There were exactly 15 seconds left on the clock, and down by one touchdown, the Yale football team was 32 yards away from tying the score against archrival Harvard in the 2014 season finale. One touchdown, and the Bulldogs could be co-champions for the first time in nearly a decade. Yale quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 dropped back, scanning both sides of the field, looking for the receiver who would bring the team a share of the Ivy League title. He set his feet, cocked his arm and let loose.
The pass sailed 17 yards, right into the arms of Crimson safety Scott Peters, dashing Bulldog hopes of sharing the championship crown.
Though the Elis fell one play short of their 15th Ancient Eight crown, the rush of adrenaline was a throwback to the glories of Saturdays past. The Yale football program owns a history intertwined with the very fabric of the sport, but has fallen on lean times in recent years, that game’s thrilling finale proving the exception rather than the rule.
Yale possesses arguably the richest football tradition of any school in America, holding the record for most total victories by a college football team for the entirety of the twentieth century. In this context, the elusiveness of Ivy League success in recent years appears all the more frustrating. Yale has won just three titles in the last 34 years, compared with 11 in the first 26 seasons after the formation of the conference in 1956. The tipping point to divide those two periods came after the 1981 season, when the Ivy League dropped from Division I-A, the highest level of college football, to Division I-AA — a decision that reflects the league’s commitment to the maintenance of across-the-board academic excellence rather than the preservation of its status as a nationally relevant football conference.
“The approach to football in the Ivy League is the one I’ve always admired on the college level,” said Dick Jauron ’73, an All-American running back who subsequently played and coached in the National Football League. “How it functions, at what level they perform, how they do it, the place it holds on the campus, the proper perspective. Those things are critically important I think, and I really admire it.”
Expecting the Bulldogs to compete directly with elite programs like Notre Dame, Georgia and Penn State, as they did in the early days of college football, would ignore decades of seismic shifts in the college football landscape in which the Ivy League remained relatively untouched. However, Yale has also fallen behind its compatriots in the Ancient Eight, posting a cumulative losing league record over the past five seasons. Yale’s period of losses to Harvard, which has now stretched to nine fallow years, personifies this decline.
Yale’s historical football credentials are unparalleled: The first Yale football coach, Walter Camp, class of 1880, established the majority of the game’s basic rules, from the number of players on the field to the down system and the scoring values, earning him the sobriquet “The Father of Football.” Yale boasts the first professional football player, guard Pudge Heffelfinger 1891, who earned $500 in compensation for playing in 1892. Two of the first three winners of the Heisman Trophy, given annually to the best player in college football, wore the blue and white. On 26 occasions before 1927, the Bulldogs were anointed the best team in Division I.
The informal “Ivy Group Agreement,” which established common academic standards and eligibility requirements and also banned athletic scholarships, was first signed in 1945, before formalizing into an athletic conference for the 1956 season. The Elis hoisted the inaugural title, winning every game by at least 14 points. In the 26 years the Ivy League competed in Division I, Yale held a virtual stranglehold on the league title, maintained a dominant regional influence, and placed players in both the upper reaches of the Heisman voting and in NFL training camps.
“We had 38 players signed or drafted in the pros [from 1965-1981],” said Carm Cozza, the Yale head coach from 1965–96 and the winningest coach in program history. “My first year we recruited a great class, [running back] Calvin Hill ’69, who was the first pick of the [Dallas] Cowboys and rookie of the year in the NFL, we had a great quarterback, Brian Dowling ’69 and tight end Bruce Weinstein ’69, all drafted. We got a ton of national publicity, we were on ABC, that encouraged a lot of players to come to us. We played good people and we got recognition for that too.”
For a period of several years, the NFL received Yale football alums who were athletes of the same caliber as players from increasingly football-focused schools. “I reported to training camp with the Detroit Lions my rookie year in as good a shape as anyone,” Jauron, who played safety in the NFL for eight seasons, said. “I think I was prepared as anyone for [the NFL]. I didn’t feel there was any disadvantage, that’s for sure.”
The football program’s success drew the attention of many incoming freshmen. “We had 125 guys on [my] freshman team to start off with,” Dowling recalled, “13 [of them were] quarterbacks.” The number of freshman playing football was so large that the program could withstand the loss of many players. “The size of our freshman team was around 120, ” Jauron said. “When we were seniors, there were 17 of us. So 100 of those people found out there were things that were more interesting for them to do on campus.”
