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Ivy Rivalry

It’s college football rivalry weekend in America, or what’s left of it, given the interminable stretching out of college football schedules into early December and beyond.

In the olden days, before conference playoffs and the travesty that is the BCS, the weekend before Thanksgiving was the traditional last week of the regular season. It was also when the great rivalries were played: Ohio State-Michigan, Auburn-Alabama, USC-UCLA, and Indiana-Purdue (hey, give me a break, I’m a Hoosier alum – the Old Oaken Bucket means a great deal to us, especially since we see it so rarely).

These days (yes, I’m now officially a cranky old man for invoking the phrase “these days”), we may get the occasional Ohio-State-Michigan or Cal-Stanford game that actually has bowl implications on Rivalry Week. But most big programs have moved their marquee games elsewhere, where there is less competition and therefore more money to be made.

So, if you miss the old Rivalry Week, I have a suggestion for how to spend your weekend:  Rent Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.

The Harvard-Yale rivalry is one of the oldest and most storied in football, even as their programs have failed to make the transition to the modern game. This is due to their quaint, almost Quixotic practice of using actual student-athletes to play their games. It is quite possible they still use leather helmets and have two-legged goalposts planted at the goal line.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 takes a look back at the 1968 rivalry game, and a doozy of a game it was. You might wonder how Harvard could beat Yale in a tie. All I can say is that you won’t be confused by the title after watching the film. And for a film that consists entirely of grainy footage of amateur football players combined with old guys talking into a camera, the documentary delivers a surprisingly engaging story.

Both teams entered the game undefeated, but Yale was a heavy favorite. They were ranked #16 in the nation and had blown out most of their opponents.  Harvard was like the 2001 BCS Illini; they kept winning games by small margins, but no one had any rational explanation for it.

The movie is helped along by the sheer number of famous connections involved. George W. Bush’s roommate played in the game.  So did Al Gore’s roommate, whose name happens to be Tommy Lee Jones. Gary Trudeau was at Yale at the time and his inspiration for the character B.D in Doonesbury was Yale quarterback Brian Dowling. One of the Yale players was dating Meryl Streep. You won’t see that at any Old Oaken Bucket game.

The backdrop of the game was 1968 itself, with Vietnam protests, political assassinations and general social unrest. Yale and Harvard somewhat mirrored the times, with a somewhat homogeneous, blue-blood Yale squad squaring off against a somewhat less homogeneous, slightly more politically radical Harvard squad. On the other had, Harvard had a Vietnam vet and Yale had a black player, so that narrative only goes so far.

Most of the players seem like good guys who have aged well, with one notable exception.  One of Yale players, Mike Bouscaren, emerges midway as the villain of the story. He speaks proudly of having taken out Harvard’s fastest player “using his helmet as a spear” and attempting to do the same to their quarterback. It turns out he wasn’t even involved in the play where the Harvard player got injured, which makes him both reprehensible and a liar. Later, he commits two different penalties (one dumb and one mean) during crucial plays.  He’s even annoyed 40 years later that the referees caught him, in the way that a banker might be annoyed that regulations exist and are sometimes acted upon.

Eventually, arrogance and stupidity do in Yale. They wave white flags at the Harvard players and their band taunts them by playing the Mickey Mouse theme. This succeeds only in enraging the Harvard players. Yale fumbles the ball and then shrugs about it. They commit dumb penalties. They do everything but wave a huge Mission Accomplished banner in the stands to announce that the game is over.

And indeed, for those who are metaphor-happy and liberal, the game provides an interesting preview to the war on terror waged by Yale’s most recent US president. For instance, Yale had never even practiced an on-side kick, thinking it unlikely to happen, given how powerful they were.  Post-war insurgency planning anyone?

This comparison may stretch a bit thin, and the film certainly doesn’t go there. It is primarily about football. And yet, football loses half of its meaning if it cannot be used as a metaphor for unnecessary violence.

My only complaint about the film is that it suffers from Calvin Hill not being interviewed. He was Yale’s black all-star running back. He went onto an all-pro, 12-year career with the Dallas Cowboys. Wikipedia reports that he is still alive, so I wonder why he wasn’t in the documentary. As the only black person in a sea of white faces, he could have provided a unique perspective to the proceedings.

So, if you find yourself bored this weekend with the anemic contemporary college football rivalries available, check out Harvard Beats Yale. Warning though: You may need to be an old guy to truly enjoy it. My ten-year-old son was expecting Remember the Titans and gave up after five minutes. These kids today. Bah. Humbug.



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