Just to refresh your memory, Greg was a tight end on the '76 team and a history major. He currently lives in Larchmont, New York with his wife and three children.
Professor Kagan’s premise was that studying actual historical events was a more valuable tool for determining truth than simply relying on statistics, a tactic favored by social scientists. Kagan used baseball great Ted Williams single season .400 batting average as a prime example of such a misleading statistic. Kagan’s historical research focused on Williams inability to hit in the clutch during his baseball career as a lack of his true greatness as a baseball player.
Kagan’s class was popular with Yale’s football players, not because it was easy as some suggested, but because he genuinely seemed to like athletes. Kagan showed his own mettle every Thursday in the fall when he dressed for the T.D. Silliman tackle football team. When we teased him about his play he would shoot back, “I don’t care how many games you guys win, if you can’t beat Harvard, history will not remember you as a great team.”
Here is what I remember of Yale’s three chances with Harvard during my varsity career.
With the exception of Randy Carter, who kicked three field goals, and Vic Staffieri, our ’76 captain, most of the seniors on the ’76 squad did not see much action in the ’74 game. Nevertheless, we all made the trip to Cambridge to dress for the game. I will never forget the banner we saw hanging from a Harvard dormitory as the Yale team bus passed through the Harvard campus on Friday afternoon before the game: “You may win, but you still go to Yale.” It seemed as though the typically obnoxious Harvard students had already conceded victory to Yale with this sign – and why not? With Yale boasting an 8–0 record, a ranking of 17th nationally, 10 first team All-Ivy selections, and six players who were later drafted into pro-football, why wouldn’t Harvard surrender? Still, Milt “The Pineapple” Holt, Pat McInally, Bob Curry, and the rest of the 7 – 1 Harvard team were not quite ready to wave the white flag just yet.
The Game was an epic struggle on a dark, damp day with Harvard rallying from a 13 – 0 deficit to take a 14 – 13 lead on a trick play just before the half. Split end McInally took a lateral from Holt, then hurled it downfield to flanker Curry, setting up a Harvard touchdown.
Harvard used a six man line to thwart Yale’s vaunted running attack in the second half, and Yale’s quarterback, Tom Doyle, was forced to the air. He completed 11 passes to split-end Gary Fencik, an all-time record then, but it was one gut-wrenching incomplete pass that would haunt Yale players and fans alike. Tyrell Hennings, one of Cozza’s best fullbacks ever, who was wide open on a key play during what would have been a game-clinching drive, dropped a perfect Doyle spiral directly in front of the Yale bench. We all watched in horror as an undefeated season slipped through Yale’s fingertips.
I remember how sad I was in the locker room watching the seniors dress, particularly those I knew well – Greg Dubinetz, Ken Burkus, Al Moras, and Brian Ameche. Arguably the best Cozza team ever and certainly the last nationally ranked Yale team had ended a glorious season in ignominious defeat at the hands of our most bitter rival. As I climbed onto a silent bus for the long ride back to New Haven, I privately prayed for a different fate in “our” game two years later.
To this day, every time I visit Harvard Stadium, I can see Milt Holt rolling left into the end zone at the open end of the field for the winning touchdown as time runs out and the next day’s newspaper headline screaming “Holt Doles it Out; Harvard 21, Yale 16”.
With the Ivy Championship again on the line in 1975, we had a chance to redeem ourselves, this time in New Haven. It was another gray day and 67,000 filled the Yale Bowl to see the winner take home the Ivy trophy. Harvard’s defensive strategy that day was to blanket Fencik after his big day the year before, then stack the rest of the defense against tailback Don Gesicki and the run. The strategy worked. With Fencik neutralized, Yale simply did not have enough offensive weapons to move the ball consistently. Though we led 7 – 0 at halftime, Harvard rallied behind Mike Lynch’s “wounded duck” field goal to win the game 10 – 7.
