play selection. With every exchange of punts, it seemed, Coy was putting Harvard in worse field position.

Yale, attacking the north goal, got two points early when Cooney blocked a Minot punt for a safety. The Blue threatened throughout the first half, getting close enough for Coy to try two drop kicks for field goals. He missed, as did Hobbs on a pair of place kicks.

Just before halftime Coy finally hit on a 25-yard drop kick. In the second half he made a 32-yarder and missed once. His punts kept Harvard bottled up. At length it was over and Yale had its perfect season and national title, its goal line still uncrossed.

No one could know it then, but that 1909 game was a watershed. For most of the next 13 years, Yale football would be in eclipse while Harvard, under Haughton and then Fisher, enjoyed perhaps its brightest era ever. Yale beat the Crimson just once between 1909 and the Blue’s next unbeaten, untied season, 1923.

The game was also a watershed of sorts for the two captains – for the victor, an ending; for the loser, a time to shift focus.

Like several other great athletes, Coy was to have trouble finding his niche after his playing days. He was appointed Yale’s head coach in 1910 but yielded the job to a junta of alumni after eight games. He worked for a Chattanooga mining company, a Washington bank and the Justice Department, tried his hand at sportswriting in California, sold stocks and insurance in New York, gained headlines with a whirlwind marriage to actress Jeanne Eagels. Bankrupted in the Depression, he had heart attack in 1935 and died three days later. He was 47.

Fish graduated from Harvard with high honors, went to law school, became a decorated infantry major in World War I, served in the New York Legislature, then spent 12 terms in Congress as a Republican from the lower Hudson Valley. (His son Hamilton IV later represented the same district.)

Fish lived to 102 – ever vigorous, ever assertive, ever a formidable speaker. He outlived two wives, had one divorce, married for the fourth time at 99. He was still making his regular pilgrimage to Boston to see Harvard play Yale at 101.

Imagine that.

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