The Harvard-Yale Rivalry

Crew might have been the first — and it may annually be the last — but it is far from the only rivalry between Harvard and Yale.

In fact, including today’s crew race, Crimson and Bulldog teams will have squared off in head-to-head competition 40 times during the 2008-09 athletic season — and that number doesn’t include any number of league championship events or individual tournament matches. Yale fields 35 varsity sports and Harvard has 41, the most of any NCAA school in the nation.

These schools are familiar with being first and foremost. Harvard teams have won 138 national titles in sports ranging from crew to football and lacrosse to squash. In 2006, Harvard men’s and women’s fencing team combined to win the NCAA title. Then-sophomore Benji Ungar won the national title in the epee. The following year, Kyla Grigg and Siddharth Suchde won national squash titles and Tim Hagamen won the men’s sabre national championship in fencing. Yale has 103 national titles to its credit, including several in football, swimming and diving, and golf; its two most recent additions have come in women’s squash and women’s crew. The schools have combined to capture more than 507 Ivy League championships since the circuit was formed in 1956 and grabbed a combined nine league titles in 2008-09. Harvard won Ancient Eight crowns in football, women’s fencing, women’s golf, women’s ice hockey, women’s soccer, women’s swimming and women’s tennis while Yale claimed the women’s volleyball and men’s ice hockey crowns.

Former Harvard football coach Joe Restic, who guided the Crimson for 23 seasons until his retirement in 1993, quipped, "Each year, we’re friends for 364 days and rivals for just one." While he was primarily assessing his relationship with his legendary Yale counterpart Carm Cozza, those words apply across the board. Harvard-Yale is as much a debate as it is a feud. It’s Lincoln-Douglas, not Hatfields-McCoys, though it should be noted the two schools jousted some eight years before the 1860 presidential candidates squared off on opposite podiums.

Yet a rivalry doesn’t grow in stature by accident. Both schools have played major roles in advancing and shaping college athletics.

In 1843, Yale started the first college boat club in America; in 1884, Eli runner Charles Sherrill first demonstrated the four-point crouch for sprinters; in 1890, Yale introduced "cheerleaders" at a football game, a first in college sports; in 1896, the first intercollegiate ice hockey game featured Yale and Johns Hopkins (a 2-2 tie); and in 1897, Yale men’s basketball played in the country’s first 5-on-5 game.

Harvard has the distinction of being the nation’s first college, founded in 1636. Among its athletics firsts are: in 1877, the first baseball catcher’s mask was used in a Harvard game, a fencing mask adapted by inventor Fred Thayer for Alexander Tyng; in 1896, Harvard freshman James B. Connolly became the first gold medalist of the modern Olympics (winning the hop, hop and jump); in 1901, women’s field hockey was first introduced to America on the Harvard (Radcliffe) campus; in 1903, Harvard Stadium, the nation’s oldest football stadium, was built; in 1905, Harvard played in the first intercollegiate soccer match (falling to Haverford, 1-0); and in 1947, Chester Pierce ’48 became the first African-American footballer to play against a white college in the South when the Crimson met the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Nowhere have Harvard and Yale teams met more often than on the baseball diamond, where this year’s four games brought the total to 354. The series is amazingly close, with Harvard ahead, 184-173-1. These baseball affairs go back to July 25, 1867, when the first game was held as part of Regatta Day on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, a race-day tradition that continued into the 20th century. More recently, H-Y baseball games were held in conjunction with the Harvard graduation, with thousands of fans marching from the Square to Soldiers Field to watch the action. The series continues today in the Ivy League’s two-division system, with Harvard and Yale both playing in the Red Rolfe Division.

Although crew enthusiasts may bristle, the football rivalry between the schools is arguably the most revered. Harvard and Yale have met 125 times on the gridiron, starting with a tilt on November 13, 1875 in New Haven (a 4-0 Harvard win). The series is the third most-played in college football history and is now referenced around the country simply as "The Game." And though they aren’t vying for national titles anymore (the schools combine for 18 national championships and 26 Ivy crowns), the annual contest still attracts sellout crowds to Cambridge and over 50,000 fans to the Bowl in New Haven.

Yet it was football that nearly splintered relations between these two schools for good. In 1894, following a game known as the "Springfield Massacre" when seven players were carried off the field in "dying condition," Harvard and Yale broke off relations. Each blamed the other for the contest’s unprecedented brutality. Historian George Sullivan wrote, "So savage was combat on a neutral Springfield gridiron ... that newspapers printed a casualty summary similar to those listing victims of a disaster. The game’s violence appalled the world and ignited a national uproar about football ferocity—outrage that threatened the sport’s future."

And the rivalry’s as well. The schools didn’t meet in football for two seasons, while the baseball, crew, and track and field teams avoided each other for one. But the allure of competition was too great, and by 1897, the schools were back at it. Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson, welcomed the resumption: "forgetting the past and resolving a generous open-handed rivalry for the future, Harvard joins hands with Yale and welcomes her heartily and joyfully to her old place as Harvard’s nearest and dearest foe." By 1898, the football game had relocated to its now-familiar and permanent perch as the final one on each school’s docket.

