By Steven A. Conn
I have smelled the roses at the parade before heading over to the "Grandaddy of them all," been "Down on the Farm" for The Big Game in Palo Alto, felt the field shake after Chief Osceola launched his spear into the center of Doak Campbell Stadium trying to blow away the Hurricanes, and I have experienced a big showdown of top-ranked teams at Joe Pa's Happy Valley.
They are all wonderful venues with spectacular athletes covering almost every position on the field. But if you fancy yourself a true college football fan with all the credentials of a collegiate gridiron expert, you have not reached the pinnacle until you have been exposed to The Game. With all due respect to the rest of the Ancient Eight, there is no place I would rather be on the Saturday before Thanksgiving than at Yale Bowl or Harvard Stadium for the world famous match-up.
The Yale-Harvard event is not typical of Ivy League football contests, but having worked these parts for the last 15 autumns I can honestly say this is the place to be for college football the way it was intended.
I enjoyed a season of games at Stanford Stadium and four campaigns of Miami football in the Orange Bowl. Some live for games that are played within a toss of Touchdown Jesus, feature true marching bands (some of whom are on scholarship) that can dot an "i" while marching, or have a bowl bid on the line. If you fit into that category, you are probably thinking the rain that soaked the Yale Bowl press box last fall rotted my coconut... but it's solid and I will take the Ancient Eight.
The crowds may be smaller, the stakes may seem less significant and there are fewer guys headed for Sunday games from Ivy autumns, but there are many reasons amateur football thrives among the ancient ones.
"Ivy football is all about the willingness to work for something you love without being compensated, which is the way it should be," said Yale senior offensive lineman Will Conroy. "It's one of the few places you can still play for the love of the game and be on the field with some pro-caliber athletes. And the collegiate experience is better in a non-scholarship program with more football players becoming well-rounded student-athletes." For the first 50 or 60 years of college football, the Ivy League produced the best teams and the biggest crowds in the game. Since Division I-A became known as "big time" college football -- and it became big business in the 1980s while the Ivies became I-AA programs -- what once was the most important gridiron group has fallen from the national scene in the eyes of the mainstream media.
"Big time football is corrupt," said Beano Cook, veteran college football writer, radio personality and ESPN analyst. "If I could coach anywhere it would be at Army or Yale. The kids are playing because they want to, they don't have to. Of course, I would not be saying this 40 years ago. The best thing about coaching at Yale would be winning The Game and lighting up a cigar while singing 'Bulldog'."
In addition, Ivy football is less expensive to attend and tickets are always available. Here are some other reasons why Ivy ball beats the "big time."
Pay To Play
Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships but provide need-based financial aid, so the majority of students are paying their way through these institutions. It is common to appreciate something more when you have to work and pay for it, and this is most evident off the field when communicating with these Ivy athletes. You can sense the love and interest in the game and everything that surrounds it. There seems to be more incentive to win based on pride and tradition, elements that might escape the minds of cleat-toting "gridites" from the "big time."
"Student" - Athletes
Of course it is unfair to generalize that Ivy athletes are better students than those from other conferences. There are plenty of impressive young people coming from schools all over the country. But what you don't see in this league is the cheating in and out of the classroom that has happened at numerous schools, including those that hire academic coordinators to make sure the athletes are going to class. One of those coordinators, who works at a prominent BCS school and asked not to be identified, said that many of the athletes she ran into were helpless because people were always offering to help them. "I feel like a mom... I'm checking to make sure they go to class, are keeping up with their reading, preparing for the upcoming tests, etc. Since I don't know anything about the classes they are taking, I can't help them in any specific classes." Yale players have been known to miss a practice now and then for a laboratory session, but we understand why kids really go to college.
Something On The Line
Is there anything more pathetic in college football then a team looking for its sixth win in week No. 11 with a bowl bid on the line? To be considered bowl eligible, Division I teams must have a winning record. Thus there is a big game and the incentive to cash in on post-season money. I understand how that makes things more exciting for everyone involved in the mediocre programs. Ivy schools are not eligible for post-season play in football. While almost every coach in the league believes this is inequitable (every other Ivy sport can compete for the playoffs), it certainly makes every game count. I think the best Ancient Eight gridiron team should see how it stacks up against the nation's best. However, if you polled most people who have competed before a huge crowd in the Yale-Harvard or Cornell-Penn rivalries, you might find the majority preferring that contest over a Division I-AA playoff game if there was a choice.
Not Down On The Farm
There are Ivy athletes roaming NFL fields this fall, but these are not considered breeding grounds for pro players. Not that there is anything wrong with many of the college programs turning into farm systems for the NFL, but it is all too obvious that most of their student-athletes would prefer to run Oklahoma drills on a 100-degree afternoon than sweat out any final exam.
Football games, no matter how big the matchup, seem incongruous in late August and sometimes even early in September. The Ivy League has the best schedule because it opens the third week in September and is finished by the weekend before Thanksgiving. Ancient Eight fans can plan on this calendar each year while knowing that there are no off weeks.
While other leagues grow each year into "Super Conferences," with traditional rivalries taking the back seat to rotating schedules (Oklahoma and Nebraska don't play for the second straight year), the Ivy has retained its big games and original eight teams. Although the Ivy League was not officially formed until 1956, the schools competed on the gridiron and in other sports in a less formal agreement all of the 20th century. Throw into that mix some of the oldest and most tradition-rich stadiums in the nation and you have a "classic" gridiron conference.
Hail To The Chief
Famous people cultivate their character and knowledge on Ancient Eight turf, so it's fun getting to know the names when there is a pretty good chance that someone in the game you are at today will be among the nation's top officials or appear on the big screens. Our current president is a former Yale baseball and rugby player and his right-hand man is a former Eli football player.
It is rare to see an Ivy program serving a penalty for breaking NCAA or league rules, something that happens regularly to "big time" teams. If there is anything that jeopardizes the credibility of college sports more than repeated instances of cheating, it's news to me.
Reach Out And Touch Someone
I hear from many fans every year how great it is to bring the family on the field after the game and meet the players after listening to Coach Siedlecki give his post-game oration to the squad. One of the best things about our games is how close you get to the players both during and after the contests. There is something great about watching a wonderful athlete perform and then chatting with him about his organic chemistry interests or his internship with the Russian government.
Coaches Get A Chance
Coaches working at certain BCS schools can't last more than a season or two of not competing for the national title without losing their jobs. If Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska consider themselves the most tradition-rich programs in the country, than part of that tradition is rotating coaches until they find ones that win championships. I am glad that does not happen in Ivy land because these leaders deserve more of a chance to show that they can teach the kids more than just how to win games.