The strength of the Yale program derived from its recruiting advantage over other Ivy League schools. That advantage manifested in the number of players the coaching staff could recruit and the ability to attract top-notch recruits — Dowling, Hill, Jauron and others of their ilk — away from football powers such as USC and Michigan with the combined lure of competitive football and top-notch academics.
During the 1967 and 1968 seasons, the Bulldogs won 16 consecutive games. In fact, Dowling never lost an Ivy League game he started at quarterback. “We had better players [than the other Ivy league schools],” he said. “The games were competitive for the most part, but we’d usually win by two or three touchdowns.” During that winning streak, the average margin of victory in Ivy League games was 22 points — only Harvard came within single digits.
The atmosphere on game day at Yale also rivaled that of the larger schools. “The Bowl was a tremendous place, we were drawing really well then,” Cozza said. “The smallest attendance we had in the 60s or 70s would have been 35,000 or 40,000 We filled the Bowl [over 72,000] for Harvard, we’d have 56,000 for Dartmouth, 47,000 for Cornell. When we went to I-AA it definitely affected the attendance … we were not on major television as much. That probably hurt the league more than anything else.” The comparative dearth of other entertainment at the time, in addition to the NCAA’s monopoly on TV rights and policy of televising just one game a week, meant the student body attended the games en masse.
But a huge change in college football ultimately shifted the trajectory of Yale football. In 1981, the Bulldogs went 9–1, spent time in the national top 20 poll, produced three NFL draft picks, a top-10 Heisman finisher, averaged an attendance of just under 39,000 and, naturally, won the Ivy League. One month later, the Yale football team no longer held Division I status, expelled from intercollegiate sport’s most elite fraternity.
In 1978, the NCAA split Division I football into two divisions, known today as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, formerly Division I-A) and the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division I-AA). This split was devised with the Ivy League schools firmly in mind, in order to grant larger schools more of a role in shaping television contracts. “Joe Paterno [the head coach at Penn State from 1966-2011], even though he went to Brown, didn’t like the fact that the Ivy League was being mentioned with Penn State and other schools,” Cozza said, “and he wasn’t the only one. You had to have a certain size stadium and a number of attendees for each game.” Four Ivy League schools fell below the home average attendance requirement of 17,000 or the minimum stadium capacity of 30,000. “The Ivy League is in another world all by their own,” Paterno said at the time. “They are in another world. I’m in the real world.’’ To avoid splitting up the conference, all eight Ivies dropped down a division in 1982.
“I didn’t really think that would bother us as much as it did,” Cozza said.
That fork in the road left Yale out of the rapidly changing world college football was entering. In 1984, the Supreme Court handed down a 7–2 decision in NCAA vs. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, breaking the NCAA’s stranglehold on televised games and their strict rule that one college game would be televised every Saturday, and each team could only appear once a year. The decision vastly increased the revenue potential of Division I football, transforming it into a billion-dollar enterprise. Today, schools earn tremendous sums from television contracts — schools in the FBS Big Ten conference, such as Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern, will make $36.7 million this year in TV revenue alone. By comparison, Yale’s total football expenditure in 2014 was $3.2 million, the highest total in the Ancient Eight, but roughly half the salary taken home by Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer.
Today, Ivy League football teams face an entirely different set of challenges from their competitors, even at the FCS level. The Ivy League does not grant athletic scholarships and does not allow players to redshirt — or allow a player takes a year off from football to develop physically and adjust to the program, while still retaining a year of football eligibility to compete after their academic eligibility ends. The Ivy League also does not allow its teams to compete in postseason play and sets stringent academic requirements.
“[At Yale] you’re asked to be a student-athlete, truly a student-athlete,” head coach Tony Reno said, “We feel we have the greatest academic institution in the country and football-wise we have a lot of tradition, so we have a lot to attract young men [to the program].”
A high academic threshold exists for Ivy League football throughout the recruiting process and a player’s college career. In the Ivy League, academic benchmarks must be met before athletic ability is taken into account. The verbal commitment by a coach to a player is not an offer of admission, as would be the case at a scholarship school. The admission choice rests solely with the admissions office, a policy that existed as well in Yale’s I-A days. “[Yale and Harvard’s] academic standards are the highest in the league,” Reno said. “Other schools fall from there, so some schools can take a lot more players at a lower level than we can.”
