Over Time

What do professors do in their offices all day? Donald Kagan is a Sterling Professor in Greek History, the former dean of Yale College, and the former master of TD college. Kagan sat down with the Magazine to talk about the Yale Football team, the G-heav brawl, and the importance of beating Harvard.

YDNM: So you’re a big fan of Yale football. How did that come about?

DK: I’ve always loved football. I particularly love Ivy League football because I’m so appalled by the professionalism and ugliness of big-time football.

YDNM: What do you think of the current Yale season?

DK: It’s been a pleasant surprise. I had the misfortune of seeing the opening game. But since then they’ve been really remarkable. We’ll see whether they’re up to the Penn, Princeton and Harvard challenges, but I don’t think they should be counted out of any of those yet. They’ve got some wonderfully talented players.

YDNM: What might motivate stellar athletes to chooseYale instead of another school?

DK: I’ve asked that question of kids I knew on the team over the years. The answers were always what you would have hoped. They knew what they had in mind was college. And when you go to college, you can’t do any better than Yale.

YDNM: Why is it so important to beat Harvard?

DK: They’re our traditional opponents. They represent the same things we do. Their students are very similar to ours, and because it’s such a tradition, we tend to define ourselves by Harvard and Princeton.

YDNM: What are the implications of the Gourmet Heaven scandal?

DK: This is a lasting and permanent problem for any sport. Football players are big, strong, rugged guys, and they’re used to physical contact, so if they get into an argument, it’s habitual for them to get physical. One of our jobs is to see to it that they understand that they’ve got to overcome that instinct when they’re not on the field.

I was a master of a college. The athletes misbehaved more strikingly and frequently than other students did. I went to them from time to time and spoke to them. And when that failed — in one case I became infamous — I threw a varsity football player out of my college, and that hadn’t been done in memory.

To show how you how much I value athletics, many years ago I was coaching IM tackle football, and I was walking across campus the day of a game. I saw one of my players coming in the other direction, and I said, “I’ll see you at the field!”

He said, “Sorry coach, I got a seminar.”

And I said, “What kind of values have you got!”

Ten years later, I was called to participate in the process of helping select a crew coach. That same student was on the committee. He said, Professor Kagan, I want you to know one thing, “You were right!” He had grown to see my wisdom.