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Why the Ivy League might finally be ready to compete in the playoffs

The conference is fun, rapidly improving, and full of coaches raring to test themselves nationally. Let’s talk to each head coach.

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You might have a vision of Ivy League football in your head, of hoity-toity, champagne-at-tailgates sensibility with tall grass and three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. That vision has never been entirely true, but it was true enough to persist.

That’s all changing. Ivy League football is good, and it’s getting better.

The Massey Composite compiles computer ratings for both the FBS and FCS levels. In 2015, the Ivy League, powered by No. 5 Harvard and No. 6 Dartmouth, graded out as the second-best FCS conference, behind only North Dakota State’s Missouri Valley. In 2017, it ranked fourth.

The league has fielded at least one top-15 team in six of the last eight years, and the depth appears to be increasing quickly, too.

That trend should only continue. Per HERO Sports, Princeton signed 2018’s No. 1 FCS recruiting class, and three other Ivy schools (No. 2 Yale, No. 6 Harvard, No. 14 Columbia) ranked in the top 15. Harvard and Yale ranked in the top eight in each of the last two years, too.

Maybe you’ve noticed. Maybe you flipped over to NBC Sports on a Friday night to watch part of an Ivy League game or turned on the annual Harvard-Yale battle and caught yourself getting sucked in. Maybe you saw two Ivy Leaguers get selected in April’s NFL draft. Or maybe you noticed Princeton beating out Alabama for a four-star quarterback.

But perhaps you didn’t notice. You could be forgiven.

After all, when FCS football is getting its lengthiest time in the spotlight — during December’s FCS playoffs — Ivies are nowhere to be found.

When the league de-emphasized athletics in the 1950s, it slid from big-time relevance. It still produced individual talent and a few awesome teams, but by the 1980s, it had removed itself from top-division football. The rivalries remained, and Harvard-Yale always finds its way to television, but few held the Ivy League to a high standard of football. Even if the Ivies had claimed an automatic place in the FCS playoffs, like most others have, they wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

That’s not true any more, not now that the league is recruiting and performing like one of the best in FCS, plus leading in innovations like player safety.

The Ivy League is too good and interesting to be confined to its insular world. Isn’t it time it sought a seat at the table to prove itself?

This offseason, I spoke with all eight Ivy head coaches to get some answers.

1. The non-scholarship league now offers something like scholarships.

Columbia University Athletics

Al Bagnoli has lived and breathed Ivy League football for 26 years, first as Penn’s head coach and, after a retirement that lasted mere weeks, now as Columbia’s. He won nine Ivy titles with the Quakers, and after inheriting a Columbia that had lost 21 straight games, he just went 8-2 in his third year.

If anyone knows the landscape, it’s Bagnoli. And he says there’s a clear reason why the league’s profile is rising.

“I think if you go back five to 10 years,” he says, “the Ivy League as a conference made an aggressive push to make things more affordable.”

The eight schools began to use a larger portion of their endowments to give incoming students grants and assure them that they can get a top-notch education without taking on spectacular debt. Without any debt, actually. This went for athletes and non-athletes alike.

“Once upon a time, the two-income family — mom’s a teacher, dad’s a postal worker — they’re in that middle class,” Bagnoli continues. “They’re getting squeezed out because they made too much [to qualify for Pell Grants or something similar] but didn’t make enough [to afford tuition]. We were devoid of that population. The Ivy League recognized it and made an aggressive push to make things affordable and make sure nobody incurs a loan.

“It’s opened up some population that was restricted.”

At first, it was only a few schools. Now, it’s all of them. And the effect is palpable in athletics. The league is still technically one of the few in Division I that doesn’t offer scholarships, but it basically does now, and if a kid has the grades, then the attraction of playing for an Ivy is strong.

The results first showed up in the sports that have smaller rosters — like women’s field hockey (Princeton won the 2012 national title), hockey (Yale won 2013), lacrosse (Yale won 2018), and wrestling (Cornell finished second in 2011).

And in men’s basketball, too. After ranking no better than 20th in Ken Pomeroy’s conference rankings from 2002 to 2010, the league ranked 19th or better from 2011 to 2017, peaking at 13th in 2014. The league’s NCAA Tournament representative won its first-round game three times in that span and lost by two points in the first round — to Notre Dame, North Carolina, and Kentucky, no less — on three other occasions.