The absence of scholarships also has financial implications for recruits. “[In the past] a player could come to an Ivy League school for maybe $3,000 a year more than getting a free ride at a major university. Now it’s more like $50,000 or $60,000,” Cozza said.
Even with those recruiting restraints, Yale competes with Division I-A schools for players and sometimes wins. Linebacker Victor Egu ’17 chose Yale over the University of California, Berkeley, while captain and linebacker Darius Manora ’17 chose the Bulldogs over Wake Forest.
“I ended up thinking I would be at Wake Forest going into my senior year,” Manora said. “But Coach Reno was a very strong recruiter. My parents fell in love with him, I fell in love with him, decided to take one of my official visits to Yale and never looked back once I got on campus.”
Wide receiver Bo Hines ’18, who was the leading receiver for North Carolina State’s Division I-A program in his freshman year before transferring to Yale, explained that academics lay behind his decision to transfer: “[NC State] have a tremendous fan base, Carter-Finley is an awesome stadium to play in. It was just a great place to play football. With my second [recruiting] process [to Yale], I emphasized the academic side quite a bit more.”
The academic rigor continues when players step onto an Ivy League campus, as the course workload Yale players shoulder truly speaks to the meaning of the term student-athlete. “Speaking with friends who have gone to other schools [for football], it’s different,” Manora said. “They take classes in summer school, so during football season they’ll take two to three classes maximum, you have a lot more time dedicated to football, and there’s a lot more emphasis on football … you live, eat, breathe football. While it’s very similar for us, you can’t avoid academics. I’ve never taken a summer class, during the school year I have a full academic workload.” Hines added that “There were still certain expectations to perform in the classroom [at NC State]. [But at Yale] kids take it upon themselves to use the incredible university around them to invest in [themselves] academically. At NC State, while that was encouraged, there had to be a little more pushing from the academic and athletic administration to make sure they did it.”
The academic focus on Yale’s football team has two clear results. First, the players set themselves up very well for success moving forward and lead academic lives similar to that of other Yale college students. But it also naturally inhibits the success of the program. Once the Ivy League dropped down a division, its competitiveness relative to nonconference opponents eroded. Yale won 76.9 percent of its nonconference games while an FBS program, but that number dropped to 54.1 percent as an FCS program. The Bulldogs went 0–3 in their nonconference games this season, and a similar decline exists for each and every other Ivy League institution.
However, every Ivy League school has to deal with the limits these academic requirements impose on the football program. Before 1982, Yale was the undisputed power in the Ivy League. Today however, despite facing the same challenges as their conference opponents, the Bulldogs have lagged behind.
Reno has excelled in the recruiting aspect of the job, continuing that Yale tradition. He brought in the strongest recruiting classes in the Ivy League in 2013 and 2014 and the second-strongest in 2015. Yale’s 2016 recruiting class topped the 2016 FCS recruiting rankings, even beating those of some FBS schools.
But despite spite the strength of the recruiting classes, that success has not translated to the field. This year, the first with Reno’s recruits composing every class on the team, the Elis have stumbled to a 2–5 record and been outscored by 110 points in their seven games. In their four Ivy games, all against teams comprised of less-heralded recruits, the Elis have gone 2–2 but been outscored by 33 points. The 42–7 defeat to Penn two weekends ago sums up Yale’s problems on the field this season. “Against Penn, we came in with a game plan,” Manora said. “They hit us with a few things that didn’t fit with our game plan, and we couldn’t make adjustments during the game because we couldn’t figure out what wasn’t working.”
The team, like most in the Ivy League, also suffers from player attrition. Of the 30 freshmen on the football roster last season, only 25 appeared on this season’s. In the past, especially when enough freshmen played to form an entire team, that number would be immaterial. But with the limits placed on the number of recruits each year, those losses prove more significant. With the class size being significantly smaller compared to the past, the chances of finding a consistent starter have already diminished.
The Bulldogs have also been plagued with injuries in recent years, exposing the lack of depth endemic to all Ancient Eight teams. “At the big schools, you have a lot of depth because you have 85 scholarships,” Hines said. “[Yale] has quite a few guys who could play at that level, but we don’t have that depth going, the level of talent going into our second- and third-string.”
