It’s November, and with only one win against Harvard in the last eight years, Yale football fans are apprehensive before The Game. A new coach has been brought in to turn the team around, but with a young team and the lingering memory of a tough loss at last year’s Game, Yalies have few reasons to lift their hopes this time around.
But on the day of The Game, coaching acumen and months of practice pay off. Yale’s tough defense, low tackling and surprise plays bring the Bulldogs a touchdown and, ultimately, a 6–3 victory against their storied rival.
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No, this is not a premonition of Saturday’s Game. It is a description of The Game of 1916. That year, Yale had just hired as its head coach Thomas Albert Dwight “T.A.D.” Jones 1908 after a series of embarrassing losses to Harvard, including a 41–0 trouncing the year before. Like this year, Yale had won only one of its previous eight games against Harvard in 1916, and Jones was hired to return Yale to its previous football glory.
Jones would go on to earn the football team one of its best records ever, finishing 60–15–4, marking the climax of Yale football before new recruitment rules in 1923 hindered the College’s ability to attract top players, said Geoff Zonder, the Athletics Department archivist.
“He’s one of our all-time great coaches,” he said. “People don’t’ know what Yale meant to football from 1872 to 1930. Yale was the epitome of sports.”
BEYOND THE TIE
In the first weeks of the 1916 school year, articles in the News were less than optimistic about the outlook of the football team; an article on Sept. 27 explained that the team was “rather below average in size and in veteran material.”
But in the weeks leading up to The Game, articles about Yale’s squad developed a brighter tone, as the team showed clear improvement. The win at The Game offered deep satisfaction to fans and alumni disappointed with seeing recent teams that were “poorly taught and coached,” in the words of one columnist at the time.
While Jones was able to pull off a win against Harvard in 1916, the onset of World War I brought a two-year hiatus to Ivy League football as many students went off to combat. The football team was disbanded after three games during the 1917 season and did not reassemble until 1919, according to Athletics Department archives.
After the war ended, Yale suffered four losses against Harvard, followed by two wins, although Jones maintained a strong Ivy record throughout. It was then, before The Game in 1925, that he uttered the famous phrase that would resonate for Yale football players for generations.
“Gentlemen, you are about to play football against Harvard,” Jones told his team. “Never again may you do something so important.”
That year, Yale tied Harvard, despite widespread belief that the Bulldogs would win.
“Waterloo couldn’t have caused Napoleon deeper chagrin than Saturday’s 0-to-0 deadlock with Harvard at Soldier’s Field did to supporters of Yale,” read an article in the News.
But the final score is a footnote in Jones’ history, while his famed comment remains one of his best remembered moments as a coach.
Patrick Ruwe ’83 — who played football for Yale and is the president of the Yale Football Association, which connects Yale football alumni and fans and maintains a network for current athletes — said players during his time at Yale knew Jones by this famous phrase.
Still, even though Jones was an All-American football player and one of Yale’s greatest coaches, Ruwe said he was less well remembered than other famous alums such as Walter Camp 1880, the “father of American football,” and Heisman Trophy winners Larry Kelley ’37 and Clint Frank ’38.
Yale historian and emeritus professor of history Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 said Jones may not even be on the radar of many current football players.
“I would expect that most people wouldn’t be able to tell you who T.A.D. Jones was, even on the team,” he said.
GOAL: BEAT HARVARD
With a similarly new coach and young team this year, the pressures on Yale’s football team run high, as they did in 1916.
But captain Paul Rice ’10 said Yale’s current coach, Tom Williams, has maintained a steady calm, which he attributed to Williams’ experience playing in major games between rivals. (Williams attended Stanford University, where he was a linebacker and team captain in 1992.)
“He’s been a part of rivalry games before with Stanford and Cal [Berkeley],” Rice said. “He definitely hasn’t shown any added anxiety about The Game.”
Still, Williams has made a win at The Game a priority of his tenure. When first addressing the Yale community at a news conference in January, he declared that he had two goals for the team. While Yale has lost too many games to meet Williams’ first goal of capturing the Ivy League Championship, his other goal remains alive.
“We’re going to beat Harvard,” Williams said at the news conference.
Williams added that he aimed to create an even rivalry between Yale and Harvard, which he said has become “a little one-sided.”
Williams could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
If Williams is able to make good on this promise, he will accomplish what Jones did in 1916. At the time, Grantland Rice, sporting editor of the New York Tribune wrote: “For the first time in five years Harvard’s battle with Yale comes to almost an even proposition.”
Still, Smith warned against a direct comparison between Jones and Williams, given that recruiting practices and the national landscape of the sport have changed.
But while The Game today looks far different from the way it did in 1916, two things remain of paramount importance to Yalies.
First, the desire to beat Harvard.
Second, as Jones told the News after his first victory against the Crimson: “The victory pleased me very much, but the return of the Old Yale Spirit pleased me more.”
Correction: Nov. 23, 2009
An earlier version of this article misreported that Patrick Ruwe ’83 captained the 1982 Ivy League Champion Yale football team; Yale won the Ivy League Championship in 1981, and the captain of the 1981 team was Fred Leone ’82. In addition, Yale Athletics Department archivist Geoff Zonder was misquoted. He said, “People don’t know what Yale meant to football from 1872 to 1930.” Yale football began in 1872, not 1892.