The Game

Saving graces of The Game

Once you've had a good look at the big time, there's a lot to like in Ivy League football.

L. Jon Wertheim ’93 is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. His most recent book is Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Quarterback Patrick Witt '12 was a backup quarterback at Nebraska before transferring to Yale. View full image

Editor's note: Every year, the Yale Alumni Magazine asks a writer to bring his or her personal perspective to the Yale-Harvard football ritual. Past writers include novelist Tom Perrotta ’83 and former New Yorker editor Charles McGrath ’68.


Money figured prominently in the 126th incarnation of The Game. Adam Money, Yale’s versatile junior defensive back, returned kicks, made tackles, and played an outsized role in the Bulldogs’ attempt to upset Harvard and end a three-Game losing streak.

The presence of money, on the other hand, was less pronounced on this glorious Saturday afternoon. Actually, it was almost entirely muted. As another earmark, perhaps, of the Great Recession, a theme of austerity rang through the weekend. Even the smart-ass T-shirts sold before kickoff by enterprising undergrads made reference to depleted balance sheets: “Harvard, your endowment is shrinking. Try Cialis,” read one.

I was a freshman when I attended my first Yale-Harvard game 20 (harrumph, harrumph) years ago. A naïve teenager who'd grown up in southern Indiana, I was astounded by the opulence of it all. The fields outside the Yale Bowl had been transformed into the site of a swank outdoor cocktail party. All those alums swaddled in their fur coats, indifferent to the muddy grass sullying their Italian loafers. All those exotic cars. All that elaborate tailgating: strangers happily offering up champagne and fancy hors d’oeuvres—served on real china—to anyone with the same school allegiances. I tried foie gras for the first time that day, right there in Lot D. The whole tableau seemed to double as a sort of product placement for success and material trappings.

This year, approaching the Yale Bowl and walking through the same fields with my eight-year-old son, I wondered what had happened. Cars made in Japan outnumbered cars made in Germany by a healthy margin. Not a swatch of fur was in evidence. (Then again, it was 61 degrees.) There were abundant tailgates, but the food was commoners’ fare: wienies, not blinis; Coke, not coq. I saw no foie gras. Quite literally, the fat had been cut.

And, as ever, a similar—what? parsimony? sense of proportion? modesty?—characterizes the Yale football program, which has never appeared further removed from the nouveau-riche subdivision that is big-time college athletics. I recently attended a college football game in the course of my work for Sports Illustrated. It was Homecoming Weekend for Big State U, and the athletic director showed me around before the game, proudly pointing out the plasma screen TVs adorning each player's individual locker, the indoor practice field, the therapeutic pool. He took me to one of the stadium's luxury suites, where the big donors—“boosters,” in the vernacular—drink heroically and eat from a block of cheese molded in the school's logo.

I mentioned casually to my host that I was surprised to see that his football team was staying at my on-campus hotel. This was, after all, a home game. “We don't mind spending the money,” he explained. “The night before games, we don't need the players getting distracted by, you know, the other students.” This struck me as unlikely, as the football players lived in separate dorms, ate at separate “training tables,” and even had access to separate tutors. In fact, the rest of the university came to feel to me like an outgrowth of the football program.

And at Yale? Here it was, The Game, the most important encounter of the year, and the Bulldogs players had slept on bunk beds, not hotel beds, the previous night. That morning, most of them were bused from campus to the athletic fields. They gathered in their modest locker room in the Smilow Field Center, a considerable walk from the Yale Bowl, a stadium long on history but—even after $30 million in renovations—short on amenities such as luxury suites, video boards, and benches free of splintering wood and chipping paint.

Prior to The Game, I heard over the P.A. system that the Yale athletic department was holding a dedication ceremony for a new building, the Kenney Center. Had Yale football finally succumbed to big-money culture? Would this new complex be home to sensory deprivation chambers for the players, Austin Powers rooms for coaches, and other bits of excess? Hardly. Tastefully grafted onto the south side of the Bowl, the center is far more practical than it is excessive. As one alum explained to me, the Kenney Center provides for team meeting rooms, “so the offense and the defense don’t have to hold the halftime strategy sessions in the Yale Bowl tunnels.”