The deluge of injuries in the past two seasons, in particular, has shorn the team of many expected contributors, throwing true freshmen into the line of fire. “[We have] really really good players who’ve missed time with an injury that might not be something that could be prevented, a lot of bad luck,” Reno said. “Injuries to key guys have definitely been a challenge for us.” Part of the injury crisis however, does come down to the team’s approach, players said. “For us, I think it’s just because of how we play,” Manora said. “We’re a very physical team, in practice and in games.”
The reliance on freshmen draws a stark comparison both with the past — when freshmen were not allowed to play varsity football, giving them a year to develop and adjust to college — and with archrival Harvard.
Harvard’s level of consistent success comes from recruiting well, but also having solid starters already in position to play and mentor the next group of players, while that next group adjusts to the demands of college football, learns the scheme and focus on maximizing their talent. “At Harvard they’re very comfortable not even playing the first two years, just building your body up so you’re NFL-caliber,” Manora said. “Here, I haven’t had the luxury of sitting for two years: lifting weights, conditioning and learning. [At Yale] it’s more of actively being a piece, switching positions and contributing to the team.”
Without that same veteran influence holding the starting spots while freshman adjust to the greater speed and physicality of the college game as well as increased academic demands, the youngest members of the Yale team have been subject to a baptism by fire. The results have been mixed, Alan Lamar ’20 has played superbly at tailback, while the secondary featuring multiple freshman has experienced significant growing pains, allowing the second-most passing yards per game in FCS. Expecting players to step in right out of high school and contribute to the team right away sets a high bar, which emphasizes the importance of having healthy and contributing upperclassmen. Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 will be the next freshman to step into the starting lineup, after two experienced quarterbacks fumbled the job. “We’re young,” Hines said. “There’s a lot of young guys playing, you have to take your lumps with that … There are quite a few [seniors] who contribute [on the field], and quite a few who don’t.”
The Bulldogs have also produced fewer NFL-caliber players than their competitors at the top of the Ivy League. Only four Elis have been drafted in the NFL since 1982 — the last being running back Shane Bannon ’11 in 2011 — none above the sixth round. By comparison, five Elis were drafted from 1979–82, including second-round linebacker Jeff Rohrer ’82. Other Ivy League schools have been producing NFL players, especially Harvard. Four Crimson seniors made NFL rosters last season. Harvard’s superior representation at the higher levels of professional football traces back to their success in building a consistent program that smoothly transitions from one class to the next. In this light, their nine-year run of dominance at the Game becomes more understandable.
All in all, Yale has struggled in the past few years, especially considering the high historical bar the program has set. The thrilling chase for the Ivy League crown two seasons ago now feels like a mirage, a dawn that never quite broke. That marks the only season in the Reno era where the Elis have secured sole possession of a top-half league finish. The drop-off in results has been felt in student engagement: attendance at home games against Division I-AA opponents has dropped 37 percent in just two seasons, from an average of 11,400 in 2014 to 7,160 this year. Both of those numbers fall significantly short of the figures attained when Yale competed in Division I-A.
“It’s a very realistic expectation [to compete for the Ivy League championship] as far as the talent levels we bring in,” Manora said. “The key is developing that talent over time.”
The Ivy League, including Yale, chose to maintain its academic focus at the expense of national football status. But within the league over the past few years, Yale football has been producing less than the sum of its parts. With three games remaining on the schedule, and two of last year’s co-champions both unbeaten, Yale faces a daunting path and requires a legion of luck to mount even the faintest shadow of a title challenge this season. After slogging through an uninspiring and disappointing stretch featuring embarrassing losses more than emphatic victories, the Bulldogs require an adjustment to get back on track. Among schools sharing the same commitment to academic excellence and fairness, anything less than a genuine challenge for the Ivy League crown should be categorized as a disappointment.
While there are certainly structural reasons for the Yale football program’s recent struggles, the problems are by no means unique to New Haven. The Ivy League is not the powerhouse it once was, and it likely never will be again: Academic standards are non-negotiable, while the Ancient Eight — and the NCAA — have demonstrated that athletic conferences are.
The decline of Yale football can be attributed to a variety of factors, but independent of how many rows of bleachers sit empty in the Yale Bowl or the number of losses the team has suffered over the past decade, the national titles and the Heismans and the history remain. Regardless of what the future holds for Yale football, this school created and nurtured this uniquely American tradition, and nothing can take that away.
Contact chris bracken at