The effects are finally showing on the gridiron, too.

At the bottom of Yale head coach Tony Reno’s e-mail signature are two words: “Roll Dogs!” It is an adopted battle cry for Yale Athletics as a whole, and through college football-colored glasses, it suggests Bama-style ambition.

Reno was a Yale assistant for six seasons, then jumped over to rival Harvard for three before taking over the Bulldogs in 2012. More than anyone else in the conference, the Elis have benefited from the depth brought on by stronger recruiting.

“Last year we played nine defensive linemen in a game, and we played 20 to 22 guys in a game on defense,” he says. “So our ability to play our style of aggressive defense was great. We had guys who could play in different packages.

“Depth helped offensively, too. We lost our starting tailback in the preseason and our No. 2 guy midway through, but our No. 3 guy had a really nice year. The depth is so important, especially in our league, when there’s no bye weeks and you can’t redshirt.”

As with service academies at the FBS level, Ivy schools only have athletes for exactly four years. That puts premiums on development and experience and can mean significant year-to-year talent fluctuation, depending on how many upperclassmen you might have on your two-deep.

“[Recruiting] rankings are a really nice piece of information for fans and administrators and alumni,” Reno says, “but as coaches we know that the true testament of a player or class is what they do when they get there.”

In 2017, Yale enjoyed a confluence of experience (17 seniors on the two-deep) and the fruits of recruiting. The Dogs stomped Lehigh, an eventual FCS playoff team, and came within one point — a 28-27 loss to Dartmouth — of going unbeaten.

“I’ve been here 24 years as a coach and almost 20 as a head coach,” Brown’s Phil Estes, another Ivy veteran, says. “And at all levels — the athletic side of it as well as the offensive and defensive lines — we’re all recruiting at a different level now.”

Estes enjoyed a winning record in each of his first four seasons and won a share of the league title with a 9-1 season in 1999. He would win or share titles in 2005 and 2008 as well.

“We’re enticing guys that could be FBS or an FCS scholarship player, to say that we have a better package here that would compete against those scholarship schools.”

2. Embracing parity

Yale v Harvard Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

In a league of ups and downs, Harvard’s Tim Murphy had been the exception. The former Brown assistant held head coaching jobs at Maine and Cincinnati but took over in Cambridge in 1994.

The path was bumpy — Harvard had just one winning season in his first seven years — but soon came cruising altitude: from 2001 to 2016, Harvard never lost more than three games in a season. They won or shared eight Ivy titles.

Then in 2017, for the first time, Murphy was forced to start a true freshman quarterback for an extended period.

“We had to have a limited game plan, limited script. We couldn’t play as fast. It was one of the most challenging seasons I’ve had in 20 years.”

Still, Harvard was 3-2 in conference play with a chance at another league crown. The Crimson were one of seven teams that still had a chance to win the league with two weeks remaining. That list included not only stalwart Harvard, but upstarts Columbia and Cornell.

“In the recent past, from when I was getting recruited in 2001 ... if you look at the winners, there’s no parity,” Cornell head coach David Archer says. “There’s really a couple of schools.”

In the 20 seasons from 1997 through 2016, either Harvard or Penn — two of the first schools to get much more aggressive about financial aid — won at least a share of the conference title in 17 of them.

“That’s to take nothing away from the job their players and coaches did,” Archer says. “You can’t just throw the jerseys onto the field [and win]. But I think last year — that’s parity.”

If not for Columbia’s historic struggles, Cornell could be called the most difficult job in the Ivy League. It claims long-ago national titles (five between 1915 and 1939) and Hall of Famers, but the Big Red had just two winning seasons between 1998 and 2012.

Archer, a former Big Red lineman, knew what he was getting into. It took him a few years to get a foundation. Cornell went just 5-25 in his first three seasons.

Of course, the school probably knew it was investing in a long-term project. In a conference full of wily veterans, Cornell promoted Archer to the head job when he was just 34.