Football has also generated the most lore. The notorious flying wedge, the brainchild of Harvard assistant Lorin Deland, was introduced in the 1892 H-Y game. Harvard coach Percy Haughton is purported to have choked a bulldog to fire up his troops for the 1908 game (although just a story, whatever he did worked as the Crimson won, 4-0). In 1923, Yale’s T.A.D. Jones told his players, "Gentlemen, you are now going out to play football against Harvard. Never again in your whole life will you do anything so important."

The 1930s had the majestic Barry Wood (Harvard)-Albie Booth (Yale) battles. It was also the era when a Harvard illustrator drew a game program cover of a pilgrim unceremoniously sitting on Yale’s famous captain’s fence. Some Eli alums were so outraged that a suspension of the series was briefly discussed, before cooler heads prevailed (Harvard’s 1995 football captain, Justin Frantz, became the first Harvard athlete invited to sit on the fence and his picture with Yale captain Tony Mazurkiewicz graced that year’s program).

The 1952 Game is remembered for the "ultimate insult" when Yale’s football team manager, Charlie Yeager, was put in the game to catch a two-point conversion that culminated a 41-14 Eli blowout at the Stadium. A half-century later, that one still hurts.

Harvard’s 1968 "win" over Yale is still rated as one of the top college football games ever played. Both schools entered "The Game" owning identical 8-0 records, but Yale appeared well on its way to victory and a perfect season. That’s before Harvard miraculously scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to "defeat" the Elis, 29-29.

Another memorable day came in 1982, when a group of MIT frat boys exploded a balloon out of the Stadium turf—at midfield no less—during Harvard’s 45-7 triumph. More recently, Yale rallied in the fourth quarter to win successive thrillers in 1998, 1999 and 2000. The next year was different, however, as Harvard pulled away in the final frame to take a 35-23 victory and secure its first undefeated, untied season in 88 years. That sparked a five Game Crimson win streak, which the Bulldogs ended in 2006 with a 34-12 win in Cambridge. That win clinched Yale’s 14th Ivy League title on the gridiron.

Two thousand and seven was another one for the storybooks as Yale entered the 124th meeting undefeated, and Harvard had not lost in Ancient Eight play, making the winner of the contest Ivy League champions. The Crimson spoiled Yale’s perfect season with a 37-6 win in New Haven. Despite the recent success of the Crimon, the Elis lead the series 65-51-8.

The rivalry is alive and well in other parts of each school’s boathouse as well. The women’s heavyweight crews race for the Case Cup, while the men’s lightweights include Princeton in their battle for the Goldthwait Cup, that sport’s oldest continuing rivalry (dating back to 1922).

And there’s more. Harvard won the first two national lacrosse titles in 1881 and 1882, before Yale stopped the run with the 1883 crown.

Harvard’s 39-37 men’s basketball win in 1946 determined who would receive the region’s automatic bid to the NCAA. In 1958, Harvard shocked a Yale tennis team whose top player, Donald Dell, went on to the Davis Cup, and whose number four player, Gene Scott, later qualified to play at Wimbledon. Yale’s dominance in men’s swimming was untested until Harvard’s 63-62 victory in 1962, the Crimson’s first over the Elis in 24 years and just Yale’s second loss in 220 meets. In January 1989, Harvard’s seemingly unstoppable men’s ice hockey team marched into the "Yale Whale" with a perfect 15-0-0 record, but staggered out with a stunning 3-1 defeat — though the Crimson did eventually win that year’s national championship. This past winter, the Elis twice beat the Crimson by four goals on its way to the Ivy League and ECAC titles.

Heading into the 2008-09 seasoon, Harvard and Yale had split the last four women’s basketball games. The Bulldogs bested the 2006-07 squad early in the season to be the only blemish in the Crimson’s Ivy League Championship campaign. Last year, Yale got the best of the Crimson in the season finale preventing Harvard from winning the outright Ancient Eight crown.

Yet there’s also a spirit of cooperation between the schools. Every other year, a combined Harvard-Yale track and field team faces a combined Oxford-Cambridge squad, a tradition dating back to 1894. Two months ago the two teams hosted their British rivals. The American women combining to win their 11th title, while the men were edged by the British by a point. A similar series has existed in tennis since 1921 when a combined Harvard-Yale team first faced Oxford-Cambridge for the Prentice Cup.

Another sign of camaraderie between the schools occurred in the winter of 1970 when Yale basketball star Jack Langer was declared ineligible by the NCAA and ECAC for playing in the Maccabiah Games. The Elis were put on probation by both organizations. Harvard athletes were sympathetic to Yale’s situation and the absurdity of the rule, so track and field junior Ed Nosal decided to protest. He wrote a letter to the region’s other track and field captains stating, "With the belief that the NCAA exists to benefit the athlete, I find the NCAA and ECAC action against Langer and Yale irresponsible and unacceptable...Yale should be praised, not condemned, for its courage in protecting Langer’s right to participate in both the Maccabiah Games and Yale athletics." Nosal had hoped to gather momentum for a widespread action, but no other schools jumped on the bandwagon. Still, he carried forth and at the 1970 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championship, three Harvard men, including Nosal, stood on the awards stand wearing blue Yale jerseys.

There’s no doubt that at the conclusion of this afternoon’s races, Harvard rowers hope to have another collection of Yale jerseys at their disposal, the traditional crew reward for defeating an opponent. Yale oarsmen harbor similar dreams of adding a prized Crimson uniform to their collection. Oh, yes, the rivalry continues, and today it returns to where it started ... on the water.