When Tom Beckett became Yale’s athletics director in 1994, he announced it his goal to make Yale the “Champion of Champions” in the Ivy League. The $35 million renovation of Payne Whitney Gymnasium and the new $7.5 million Gilder Boathouse are examples of the University’s commitment to reviving Eli athletics. But a school cannot become the “Champion of Champions” without championship caliber teams.
Two teams in the last four years — the 1999 Ivy League champion football team and the 1997-98 ECAC champion men’s hockey team — did more than any University initiative ever could to breathe new life into Yale’s athletics program.
A “Game” for the ages
It had been six years since the football team had boasted a winning record when Jack Siedlecki took over in 1997 for legendary head coach Carm Cozza at the helm of the winningest football team in the nation’s history.
For the new coach, things had to get worse before they could get better, as the 1997 team stumbled to a 1-9 record, the worst record in 128 years of Yale football. The team was held to 10 points or fewer in six of 10 games, including shutouts at the hands of Connecticut and Princeton.
“The older guys had been losing for so long that their attitude was, ‘I hope we win,'” said linebacker Peter Mazza ’01. “But when they lost, it didn’t hurt that much. They wanted to win, worked hard and hoped they would win, but didn’t expect to.”
But as bad as the 1997 season was, it proved an opportunity for the members of the Class of 2001 to gain valuable experience on the field and a hunger for victory. A year later, the quickly improving sophomore class and star quarterback Joe Walland ’00 led the Bulldogs to their first winning record since 1991, including a win over Harvard for the first time in four years.
The 1999 season started rather inauspiciously when Brown beat the Bulldogs on a fluke two-point conversion in the opening game of the season. But after that the Elis never looked back.
Siedlecki’s Bulldogs ran off eight straight wins, leaping to the top of the conference standings and setting up a showdown with Harvard at the Yale Bowl with the Ivy League crown on the line.
On Nov. 20, 1999, a crowd of over 52,000 — the largest at the Bowl in 10 years — watched the Bulldogs fall behind 14-3 in the third quarter, then resort to an almost exclusively aerial attack to eventually close the gap to 21-17 in the final minute of the game. Walland overcame a poor first half and a case of acute tonsillitis to throw for 437 yards, connecting on 42 of 67 pass attempts — all three numbers Yale records. But no pass was more important than the last one he threw that day.
On second down with 29 seconds remaining in the game, Walland took the snap at the four-yard line and fired over the middle into the end zone. The pass deflected off a lineman and fluttered toward the ground, but wide receiver Eric Johnson ’01 sprawled on the ground and miraculously slid his hands beneath the ball to make what has ever since been known simply as “The Catch.”
The completion was the last of Walland’s career, which went down in the record books as the most prolific in Yale history. And Johnson, whose 21 catches for 244 yards in The Game were both Yale records, went on to set nearly every receiving record in the book his senior year.
With the win, the Bulldogs improved their conference record to 6-1 and clinched a share of their first Ivy League title since 1989. The win also marked the culmination of head coach Jack Siedlecki’s efforts to restore Yale football to prominence.
“It is the number one moment in my career,” Siedlecki said without hesitation. “To win that last game in the last 20 seconds and to have Joe Walland and E.J. [Johnson] breaking records in a game that had that kind of significance — it is pretty amazing.”
The miracle on ice
The 1999 football team’s task of ending a 10-year Ivy League title drought paled in comparison to the challenge facing the 1997-98 men’s hockey team — winning the ECAC championship, something the Bulldogs had never accomplished in their 35 years in the league.
No one expected the 1997-98 team to capture an ECAC title for the Bulldogs — at the outset of the season they were picked to finish 10th overall in the conference, the same position they had finished the season before. In fact, the Elis had not finished better than 10th in the ECAC since the 1992-93 campaign.
But the ’97-98 season would prove to be a season of miracles, as the Elis shocked the college hockey world by skating to the top of the ECAC standings.
Head coach Tim Taylor’s Bulldogs hovered around the top of the conference all season, cementing their place in the title hunt with a seven game winning streak in January and February. But a disappointing 4-3 loss to Vermont in the team’s final home game meant that the Elis would likely need to sweep Union and Rensselaer on the road in order to claim the conference crown and earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 1952.
A 4-2 win over Union on Friday put the Bulldogs in first place in the ECAC, one point ahead of Clarkson. For the first time in its history, Yale had a chance to seal an ECAC championship with a win. Clarkson won its afternoon game, pulling ahead of the Elis by one point in the standings and adding to the tension in the air for the Bulldogs’ Saturday night showdown.
With defensemen Daryl Jones ’98 and Jeff Glew ’98 out of the lineup, Taylor had to turn to inexperienced players Joe Dart ’01 and Jim Morrissey ’99 to fill out the defensive corps.
A Jeff Hamilton ’01 goal with five minutes left in the second period gave the Elis a 2-1 lead, and captain Ray Giroux ’98, goalie Alex Westlund ’99 and the rest of the Eli defense shut down RPI the rest of the way. Matt Cumming ’98 added an empty-netter with 34 seconds left in the game to give Yale a 3-1 victory, its first ever ECAC championship, and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA berth was the first since 1952 for the Elis. In the NCAAs, which has 12 participants in college hockey, the Bulldogs lost in the first round to Ohio State, 4-0.
Three Bulldogs — Giroux, Westlund and Hamilton — earned All-American honors that year. Giroux also became the first Eli ever to win ECAC Player of the Year honors and was a Hobey Baker finalist. Head coach Tim Taylor was named the National Coach of the Year in college hockey.
The miracle ’97-98 hockey season catapulted the Elis to three straight appearances in the ECAC postseason and three Ivy League titles in the last four seasons.
More than anything else, the 1999 Ivy League football and the 1997-98 hockey championships evidenced the commitment Beckett has made to revitalizing Yale sports. Both football and hockey have enjoyed increased attendance, and Siedlecki and Taylor are very high on the recruiting classes they have been able to lure to Yale on the heels of the championships.
The Class of 2001 will leave many legacies behind when it graduates on Monday, but in the world of Yale athletics, there can be no doubt that this was one of the key classes in turning Bulldog sports around.