The Eli faithful do not often like to compare Harvard teams to the Bulldogs, but this year’s Yale football team has a lot in common with the Cantabs’ squad from 1979.
A quarter-century ago, the Bulldogs, under the leadership of head coach Carm Cozza, had eight wins and no losses as they headed into The Game versus the Cantabs at the Yale Bowl. Having already secured the Ivy League Championship, 1979’s Elis were similar to the Crimson team that the Bulldogs will be facing this year in Boston. The Yale team was denied a perfect season when the Cantabs beat them 22-7 in The Game. The upset Harvard pulled off that year is a model for what this year’s Bulldogs hope to accomplish when they face the undefeated Cantabs. For Yale, it is time to pay Harvard back for the pain that the Eli men of 1979 still feel today, 25 years later.
“It’s harder to lose that one game to Harvard than to Princeton,” John Rogan ’82 said. “I think we all were happy to win the championship out right, but we came out feeling empty overall on the season.”
Rogan, a sophomore in 1979, was one of two starting quarterbacks for the Bulldogs. The other man who shared the job with him was Dennis Dunn ’80, who was injured in the first game of the season. His partially separated shoulder forced the Bulldogs to switch back and forth between two signal callers.
Dunn did start out the season, though, by first directing the Elis to a close win in a scrimmage against Boston University. The Bulldogs won that game 23-16, mainly because of a strong first half of offense. In the second half, they had similar problems to the Bulldogs this year, converting only two first downs. A key fumble recovery helped them finish with a victory.
The official 1979 season opened with a nail-biter at home versus Brown, the team that would finish second in the Ancient Eight that year. The game was hard-fought on both sides as no touchdown passes were thrown and no single running back had over 50 yards of rushing. It looked for a while like the Bears would sneak by with a win, but middle guard Kevin Czinger ’82 had other ideas as he blocked two key punts. On one of his blocked punts, the Bulldogs recovered the football at the 1-yard line to set up a Yale score by Mike Sullivan ’80 four plays later to win the game.
Rogan said it was a formative game for the Elis that year.
“We beat a Brown team that year that was probably one of the best Brown teams that they had in a long time,” Rogan said. “It was all about Kevin Czinger blocking the two punts and the defense with their goal line stands. You forget about that first game when we got through the season, but it was probably one of the hardest games. That really was the game that teed us up for the season.”
Linebacker Tim Tumpane ’80, the captain and 1979 Asa S. Bushnell Cup award winner, said the Bulldogs were not well-thought of by many people coming into that game.
“We didn’t have a lot of physical size, but we had a great attitude,” Tumpane said. “On defense we looked very small. Brown was laughing at us during warm-ups. They weren’t laughing afterwards.”
Dunn’s injury that game led to Rogan making his first varsity start against the University of Connecticut the next weekend. Rogan teamed up with receiver Dan Stratton ’81 to overcome the Huskies 24-17.
On Oct. 6, the Elis again faced a non-conference team, Colgate. The Bulldogs blanked the Raiders 27-0, but the star emerging was not an offensive skill player but the defense as a whole. The defense, led by Tumpane, had 17 points that day, as well as four interceptions and one fumble recovery. With the win, Yale emerged as the only unbeaten team in the Ivies.
“We kind of felt from the beginning that we had a special collection of individuals that worked exceptionally well as a team and we began to see that unfold early,” Dunn said. “Especially the defense, they were nationally ranked for a good part of the season. We began to see the team evolve and grow, it was great to be a part of. We began to see that we were a pretty special collection of people.”
After two blowouts, though, the Bulldogs’ mettle was tested in a contest with Dartmouth. The Big Green allowed Old Blue 17 first downs, 84 offensive plays, and 284 total yards, but they almost kept them off the scoreboard.
“There is a certain feeling that is hard to describe when you are confident and trust your teammates that you are going to win somehow, whether the ball bounces the right way or you make that play,” Dave Schwartz ’80 said. “Some call it luck, but we were skilled at looking for opportunity.”
The game came down to Schwartz and his kicking abilities. Schwartz said he prided himself on having one of the highest completion percentages for his kicking game, but he missed one field goal that day. It came down to his next opportunity to put the ball through the uprights.
“I wasn’t going to miss it,” Schwartz said. “I didn’t even think, just concentrate, be with the moment, and let it happen. That’s training and skills.”
Schwartz made the game-winning field goal and the Elis topped the Big Green 3-0 and increased their win streak to four games.
The next game was at Columbia. The Bulldogs under both Rogan and Dunn dominated, racking up 489 combined yards of offense to win 37-7.