“Five years ago,” he says, “I wasn’t as good as I am now. Having the experience of playing relevant football in November for the first time was ... if you want to squat 500 pounds, you’ve gotta feel it on your back first.”

Archer’s recruiting hasn’t caught the eye of analysts like that of other Ivies, but he’s casting a wide net to find the right 30 guys per year to bring in.

“We’re being Cornell,” he says. “Let’s be great finders. Let’s use our resources to scour the country — all 15,000 high schools that play football — and this is the No. 1 college town in the country. ‘Any person ... any study’ — let’s find people that resonates with. A blue-collar mentality, the guys who want to dig in and do something for the first time.”

3. Literally changing the game

Buddy Teevens has been all over the country. A former Dartmouth quarterback, he took the head coaching gig at his alma mater in 1987 following a short stint at Maine. After his second straight Ivy League title in 1991, bigger programs came knocking.

He won just 11 games in five years at Tulane, and after a rehabilitation stint as a Steve Spurrier assistant at Florida, he won just 10 games in three years at Stanford. He returned to Dartmouth in 2005, and it took him a while to find a groove again. In his first five seasons back, he went 9-41.

But in the last eight seasons, he’s finished with a losing record just once. His Big Green tied for the conference title in 2015 and finished tied for second in 2011 and 2017.

“All of a sudden, it starts to work out,” he says.

At Dartmouth, he has been afforded one thing he didn’t get at Tulane or Stanford: patience.

“People want to win here,” he says, but there’s more to Dartmouth than that.

“There’s a little bit more of an understanding, and that personalizes the approach that a coach can take,” Teevens says. “You worry about going 0-10 — if you’re 0-10, you don’t feel real good — but our graduation rate, our APR, have been tops in the country. I think there’s appreciation for the challenges you might face, and people appreciate the fact that you’re graduating all your kids.”

And oh, the networking possibilities.

“Nigel Key, VP at Morgan Stanley, was my right guard,” Teevens notes. “Jeff Blackburn, VP at Amazon, was a linebacker we recruited. I tell my players I can’t get you a job, but I can put you in contact with people who might hire you. You can demonstrate that it’s not just about football, though I think we’ve had 12 guys sign NFL contracts in the last four years.”

Even if the quality of the football is rising, you never lose sight of the fact that this is the Ivy League. And with Teevens leading the way, the league has attempted to become a source of innovation.

A few years ago, engineering students at Dartmouth helped invent a robotic tackling dummy that could move like a real player, so fundamentals could be taught without as much player-to-player contact. The innovation got Teevens a date with Stephen Colbert.

In 2016, Ivy coaches agreed to eliminate all full-contact hitting from regular season practices.

“I know the NCAA is considering legislation,” he continues, “but conferences are going to have to say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ I like to think the Ivy League can be a driving force.

“I tell all of our prospects, you will not tackle or be tackled in your four years on the practice field here. Repetitive blows are a concern, and you’ll have fewer of them here. We just don’t do it. And look at our win-loss record. It hasn’t hurt us.”

“You might even argue that maybe [the league has improved] because we have healthier players,” says Robin Harris, the Ivy League’s executive director. “We were trying to say, seven or eight years ago, how do we make our student athletes safer? And we’re not gonna sit around and wait for the NCAA to act. The fact that the NCAA is now acting, with [new NCAA Chief Medical Officer] Dr. Brian Hainline coming on board, I think it’s terrific.

“We work very collaboratively,” she says. “We share our information, and we share our data, because we want to benefit the collective. And when the Ivy League presidents do something, it catches people’s attention.”

The league moved kickoffs to the 40-yard line a few years ago to encourage fewer returns, and Harris notes that recent NCAA practice rule changes and recommendations limiting contact stemmed from what the Ivies were already doing.

“The NCAA practice rule changes came about, in part, because of what we did with our practices in the fall. And the NCAA went further than what we did, which is great — that’s what we were trying to do.”

4. Continuing the long Ivy football history of tactical innovation ... and maybe even getting really weird

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two men created most of what we consider modern football. As I wrote in my book, The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time, Walter Camp gave the sport a line of scrimmage, a set of downs, and cut the number of players on the field from 15 to 11. Chicago’s Amos Alonzo Stagg, meanwhile, gave it personality. He’s credited with creating the huddle, the lateral, the onside kick, the unbalanced line, motion — even the Statue of Liberty play.

