Yale pulled off a biggie that for the most part will go unnoticed in the world of college football. Saturday’s 49-43 win over Army at the Yale Bowl before 34,000 plus proved that the Ivy League can still play quality football.
Yale and its seven other Ivy League brothers do not award athletic scholarships. And, for that reason, many dismiss the league as a legitimate threat when it comes to playing football. That said, Ivy League schools don’t give athletic scholarships in basketball and hockey and that didn’t stop Yale from winning the NCAA hockey title in 2013 or Harvard from winning two opening round games in the NCAA basketball tournament in 2013 and 2014. And, for good measure, Union College, which won the hockey title in 2014 doesn’t offer athletic scholarships either.
Of course, we all know that most of the players are getting some sort of aid to play football---and other sports---at Yale and the seven other schools. And, we also know that the SAT score of a football player might not be as good as the student whose only measurable talent is straight A’s and valedictorian status. Many Division 1-AA schools can offer 63 scholarships without getting creative, the Ivy League schools have to do just that---get creative.
In 1982, the Ivy League made the decision to de-emphasize football, a move that rankled some. Instead of playing the Boston Colleges and Rutgers of the college football world, Ivy League schools found new opponents in Delaware, New Hampshire and Connecticut. The one positive is that it strengthened the relatively newly created Division 1-AA---Division 1 schools that were second tier in football---and made it relevant in college football.
The Ivy League found its academic and athletic cousins in the Patriot League which was formed on the same premise as the Ivy League: Division 1 sports without athletic scholarships. As a result of the likeness, the two conferences hooked up each fall for nonconference games. Yale could play seven Ivy contests and also square off against Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell to get to ten games. That relationship has worked well for two plus decades, but recently has been strained by the Patriot League’s decision to award scholarships in all sports with football coming on board the last three years. Now, the only other 1-AA conference that doesn’t award football rides is the Pioneer League. The relationship between the Ivy and the Pioneer is just beginning to take shape, so we’ll have to see how it develops.
The Ivy League has always done things their way. They only play 10 games; most play at least 11; they don’t start play until the third Friday or Saturday in September; they don’t allow their teams to participate in the 1-AA playoffs and their seasons end the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Some coaches and athletic directors want to see playoff participation. They argue that all the other sports get to play in postseason competitions, why can’t they? Retiring Penn coach Al Bagnoli has always been a vocal supporter of playoffs, but the college presidents don’t want to go there.
Yesterday’s win was against Army, a Division 1-A team. Even though the Black Knights have more in common with Yale then Notre Dame, it was a signature win. All students at Army are on scholarships, exchanging their free education with a five year commitment to our Armed Forces after graduating. Like the Ivy League schools, Army has tougher academics than most and there are no "easy majors," like there may be at an SEC school. That’s not a knock on the SEC; let’s not kid ourselves, college football is an enormous business and Americans may rail against the injustices, but they eat it up.
Yale proved that even though they have limitations on what they can offer prospective football players, the quality of play is still pretty darn good. I’ve always felt that Army should play at the 1-AA level because they have more in common with the Colgates and Maines of the world than they do Florida State and Michigan, but this is a team that nearly won at Wake Forest and also played at Stanford the week before. Saturday had to be disappointing for first year coach Jeff Monken. There wasn’t much to gain from winning, so winning was something that they had to do and they didn’t. Yale is going back in class with a game against Cornell this weekend while Army goes back up against Ball State and the other 85 scholarship schools that make up Division 1-A football.
The win also proves that the Ivy League is still a strong 1-AA conference. I love their traditions and, for lack of a better word, their stubbornness, but part of me would like to see the Ivies play 11 regular season games and give the 1-AA playoffs a try. That’s not likely to happen; sports at Ivy League schools are just ways to keep students engaged and alumni paying attention. The sports don’t make the schools money, but all Ivies have endowments at the billion dollar mark or more, so what is there to gain by playoff participation? The argument for is quite simple: to see how good you are. Harvard can go 10-0, but when they don’t play in the playoffs, the rest of us are left to answer the simple question of how would they fare in a tournament? We get that answer in hockey, basketball, cross country, soccer and all the others, we just don’t in football.
Charles de Gaulle once said that "prestige cannot exist without mystery, for one reveres little what one knows well." I think the Ivy League presidents have this quote somewhere in their offices, because they are steadfastly against letting the rest of the 1-AA football world find out how good they really are and could be. We got a glimpse of that this past Saturday. Yale traded punches with Army and in the end, scored a thrilling overtime victory. That’s probably enough for the Ivy League presidents and you probably won’t see 1-A scholarship programs scheduling Ivies anytime soon, but the history of college football doesn’t exist without the Ivy League. Yale started it all and its stadium, the Yale Bowl turned 100 yesterday, something that should not be ignored. In fact, ESPN should have sent its Gameday crew there to acknowledge the importance of the game and the 100 years of history that the venerable Yale Bowl has witnessed.
Next week, its back to normalcy for Yale and the Ivy League, but Saturday was a throwback to a magical time.