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Inside the Ivy

Written by Paul Zeise on .

 Ray Fittipaldo previews his Sunday story on football in the Ivy League:

I spent the past few weeks doing research and interviewing players, coaches and administrators for a story on Ivy League football that will appear in the Sunday paper. With three major-college teams dominating the coverage in our newspaper it was an opportunity to take a look at how the game is played and coached on a different level.

I enjoyed working on the story because I competed against most Ivy League teams during my time as a college football player. I played at Holy Cross, a Division I-AA team in the Patriot League. The Ivy League and Patriot League are very similar. Each has institutions with high academic standards with schools situated along the eastern seaboard. They have a scheduling agreement and their teams compete against one another during the non-conference schedule.

When someone finds out that I played at that level one of the questions they ask is whether I ever played at the Yale Bowl. I did, in 1994. It’s one of the most historic football stadiums in the country and it used to be filled by 70,000 fans on fall Saturdays in the Ivy League’s glory days in the 1950s and ‘60s. By the time I played there it seemed like only a few hundred fans showed up. There were so many empty seats. In reality, probably 10,000 or 15,000 fans were there, but they were all spread out throughout the cavernous bowl that you’d never know it.

I also played at Brown, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Dartmouth. We beat Dartmouth, 13-7, in 1993. The Big Green quarterback was Jay Fiedler, the future quarterback of the Miami Dolphins best known for following Dan Marino. At that time, he was a much-hyped player at the I-AA level. We forced a few turnovers and stopped them on four consecutive plays from the 1 in the final minute to beat them up at their place. Dartmouth was the two-time defending Ivy League champions and finished second to Penn that season.

We also lost at Harvard, 41-25, that same season. It was the first time Holy Cross lost to Harvard since 1985, when Harvard scored 21 points in less than a minute to upset us in one of the craziest endings in college football history. We all felt like we let down our former coach that day. Mark Duffner was the coach at Holy Cross from 1986 until 1991 and Harvard was one of the biggest games on our schedule because of the ’85 game.

After the ’85 season, Holy Cross head coach Rick Carter committed suicide. Duffner, an assistant under Carter, got the head coaching position and made it his mission to never lose to Harvard again. He did not.

He was the head coach at Maryland in ’93, but he kept in contact with some of our players and it was relayed to all of the players how much he wanted us to beat Harvard and keep the streak alive. We didn’t and 15 years later we all still feel bad about it.

I had some time to think about all of those memories as I drove up to New Haven, Ct. for Ivy League media days last week. I got to meet and interview some engaging and entertaining individuals while researching the story. Reggie Williams played at Dartmouth in the 1970s and later starred for the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL. Williams was 10 days away from major knee replacement surgery when we spoke by phone in early August, but we gave me 30 minutes of his time.

The knee was so damaged by a long football career that Williams almost lost it to amputation, but he has no regrets about playing for so long. He said football is the reason he got to Dartmouth, the place where he learned so many of his values.

“I have readjusted my unflagging loyalty to football and recognized that any game is not worth the physical deconstruction of your body,” Williams said. “But the game brought me other enormous opportunities for which I am eternally grateful and that you can never regret.”

Williams said it was odd for him to do an interview with someone from Pittsburgh because of all those battles against the Steelers. He spoke in reverential terms of the Steelers and likened playing inside Three Rivers Stadium to a religious experience. It was an experience unlike any other he ever encountered during his career, he said.

Legendary Yale coach Carm Cozza was in attendance at Ivy League media day. He was great to speak with because he spanned two very different generations of Ivy League football. In the first half of his tenure as Yale’s coach, the Bulldogs were very competitive with the top teams in the country. His last 15 years or so were spent in Division I-AA. Check out some of the audio clips I have on the web site that accompany the story. He tells some great stories about his time at Miami, Ohio – the cradle of coaches. He once coached a basketball game against Pitt football All-American Mike Ditka. He called Ditka a “hatchet man.”

Ivy League commissioner Jeff Orleans said something interesting that didn’t make it into the story. He said there is not a good reason why the Ivy League champion should not take part in the Division I-AA playoffs (every other Ivy League sport allows its champion to take part in the NCAA postseason), but the school presidents just don’t want to budge. The main reason is that Ivy League football is thriving and they don’t want to change a thing.

The two local players I focus on in the story are Dan Kopolovich of McKeesport and Graham Rihn of Central Catholic. Like everyone else who grows up in Pittsburgh they aspired to earn scholarships and play major-college football. They each mentioned how their parents played a role in refocusing once it became clear that a Division I-A offer was not coming. Kopolovich said he realized it when he was a freshman in high school, so he had his eyes on the Ivy League for a while. Rihn was hoping for an offer up until his senior season. He said he carried a grudge against Division I-A schools for about six months after not receiving an offer, but has come to the realization that he landed in the best place possible for him.

It was a fun story to research and write. Maybe next year they’ll let me write about the best league in Division I-AA – the Patriot League.

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