Yale’s academic mission—coupled, of course, with the absence of athletic scholarships—exacts a heavy toll on the caliber of player the school is able to recruit. Much of the Kenney Center's wall space is devoted to Yale’s storied football history, and it’s hard not to notice there that Yale’s heavy concentration of national titles ended around the same time players abandoned leather helmets. The school’s two Heisman trophy winners both predated World War II. Since the early 1980s, only three Bulldogs have been drafted by the NFL.

Then again, by opting out of the college sports arms race, Yale can sidestep the scandals—the dubious recruiting, the academic fraud, the under-the-table payments—that taint so many schools. Inasmuch as controversy befell the 2009 Yale football team, it came in October when the team's sophomore quarterback, Patrick Witt, missed a mandatory meeting. It seems he’d fallen asleep while studying for a midterm. Witt, a transfer from the University of Nebraska, complained to the Yale Daily News, “It was something that all Yale students can understand.” In the same article, teammates described Witt as bookish and possessing a fondness for crossword puzzles.

The man who disciplined Witt, Tom Williams, one of the appallingly few African American head coaches in college football, was in his first year on the job. Soft-spoken and businesslike, Williams cuts an impressive figure. On the eve of The Game, even the Harvard Crimson admitted to feeling “the same way about . . . Williams as Boston Red Sox fans feel about the Yankees’ closer, Mariano Rivera. We hate the team, but we respect the man.”

But Williams, too, is affected by Yale’s athletic priorities. His salary is surely dwarfed by those of his colleagues at more sports-centric schools. And Williams has implied that Yale’s modest facilities inhibit his ability to recruit. On the other hand, even though the Bulldogs, a young team in a transition year, entered The Game with an underwhelming 4–5 record, there are no calls for Williams's head, no sports talk-radio bloviators attacking him personally, no websites devoted to his firing.

As for The Game itself, it was, by turns, exhilarating and excruciating, compulsively watchable and then unsightly. There were examples of exceptional athleticism commensurate with what you’d expect from the nation's top college teams. There were also missed tackles, dropped passes, and moments when the players (Harvard’s, in particular) appeared to be running against a stiff headwind.

In the early going, Witt dialed in his passes and, demonstrating why he’d once been recruited by a powerhouse on the order of Nebraska, piloted the Bulldogs to a 10–0 lead. Then, at halftime, the fans were offered another reminder that this wasn’t big-time college football. The Yale band took the field, its members “playing” instruments such as the handsaw and what looked to be a boa constrictor. Displaying something other than military precision, they performed the traditional anti-Harvard musical number/comedy sketch. It included references to Enron, hot breakfasts, and battering rams. The kicker: “Harvard, we have upped our shields! Now, up yours!” (My survey sample consisted of just one, but the line went over great with the eight-and-under demographic.)

Midway through the fourth quarter, Harvard awoke from its slumber and scored a touchdown. Yale struggled to move the ball, and then Williams made a strategic decision that managed to be both indefensible and admirable in its audacity. On fourth down–and–22 at Yale's 25 yard-line, he ordered his team to go for it. Really. Yale picked up “only” 15 yards, giving Harvard possession. Had Williams been coaching at a hard-core football school—living in, say, Tuscaloosa or Stillwater—local real estate agents would have started handing him their business cards.

By then the Fates had authored the script. Harvard scored again. Visibly deflated as it took the field, Yale’s offense sputtered. Harvard’s team had not only fought till the end; they’d won, 14–10. It wasn't quite a reprise of 1968, when Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds. (See “Harvard Beats Yale 29–29,” November/December 2008.) But this was a stinging loss, especially for the 23 Yale seniors who’d likely played in their final organized football game.

Even as the players celebrated and commiserated and met their parents and classmates on the Yale Bowl field, the stadium scoreboard continued to rotate updates from other significant college games in progress around the country. Ohio State 10, Michigan 3. . . . Texas Tech 17, Oklahoma 6. Envisioning these high-powered teams, with their Heisman trophy candidates, their 350-pound linemen, the well-heeled boosters in their suites, it never seemed more of an overreach to call Yale-Harvard The Game.

Instead, it remains something entirely more enjoyable: a game.  

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