There is one game that defines the Yale athletic experience each year, and that is the Yale-Harvard football game.
The parties begin the night before, as Yale undergraduates mix with their Cantab counterparts and flood the streets of New Haven or the corridors of Cambridge. The next morning, rows of tailgates offering everything from champagne and shrimp to Pepsi and pulled pork surround either the Yale Bowl or Harvard Stadium. And when thousands of undergraduates and alumni finally make it inside, the pageantry of “The Game” — the title for the annual football battle between Harvard and Yale — gives way to an athletic contest that has no respect for records or rankings.
Since formal Ivy League play began in 1956, no Harvard or Yale team has won The Game four years in a row. The Bulldogs came close this fall, heading into The Game with three consecutive wins under their belts, but an undefeated Cantab squad ended the Elis’ hopes for making history with a 35-23 win en route to Harvard’s first undefeated campaign since 1913.
This fall, The Game will turn 119, and the Bulldogs will try to maintain their 64-46-8 lifetime edge in the series while ensuring that Harvard does not get to start its own run at a four-year sweep.
The Cantabs got the first crack at a Harvard-Yale dynasty, as they took home the first edition of The Game on Nov. 13, 1875 at Hamilton field in New Haven. The Cantabs scored four field goals and four touchdowns and held the Bulldogs to zero touchdowns and zero field goals.
Although Yale and Harvard have won a combined total of 26 national titles, all of those titles came before 1914. While The Game no longer has the same national relevance, it is still a major determinant of Ivy League success. Since the first Ivy League championship in 1956, The Game has influenced the outcome of 18 Ivy League titles.
While The Game no longer competes with the likes of Michigan-Ohio State for national prominence, it still contains moments enshrined forever in college football lore.
Here are only three of the great moments in the history of The Game, so that this fall as Yale and Harvard clash for the 119th time, the action on the field will mean more than a flurry of blue and crimson. It will be another chapter in one of the most storied college sports rivalries in America.
The Catch — Nov. 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 story-book 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.
The Tie — Nov. 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 — Nov. 21, 1914
When Yale and Harvard met for the 35th edition of The Game in 1914, the hero was the stadium. 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 of the class of 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, 70,000 seats 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 that time, the Bowl was the largest stadium in the world, and a sellout crowd was present for the Bowl’s first game that November day in 1914. Alterations have since reduced the capacity of the Bowl to just over 64,000.