126th edition of historic rivalry

The Crimson are the two-time defending Ivy League champs.
The Crimson are the two-time defending Ivy League champs. Photo by Alison Griswold.

Times have certainly changed since the Yale and Harvard football teams first met in 1875, but one thing remains the same — the unmatched spirit and rivalry of The Game.

This Saturday, tens of thousands of people from the Eli and Crimson communities alike will line the Yale Bowl to partake in the 126th playing of one of college football’s oldest and most tradition-steeped rivalries.

“It is ‘The Game,’ ” Larned Professor Emeritus of History G. Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, who has attended most the rivalry games hosted by Yale since 1948, said. “When my memories begin here, the Bowl would always fill up, there was huge competition to get tickets … and alumni of all ages were very enthusiastic.”

That enthusiasm began way back in 1875, when Yale promised Harvard $75 for playing in the first contest in New Haven’s Hamilton Park and tickets sold for a mere 50 cents each. Harvard won, 4–0.

The competition has taken off since that original meeting — drawing sell-out crowds, providing a stage for Harvard-Yale pranks and becoming the culminating point of both team’s Ivy League seasons.

Other schools share similarly large rivalries, such as Oklahoma-Texas, Michigan-Ohio State, Army-Navy and Alabama-Auburn.

And the Harvard-Yale rivalry is often placed right up there with these contests, as evidenced by Sports Illustrated On Campus in 2003 ranking it the sixth-best rivalry in college athletics.

“I don’t think there are any that are any bigger than this one,” said Eli head coach Tom Williams, who will take part in his first of these contests Saturday. “This has got to be one of the oldest rivalries in college football and certainly one of the biggest. I think the fact that its moniker is ‘The Game’ speaks for itself.”

Quarterback Patrick Witt ’12, who previously played at Division I Nebraska, agreed that the Harvard-Yale game is somehow unique from other big football competitions.

“Those may get more media, but as far as tradition goes, I don’t think anything compares to the Harvard-Yale game,” Witt said of other rivalries.

And although more than a century has passed between Yale and Harvard’s first encounter and although other Division I college football rivalries have developed into highly commercialized events, the nature of The Game has remained much the same, according to Calvin Hill ’69.

It’s that lasting spirit of tradition and rivalry that Hill, a former Yale and NFL running back, said truly characterizes the Harvard-Yale contest.

“I think it has stayed true to what it is,” Hill said. “It’s defined in terms of an educational experience. It’s played by true student-athletes … You can’t say that about a lot of schools around the country. To the people who are part of both places, it is very meaningful.”

The Game first came to Harvard Stadium in 1903, when the Bulldogs tallied a 16–0 victory. But the Crimson took their revenge in 1914, when they won the inaugural Yale Bowl competition 36–0. Attendance reached a new peak in 1920, when some 80,000 fans assembled at the Yale Bowl.

Then the Ivy League was formed in 1945, in an effort to stop universities from only fostering professional athletes.

But some — like Hill — still made it to the big leagues. Hill went on play for the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns after graduating from Yale. He spent one year in the World Football League and was named to the Associated Press All-Pro team as a rookie on the Cowboys in 1969.

And Hill said those Harvard-Yale competitions still rank among his most significant football experiences.

“As I look back on important games in my career, I played 12 years in the national football league and one year in the world football league,” he said. “And one of the most meaningful games I played in, or among the most meaningful games I played in, were those Harvard-Yale games.”

As a college player, Hill played in one of the most famous Yale-Harvard clashes: the 29–29 tie of 1968.

The contest took place at Harvard Stadium, and Yale was leading 29–13 with 42 seconds remaining — a perfect record and Ivy League title on the line. But the Crimson stunned the Elis by scoring 16 points in those last few seconds, and The Harvard Crimson’s headline announcing the results read “Harvard Beats Yale, 29–29.”

The Harvard-Yale contests have also sparked numerous pranks from each university’s fans.

In 1955, Harvard unleashed three piglets onto the field while the Yale band was playing. The Elis still won, 21–7.

Yale fans pulled their own stunt at Harvard Stadium in 2004, when Yale students dressed as the “Harvard Pep Squad” passed out placards to Crimson fans that would supposedly read “Go Harvard.” Harvard won the game, 35–3, but Eli fans got a laugh when the cards were raised and instead spelled out “We Suck.”

The contest is about to enter the 126th year of play on Saturday, which, for Hill, is a true embodiment of the Yale spirit.

“Yale is a place where you have lots of very bright people, and people who expect to be the leaders of tomorrow,” Hill said. “You defer to no one in terms of ability, whether it manifests itself in the classroom or on the athletic field. At Yale, you keep your class — you let your performance do the talking.”

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