For the Yale student, there is no athletic event more important than the Harvard-Yale football game.
On a three-year winning streak over the Harvard Cantabs, the Elis head into the 2001 season with hopes for another win. In 2000, the Bulldogs posted a come-from-behind 34-24 victory over the Crimson at Harvard Stadium. Just over 30,000 people were on hand to watch old rivals clash once again.
The Game — as the annual Harvard-Yale contest is known throughout New Haven and Cambridge, Mass. — was first played on November 13, 1875, at Hamilton Field in New Haven. The Crimson took home the victory in the first edition of The Game, scoring four field goals and four touchdowns while holding the Bulldogs to zero touchdowns and zero field goals.
Although Yale and Harvard no longer vie for the national championship, the two were powers in the early decades of college football. The two schools have combined for 26 national titles, but none since 1914. Since the first Ivy League championship in 1956, The Game has determined, at least partially, no less than 18 Ivy League titles. The Game has been played a total of 117 times, with Yale holding the edge in the series, 64-45-8.
While The Game no longer competes with the likes of Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn or Army-Navy in national prominence, its history contains moments enshrined forever in Yale — and college football — lore, and its future promises to generate even more.
Here are only three of the great moments in the history of The Game.
The Catch — November 20, 1999
Yale took a 5-1 record in Ivy League play into the 116th playing of The Game, knowing that a win would give the program its first Ivy League title in 10 years. The Crimson, out of the title hunt with a 3-3 record, came to New Haven looking to play the role of the spoiler and end their archrival’s bid for the Ancient Eight crown. The stage was set for another epic showdown — and the script proved to be something out of a Disney movie.
The night before the game, Eli star quarterback Joe Walland ’00 was in the hospital, suffering from a 102-degree temperature. But Walland would not be sidelined for the biggest game of his football career and suited up despite his uncertain health. The ill-effects of his sickness could be seen early on as the Elis barely mustered any offense, registering only one field goal in the first half of play. Trailing 14-3, things did not look promising for the Bulldogs.
But Walland was not to be denied his storybook finish, and he took over The Game in the second half as the Elis took to the air to erase their deficit with a potent passing attack. At the end of the day, Walland completed 42 of 67 passing attempts for 437 yards — all Yale records.
No pass was more important than his last, though. With 29 seconds left in the game and Yale trailing 21-17, the Elis had the ball on the Harvard four-yard line. Walland dropped back to pass and looked for wide receiver Eric Johnson ’01 in the end zone. The pass deflected off a lineman and looked like it was going to be incomplete, but, on a play forever immortalized as “The Catch,” Johnson slipped his hands between the turf and the ball and made a remarkable diving grab in the end zone. The touchdown gave Yale the victory and the Ivy League title — which it shared with Brown — and also added another spectacular moment to the history of the game.
The Tie — November 23, 1968
In 1968, the Elis headed to Harvard on a 16-game winning streak dating back to the previous season, the longest winning streak in college football at the time. Harvard, however, was on a streak of its own, having registered an undefeated and untied record going into the final showdown of the season. The outcome of The Game was going to determine the Ivy League championship.
Yale, led by football legends Brian Dowling ’69 and Calvin Hill ’69, dominated play, and with only 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter the Bulldogs held a seemingly insurmountable 29-13 lead.
In those final minutes, the Bulldog defense forced Harvard to fumble the ball, but the play resulted in a 23-yard gain for the Crimson as Harvard marched the ball into the end zone. On the ensuing two-point conversion attempt, the Elis seemingly made a huge defensive stop in denying the Crimson the extra points, only to have the play called back for defensive pass interference. Given a second chance, the Cantabs were able to convert, cutting the Yale lead to 29-21.
Harvard then executed a successful onside kick, and with 42 seconds left in the game, the Crimson had one last chance to erase the Yale lead. Harvard quarterback Frank Champi was able to orchestrate a drive downfield and into the end zone for a touchdown. He then threw a strike to Pete Varney to complete the two-point conversion, and, with time expiring, Harvard tied the game at 29. Although the teams shared the Ivy League title, Crimson fans were ecstatic at the result, and Eli fans tried to overcome the shock. The Harvard Crimson headline read “Harvard wins, 29-29.”
In 1999, Sports Illustrated listed the 1968 version of The Game as one of the five greatest games in college football history.
The Bowl — November 21, 1914
When Yale and Harvard met for the 35th edition of The Game in 1914, the hero was not wearing blue or crimson — the hero was the stadium. In this edition of The Game, the Crimson drubbed the Bulldogs, 36-0, but football was not the main attraction. College football fans were treated to the opening of a facility that, at the time of its construction, was unlike any other stadium in existence: the Yale Bowl.
Charles Ferry 1871 proposed the construction of the Yale Bowl to replace 33,000-seat Yale Field, which had served as the Bulldogs’ home since 1884. Construction began in August 1913, and only 15 months and $750,000 later, the Yale Bowl opened in time for the annual Harvard-Yale game.
The Bowl was the first stadium to completely surround the playing field and has served as the model for stadiums across the country, such as the famed Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
At the time it was built, the Bowl was the largest stadium in the world, and a sell-out crowd of 70,000 was present for the first kickoff in Bowl history that November day in 1914. Twenty times the Bowl has been home to crowds over 70,000, but alterations have since reduced the capacity of the Bowl to just over 64,000.
In addition to housing Eli football, the Bowl was home to the New York football Giants in 1973 and 1974 while Yankee Stadium was undergoing renovations. The Elis have lined up at the Yale Bowl 530 times, winning 334 of those contests.