Camp was football’s conservative father figure with the ever-furrowed brow; Stagg was its fun uncle. Both came from Yale (Camp played and coached there, and Stagg played there in the 1880s).

Thankfully — for the Ivy and anyone watching it — the conference’s current offensive aesthetics are far more Stagg than Camp.

“The game went from the old, traditional I-formation — tight ends, pound the ball — to more 11 personnel [one running back, one tight end, three receivers],” says Penn head coach Ray Priore. “There are a lot of variations that allow you to outfit your team to your best personnel, and it becomes a way to utilize your personnel as you see fit. If we have multiple good tailbacks, we use tailbacks in multiple ways.

“Princeton had three quarterbacks on the field at the same time! Lined them up at different positions.”

Wait, what?

Averaging nearly 90 plays and 44 points per game, the 2013 Tigers used modern-day tempo and made themselves almost un-scoutable. Three quarterbacks — Quinn Epperly, Connor Michelsen, and Kedric Boston — not only took snaps as first-stringers, but stayed on the field at other positions, too.

Three years in at Princeton, head coach Bob Surace had been scrambling. The former Tiger center had inherited a team that had finished with a winning record three times in the last decade. He began to see proof of concept with a 5-5 2012, and things came together in that 2013.

Epperly was the primary signal-caller, but the trio combined for 2,922 passing yards, 718 rushing yards, and 121 receiving yards. Anyone could line up anywhere from play to play.

“There’s no law against it,” Surace says, matter-of-factly. “There’s no law against a team like Alabama, with two good quarterbacks, having them in on the same play occasionally. If we do it, it’s because we think we can run efficient plays.”

Stagg would have been proud.

“Our guys can really process the information,” Surace says. “You can talk to them at a high level football-wise. They’re not NFL players, and we don’t have unlimited time with them, but within that small work week, we can give them a lot of information.”

“Whatever your scheme is offensively or defensively,” Archer says, “you want to be multiple enough to feature your best players. Because of our admission standards, you can’t have a set system and recruit to it. Maybe it’s my tailback that’s my feature guy, or my slot receiver, or my boundary receiver. The variety you may see if guys tailoring their systems to their talent.”

Every play-caller is a Stagg in his own mind, grabbing napkins to write down ways he’d reinvent the game if only he had all the right pieces. But every coach is limited by what his guys can handle. By being nerds, Ivy League players have given their coaches a chance to stretch themselves.

“You can put some additional stress on defenses via formations, via tempo, via deployment of people, and where you have your personnel,” Bagnoli says. “Everybody has to a certain degree a percentage of each. For us, as we look at it and and say, ‘What are our strengths, and what can we do to maximize our matchups,’ tempo becomes an important thing. If you don’t substitute, you’re not letting them substitute.”

Bagnoli and Estes have looked to a nearby source for innovation: the CAA’s New Hampshire.

After going .500 or better in 16 of his first 18 seasons, Estes’ win totals trickled downward, and in 2017, the Bears hit rock bottom. They went 0-7 in conference play for the first time under Estes — they were the only team not in the title race with two weeks remaining — and the primary cause was an offense poisoned by injuries and extreme youth.

Estes instilled youth on the coaching staff as well. It was also a UNH movement, bringing in former UNH quarterback Kevin Decker as offensive coordinator, plus two other UNH assistants (Chris Setian and Chris Zarkoskie).

This came after Bagnoli brought former UNH quarterback Ricky Santos aboard as his QBs coach.

Few schools have been more influential and innovative than UNH. When Santos won the 2006 Payton Award, the FCS’ version of the Heisman, he was running the up-tempo offense established by a coordinator named Chip Kelly.

5. Is it time to start sending Ivy teams to the postseason?

Penn Athletics

So if the league has been among the best in FCS over the last three years and has arguably been the best recruiter ...

And if the teams most recently at the bottom have either gained traction (Cornell), brought in new energy (Brown), or both (Columbia) ...

And if the teams most recently near the top have raised their recruiting games ...

... then what we’ve seen might only be the start of the rise.