As an aside, Lynch is now a television sportscaster in Boston and I still cringe every time I see his smug grin and remember how Harvard tight end Bob McDermott’s key catch set up Lynch’s heroics. To make it more painful personally, I wore the goat horns after that game having run the wrong pass pattern on a fourth quarter interception of a pass thrown by Yale’s Gesicki. I saw Gary Fencik for the first time in 15 years in 1996 at Cozza’s retirement dinner and the first thing Gary said to me was “I still can’t believe you ran the wrong pattern on that option pass against Harvard.” For those who underestimate the importance of the Yale-Harvard game, or doubt that the players remember their last game vividly, consider the fact that though Fencik had played 12 NFL seasons, he still remembered that one play from 1975, 21 years earlier.
Legendary Yale Coach TAD Jones is said to have sent his players into battle against Harvard by admonishing them “Gentlemen, you are about to play Harvard, you will never do anything more important in your lives.” Percy Haughton, Harvard’s coach in 1908, was said to have exhorted his players by strangling a bulldog in front of them before sending them onto the field against Yale.
By contrast, Carm Cozza was not a theatrical, “Win One for the Gipper” type of coach. He was a calm, unflappable leader, not given to histrionics. While Carm did not show it outwardly, the 1976 team still knew he carried the weight of two consecutive Yale-Harvard Game defeats, not to mention the infamous 29 – 29 “loss” of 1968 which he had to relive with the media every year The Game was played in Cambridge. We dared not let ourselves think that Carm might be jinxed by Harvard Stadium, though we were all well aware that Yale had won only one time in Cambridge since 1960.
More poignantly, the 1976 team knew that this would likely be Carm’s last game. It was rumored that he would be retiring as head football coach to become Yale’s Athletic Director after the 1976 Harvard game. And, just in case he was not feeling enough self-imposed pressure, Cozza had also publicly promised to deliver a victory against Harvard at the 1975 football banquet the year before. Cozza may have been a gentleman, but he was a fierce competitor. He could still beat any of his players in handball and he always doubled his efforts preparing to play teams that had defeated Yale the previous season. We had lost to Harvard two years in a row and Carm wasn’t going out with three consecutive losses to Harvard.
The seniors wanted this game for Carm as much as he wanted it for himself. Riding a seven-game winning streak, we were further motivated by the chance to win at least a share of the Ivy League Championship. Senior Stone Phillips, of Dateline NBC fame, was our quarterback and three other seniors formed the left side of our offensive line: Jim Mahalcik, All-Ivy captain Vic Staffieri, and center, Ralph Bosch. Seniors Mike Southworth and Eddie Lewis started in the backfield and our defense was anchored by All-Ivy senior Pete Bonacum at one defensive end and Sheldon Smith at the other. Jeff Waller started at linebacker, Chris Judge at cornerback and Scott Rooth at monster. Another senior and former starter, Jorge Oliu was sidelined by injury. Legendary senior place-kicker Randy Carter was back for his last chance to beat Harvard.
There were no signs of surrender on the Harvard dormitory walls this time as our bus passed through Cambridge on the Friday before the Game. All we saw was the predictably pompous Harvard drivel posted around campus: “What do Harvard and Yale students have in common – they all got into Yale.” We tried not to lose our composure when we arrived at Soldiers Field to discover that the Yale equipment truck had broken down on its way to Cambridge – preventing us from completing our Friday pre-game run-through. Instead of practicing, we watched the Yale freshman team, the “Bullpups,” thrash Harvard 38 – 14 in the rain, hoping that this victory was a portent of what was to come on Saturday.
On Saturday morning we arose to steak and eggs, Carm’s ritual breakfast of choice before downing cans of an awful energy drink called Sustacal. Carm was convinced that Coach Daryl Royal’s success at the University of Texas was assisted by making his players drink Sustacal. So while the Longhorns were getting ready to face Texas A&M in Austin, we were sitting in a conference room at the Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge, having our ankles taped and guzzling something that tasted vaguely like an artificially sweetened, sawdust shake.