“I think it was healthy in that we split time,” Rogan said. “I was brought in more in pass situations while [Dunn] was a better runner.”
Dunn’s rushing skills were especially called on the next week versus the University of Pennsylvania. He finished with 17 carries for 100 yards on the ground.
“I guess by the time we reached the Penn game our offense had really started to develop competence in the running aspect, so we had caught our stride there,” Dunn said. “It was supported by the backfield entirely, Ken Hill [’80], Mike Sullivan, Jon Nitty [’81], they were part of a very good backfield. My offensive role in that scheme of dynamics of the game opened up opportunities for me to have some long runs. The function of the offense as a unit was really starting to gel.”
With Penn’s defense focused on the First Team All-Ivy running back Hill, Dunn found ways to make the runs he needed to and contribute to the win.
Again, after two big wins, the Bulldogs found an obstacle to the Ivy championship in their path: Cornell. Dunn had started, but Rogan came in to take over after Cornell took the lead, necessitating a pass-dominated attack.
“It was Cornell’s homecoming and there was a loud big crowd,” Rogan said. “It’s never easy up in Ithaca. It’s a very hard place to play on the road.”
The win for the Bulldogs came down an attempt to keep a drive alive with a pass thrown to Stratton, who had been under double coverage all afternoon because of his skills receiving. Rogan tossed the ball to Stratton, but he could not catch it and he tipped it. Luckily for the Elis, Hill was right there waiting for it.
“It’s funny, we were lucky and good and good and lucky on the same play,” Rogan said. “I felt that we were going to win that game in the huddle after that play.”
Hill’s reception led to an Eli touchdown that put the Bulldogs up 23-20. Again, the defense played a great game to keep the offense in the game and ensure that the winning continued.
After all these wins, the only games left were against Yale’s ancient rivals. The Princeton game was first as usual. For a while, it was a close game but a fierce effort by the Yale defense in the fourth quarter stopped the Tigers from pulling near to the Bulldogs and the Elis won 35-10. With the victory, Yale clinched at least part of the Ancient Eight title, as Harvard did against Penn last weekend.
All that was left for the Bulldogs that year was to beat a mediocre Crimson squad and take their place in history as one of Yale’s flawless teams. Harvard came into the Bowl 2-4 and was nowhere near contention for the title, but it was The Game, the time to show what you are truly made of.
Rogan said it was exciting from the opening snap, since the Bowl was sold out.
“Our average crowd was 30- or 40,000, so there’s no more unique or special feeling when you come down that tunnel and [the Bowl] has that many people [about 125,000],” Rogan said. “Just how loud and how exciting it was, coming out of the tunnel and seeing it full for first time. It was amazing.”
However, that day, for whatever reason, the usually inconsistent Crimson clicked, and did more offensively than the near-perfect Bulldogs.
“When Harvard scored, you can’t beat how quiet it got,” Rogan said.
The Cantabs did the unthinkable to the Elis and spoiled their season with a 22-7 win. The Crimson ran their multi-flex offense, which had about 40 formations compared to four formations for the Bulldogs according to Rogan. It worked well as they kept running the ball at the Bulldogs.
“[The multi-flex] was tough,” Tumpane said. “They were really confusing sets and the shifts were disruptive. They went into set-ups you didn’t see anyone else do. It was really hard to verify that everyone has someone covered. On top of it, they were pretty talented.”
The Elis had great difficulty putting points on the score board. At one point, they got to the four- or five-yard line and did not do anything with it, Rogan said.
“The momentum swung and we didn’t put enough points on the board,” Rogan said. “The momentum got taken away from us. If we had scored earlier and kept pace, that would have given us a fighting chance. If we played them five times, we’d probably win three or four.”
While Dunn denied that the Elis eased up for The Game, Schwartz said the team must have let their guards down.
“It was one of the most important lessons in life: when you are on top there is going to be someone trying to dethrone you,” Schwartz said. “That day Harvard had a more winning mental attitude. It’s a game you regret and you try to forget. When you are on top, you cannot coast along. You have to be doubly motivated because other people have their own agendas.”
The team of 1979 still won the title and had many awards that year, including two First Team All Ivy offensive players and three First Team All Ivy defensive players.
Harvard is favored to complete its fifth perfect season. However, the Bulldogs are hoping that they can have the game that the Crimson had in 1979. They want to go up to Boston, take the momentum away from the Cantabs, and never give it back.
“They [the Crimson] were enjoying [the upset],” Tumpane said. “I would love to see the exact opposite happen. That would be great.”