As a fan of college football in general and of Yale football in particular, I have tried to educate myself about the storied history of the blue and white. And it goes beyond Walter Camp 1880, the man who by 1892 had transformed rugby into American football.
And yet, if you had not done research into the Bulldogs’ past, you might not have a clue that Ivy League football was the only thing that mattered in the beginning of the 20th century. Now they’ve taken a back seat to the prime-time game. And some might say with good reason, since few people would prefer to watch two teams from nerdy schools go head-to-head when they can watch Urban Meyer’s complex spread offense or Matt Leinart’s composure in the pocket as he leads the Trojans.
I was reminded of our Yale traditions and the men who have shaped them when I read a reprint of a piece that Dan Jenkins wrote for the “ESPN College Football Encyclopedia.” In Jenkins’ opinion, the Bulldogs might have won seven Heisman trophies in the time American football began until the Heisman trophy was created in 1935. Add those potential seven to the two Elis who did actually win — Larry Kelley ’37 and Clint Frank ’38 — and you get nine. Nine Heisman trophies. And although that is only debatable guesswork, that puts the Elis in front of the Fighting Irish, who have the most at seven. Regardless of whether Yale would currently have the most in the NCAA or not, the fact that it could be so says a lot about our program overall.
But after imagining a world where everyone knows that Yale is the most successful team in the history of the sport (picture Bulldogs at the national championship trophy presentation or Eli commentators for ESPN), I came back down to the reality of being a Yale and Ivy League fan in the current sports culture that often pays little more than lip service to the Eli legacy.
And it doesn’t help things that even within the league we have been up and down and all over the place in the last few years. Losing to Harvard and Penn is bad enough as it is, but when you get to the point that you are clapping more to prevent frostbite than to celebrate a first down, you know there are some issues.
And while the team has certainly made mistakes from time to time, I’m not pointing any particular fingers like others may like to do. The system that our football players and coaches are in cannot be easy to deal with. They are in an uphill battle from the get-go because of the decisions that have been made in conference rooms across the Ancient Eight, which brings me to my main point.
When you look at where our football team is today, you notice a disconnect that borders on disrespecting and forgetting our glorious past. While for years we were the trailblazers of college football, we got left behind in the ’30s, staying on our elite mountain while most universities did the hard work of updating their athletic programs in general. But I want to focus on football and turning our program into a modern one.
To put it simply, if Yale wants to be as athletically excellent as it is academically, it needs to open its checkbook.
First, Yale needs to abandon the time-honored policy of refusing to give athletic scholarships. That might mean withdrawing from the Ivy League or convincing the rest of the Ancient Eight to start giving them too, but either way, athletic scholarships are absolutely necessary. Many players pick Yale in no small part due to our academic resources, but if you made it free for them to attend, think how much more willing they would be to forgo a spot at a state school.
I bet we would steal recruits from Notre Dame, Cal-Berkeley, Michigan and other schools with great teams and great students. It would immediately increase the talent of the football team and would fundamentally change the team within five years or so.
And I don’t buy the argument that giving out athletic scholarships would mean a poorer quality student body. Do Duke and Stanford students suffer academically by paying for their talented athletes to attend college? Not according to U.S. News and World Report, which ranked both universities only two spots behind Yale at fifth.
Next, Yale needs world-class facilities. Payne Whitney Gymnasium and the Yale Bowl are fine, and the Bowl is being renovated, but top-notch student-athletes want the most equipped weight rooms, the nicest locker rooms, the most-advanced athletic training centers and the best stadium.
Finally, Yale needs the best coaching staff it can get to run its new-and-improved football program. I bet there are coaches of Nick Saban’s or Norm Chow’s prowess out there who would enjoy the challenge of bringing the first college football program back to the forefront under an athletic administration that was committed to doing whatever it took to get the job done.
Obviously these things are easier said than done, but none are impossible. The first hurdle that any would-be Yale football reformer would have to clear is the funding to get all of this done. But after Yale’s endowment grew to $15.2 billion, how much of an obstacle should extra financial support be? Why sit on the second-largest university endowment in the country when you have a football team that could and should be going to bowl games?
Other elite universities do not shy away from spending money. According to the Notre Dame investment office’s Web site, the Fighting Irish have an endowment of approximately $3.5 billion. But according to the OPE Equity in Athletics Disclosure Web site, Notre Dame paid $1.7 million for football operating expenses in 2003-2004 compared to Yale’s $444,910.
And then there are schools like Oklahoma and USC, which paid over $3 million for football expenses. All of these schools have increased revenue from football, which Yale would have as soon as both local fans and alumni see they were not only getting to watch the Bulldogs compete for a piece of the Ivy prize but also for a spot in a BCS bowl game.
Call me a dreamer, but I am sure many Yale students would be happy to see these changes. I’m sure there are others like me who somewhere deep inside regret not having the opportunity to paint our bodies blue and white and spend entire weekends cheering for our football team like students at Michigan or Florida.
And if the administration won’t do it for the fans, do it for a man like Camp who created Yale athletic traditions while upholding academic excellence. Yale has known national glory on the gridiron and should again.
James Schulte is a junior in Davenport and a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News.