On a soggy field in front of a regional ABC television audience, we took the field amidst the roar of 41,000, packed into the oldest stadium in America. Despite our confidence and preparation, we did not get off to a particularly good start. Russ Savage, a Harvard defensive end intercepted and returned a Phillips screen pass for a 74-yard touchdown in the first quarter. To make matters worse, Phillips was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the second quarter. As we filed into the cramped visitor’s locker room in the bowels of the stadium trailing 7 – 0 at half time, I looked at the silhouette of bodies standing atop Harvard Stadium’s columns and wondered if we were going to fail in the clutch once again.
At half time, however, a remarkable thing happened. For the first and only time in my three varsity seasons, Carm Cozza gave an emotional half time speech. He stood directly in front of me and like the others, I could feel the heat from his lazer-like stare.He began his remarks with a simple, confident statement. “Fellas, we are going to win this game.” As his voice reached its crescendo, he challenged each of us to start playing to win and stop playing not to lose. I also vaguely remember a reference to manhood and something about taking this game to our graves. In that moment, we were all energized by Cozza’s confidence, his zeal, and his smoldering intensity. Cozza used to say that with 41 high school captains on his team, motivational speeches were unnecessary. On that day, however, while he was not exactly TAD Jones, his emotional speech was the catalyst we needed.
The second half was a totally different game. With the exception of Mike Southworth’s two short touchdown plunges, it was the Yale underclassmen who carried the seniors to our elusive victory over Harvard in 1976. Maybe the underclassmen were not as afraid to lose.
Maybe they had not been scarred by two painful losses. Perhaps, as junior, Kevin Kelly, insists to this day they were just better athletes. Regardless of the reason, however, we dominated Harvard in the second-half, scoring 21 unanswered points and totally shutting down All-Ivy quarterback Jim Kubacki, tailback Tommy Wynn, and Joe Restic’s multi-flex offense. Back-up QB and future Yale captain Bob Rizzo came off the bench to complete two key passes to sophomore tight end John Spagnola, while backfield workhorse and 1976 Ivy MVP John Pagliaro ran for 123 yards behind Junior All-Ivy linemen Jim McDonnell and Steve Carfora, scoring his record 16th touchdown of the season, eclipsing Calvin Hill’s record.
The real key to Yale’s victory, however, was the Yale defense, which kept Harvard’s offense scoreless for the entire 60 minutes. Junior Keith Bassi, was named ABC “Defensive Player of the Game,” for recovering a key fumble. The play of the game, though, was made by sophomores Steve Skrovan and Kurt Nondorf who stopped Harvard’s Chris Dougherty on a fourth down at the Yale one yard line to seal the Yale Bulldog’s victory. Mike Tomana, Paul Denza, Bob Skoronski, Dan Goodfriend, Bill Crowley, Mark Stadler, Sam Rapp, Kevin Gardner, and my roommate, Dave Humphreville, all underclassmen, were a defensive stone wall that limited Kubacki and Harvard to 158 yards of offense on the day.
After the fans rushed the field, the champagne flowed, the cigar smoke filled the locker room, and the chants of “Carm, Carm, Carm” and “One More Year” filled the air. Despite the festive atmosphere, I remember feeling surprisingly somber. I was struck by the idea that while we had finally beaten Harvard, the ride was now over. Our team had become just another chapter of Yale history.
As I turned my equipment in for the last time, I thought of Professor Kagan. I realized that without our victory over Harvard, the 22 other winning games amassed over our three varsity seasons would not have meant nearly as much either to the seniors or even to Kagan himself. Despite the fact that our final record matched Carm’s great Dowling/Hill team of 1968, the 1976 seniors accomplished something Dowling and Hill could not. We defeated Harvard in the clutch, and if Donald Kagan and history are the judges, we established ourselves as truly great football champions.