Two teams undefeated in the Ivy League meet. The Elis are heavily favored. The running back is praised as the best in Yale football history.
After 60 minutes of play, Harvard beats Yale 29-29.
So went The Game of 1968, widely regarded as the most dramatic Harvard-Yale football match the 124-year-old rivalry has ever seen.
But this year’s Game, which will take place under eerily similar circumstances, may be a chance for the Bulldogs to correct history. Both Harvard and Yale are undefeated. Yale’s team has been favored to finish on top of the Ivy League since the pre-season media poll in August. And All-American candidate Mike McLeod ’09 — who has been called the best Yale running back since NFL Pro Bowl tailback Calvin Hill ’69 — has almost singlehandedly rewritten the Yale record book.
With McLeod leading the charge, Yale has a chance to finish a perfect season for the first time in 47 years, and, in the words of history professor Donald Kagan, a rare opportunity to appease the gods.
“I think it’s extremely important that Yale wins a game like this, but it’s more important for the sake of Harvard,” Kagan said. “Harvard consistently suffers from a serious form of arrogance, something that the Greeks would call hubris. It’s necessary to avert the wrath of the gods [that] they would be defeated in the form of a football game rather than some horrible disaster fall on them such as their president making remarks that are unwelcome to the faculty.”
For the first time since the notorious “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” heartbreaker of 1968, both the Bulldogs and the Cantabs will enter The Game undefeated in league play.
The last time both teams were in a similar situation, Harvard scored 16 points with less than a minute remaining, forcing an improbable tie and prompting The Harvard Crimson to print a headline that ranks among the most infamous of the 20th century.
Although ESPN College GameDay passed over the opportunity to host its national telecast at the Yale Bowl, the historic rivalry between the two schools used to qualify as front page news.
In 1900, the lead story on the front page of the New York Times was Yale’s victory over Harvard, a far cry from the 2000 version of The Game which received two lines in the Sunday sports section. In fact, football used to serve as one of Yale’s primary sources of revenue, according to professor and Yale historian Gaddis Smith.
“In 1925, the profits from ticket sales in athletics — 99 percent of which came from football — were equal to 1/6 of [the] entire University revenue,” Smith said. “One Harvard game or Princeton game selling out the [Yale] Bowl was equal to the annual budget of the Law School and the Medical School combined.”
Even though revenues from this year’s Game will not make a dent in Yale’s $2 billion operating budget, the historic rivalry maintains its place as one of the most storied traditions in an institution full of them.
With both schools nationally-ranked in the Football Championship Subdivision and an Ivy League championship on the line, many expect the intensity to be unmatched by any other event, sporting or otherwise, in recent memory. Steve Conn, the director of Yale Sports Publicity, said he cannot remember another occasion in his 20 years at Yale that has even come close to this year’s showdown in terms of hype or excitement.
“This particular Game is one that anyone who is going to be a part of it or is there visiting for it will probably remember forever because of the significance of the match-up this year,” Conn said. “[Harvard and Yale] compare each other in every way possible, and this is one thing that can be settled on one day, quantitatively, and that’s what makes it exciting.”
A near-capacity crowd
On Saturday, the excitement is expected to result in the largest New England collegiate sporting event in recent memory.
Only 53,213 people attended the last Yale-Harvard showdown, leaving nearly a sixth of the seats in the 64,269-seat Yale Bowl empty. But this year, the pregame hype and the historical implications have the athletics department anticipating a near-capacity crowd. The last time the Yale Bowl came close to a sellout was in 1983 for the 100th anniversary of The Game, when over 70,000 fans descended upon New Haven to watch the Cantabs beat the Elis, 16-7.
Although The Game will be played in friendly territory, home-field advantage may not necessarily be a benefit: A large turnout from visiting Harvard students and alumni could offset the home crowd’s “12th man” effect. And Bulldog football players will have the added pressure of dealing with all the campus excitement.
“There are a lot of distractions in this game when you play at home, with tickets being the first one,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “With kids, it’s being on campus and all the hoopla that’s going on on campus and trying to get a decent night’s sleep the last couple of nights before The Game. There’s something to be said for being out on the road, being in a hotel the night before The Game and being on our own.”
For the seniors on the team, this will be an opportunity to finish their careers with a bang.
“This is the only thing people want to talk about back home [in Indianapolis],” captain Brandt Hollander ’08 said. “This game is what makes Yale football and Harvard football nationally known programs. I know my friends back home are watching and it’s an opportunity to put on a show for them.”
The Game will be televised nationwide by HDNet, putting both football programs in the national spotlight for the first time this season.