And each year, one fact becomes more noticeable: football’s postseason is still the only one forbidden by the Ivy League. The head coaches are unanimous in their opinion about this.

  • Bagnoli: “I couldn’t give you an intelligent reason, to be honest, when you have 33 sports or whatever and every other sport can go ... it doesn’t pass the logic test.”
  • Reno: “You get into this profession to compete at the highest level and develop young men, and if you’re fortunate enough to have a championship team, you’d love to test your mettle.”
  • Surace: “It’s not our decision, unfortunately. I would go in front of any jury and argue against the smartest minds arguing against it, and I would win that argument.”
  • Priore: “It would be great to see how our teams would do on the national scale. All of our programs at some point have gone against the Colonial [Athletic Association] and had some success. We played Lehigh last year, and we beat them.”
  • Et cetera.

Priore knows as well as anyone, though, that sometimes it takes a while to get what you want. The SUNY Albany grad had already been a Penn assistant for six seasons before Bagnoli came aboard, and he remained during Bagnoli’s entire tenure. In 2015, after 28 years as an assistant, he was promoted to head coach. And with a slower tempo than many Ivy peers, plus an old-school emphasis on killer defense, he shared the Ivy title in each of his first two seasons.

“My experience with the league is that process is slow,” he says. “It takes time. Freshmen were not eligible to play varsity football — that was an NCAA rule change [in the 1970s] — but we didn’t change over ‘til 1992 or 1993. For the longest time, we used to just have one day of spring football, and now we have 12.

“I do believe change can happen, but I’d be wrong to try to tell you when that would be.”

It’s hard to believe that change is coming too soon, however.

“We haven’t talked about the postseason in any meeting in years,” Harris says. “The presidents haven’t talked about it in quite some time. It’s just not on our agenda for a variety of reasons.

“I do know that when the presidents last talked about it, there were a multitude of reasons. Look at when the championship is happening. It’s happening right when our student-athletes are taking their exams. And to have 100 football players have to put a pause on their academics to focus on the championship, or to receive accommodations, it’s a lot.”

In a roundabout way, the conference’s improvement only reinforces that logic.

“We would probably win at least a game or two [in the playoffs],” Harris says, which would only result in more awkward academic logistics.

What about a bowl bid, though?

“A one-game postseason opportunity might have more of a shot than a multi-game possibility,” says Harris, “but the issue there is, who do we play? It seems like other conference champions are tied up.”

(Surace has an intriguing answer: “Why wouldn’t we work with historically black colleges and play them?” he asks. “Take a school like Grambling or Howard vs. Princeton or Columbia or whoever. You’re gonna hit a huge number on TV, and you’re gonna sell it out in Atlanta or New Orleans or Washington DC. Why wouldn’t we want to bring more attention?”)

If any conference can still get away with that academics-first logic in this lucrative age of college football, it’s the Ivy. But it still doesn’t sit well.

“We hear about safety and class time and so forth,” Teevens says, “but we play fewer games than anyone, and half our games are at home, so we miss class less than anybody.”

And considering the good press that came from recent basketball success — and how athletics have long been called the “front door” to a university — a run of football success might be worth the extra accommodations.

“The only thing we can do is carry a unified message as coaches,” Bagnoli says. “Carry that message that we think we’re missing on an opportunity that should be available to us. We think we’d be competitive. Would we win four in a row? Who knows? But I feel comfortable that, some of my old Penn teams, would have been competitive.”

“I’m not sure it gets much better than the way it is,” Murphy says. He’s in favor of the playoffs, too, but he makes the counterargument. “Our last game [against Yale], we treat it as a bowl game. And to be able to play your bitter rival on national TV, and so many times for us this century, we’ve been playing for a championship.

“The Ivy League has athletics in a better perspective, or a different perspective, than the SEC or the Big 12 or the Big Ten,” he continues. “The way they do it works well for them, but it wouldn’t work well for us. I think there’s a little bit, if not less pressure, then a little less [desire] to make such quick decisions.”

Would that change with playoff pressure? Perhaps. But it’s clear that the coaches are willing to take the chance. And knowing how this league has been performing, they’d probably fare pretty well.