The Ivy League: A place where it's still all about the game, not the money
August 24, 2008 8:00 AM
Beverly Schaefer/Princeton University
When he's not working toward becoming an orthopedist, Princeton's Dan Kopolovich -- a McKeesport High School graduate -- runs down a Lehigh receiver last fall.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- College football is a multibillion-dollar business. Television networks pay the Bowl Championship Series conferences millions of dollars to broadcast their games on an annual basis. Record attendance figures are being set every year as the biggest stadiums in the world are expanded. And merchandising sales continue to go through the roof as fans adorn themselves in their school's colors.
The sport has never enjoyed more popularity as a new season gets under way in earnest this week. As a result, it's easy to forget the first word of this country's Saturday fall pastime:
Perspective is almost impossible to find in this age of college football. But there is one league where the sport is played in time-warp fashion with some old-school principles.
Looking for a game where as many students can be seen walking to the library as the tailgate party? Where stadiums are half-filled? Where not a single ESPN or ABC camera can be found? Where the league's administrators bask in the glow of this image?
Look no further than the Ivy League, where college football is preserved in its purest form.
"You'll never find a group of guys who love to play the game more," said Cornell senior linebacker Graham Rihn, a Central Catholic High School graduate. "We're not getting paid to play the game. We're paying tuition to go to school. For players in the Ivy League, going to practice at four o'clock is a release from the rest of their life, from working hard and trying to do well in class or trying to find a job."
The Ivy League never has allowed scholarships and is one of the few remaining non-scholarship leagues in Division I-AA. At Ivy League schools, football is truly an extracurricular activity.
At major colleges, it's a job. It has become common for players to dedicate themselves as if they were professionals.
Most major-college football players stay on campus during the summer and work out in anticipation of the coming season. At Ivy League schools, football training is a distant second to the student's future pursuits.
Rihn, a Hampton resident, spent the summer working on Wall Street. He had an internship for Bank of America, where he learned the ins and outs of investment banking.
Rihn is not the exception; he is the norm.
Dan Kopolovich, a McKeesport native and junior quarterback at Princeton, came back to Pittsburgh this summer and took two physics courses at Duquesne University. When he wasn't going to class or studying, Kopolovich, a pre-med major, was shadowing Dr. David Neuschwander, McKeesport High School's team orthopedist. Kopolovich aspires to be an orthopedist.
Weight lifting and conditioning were a priority for Rihn and Kopolovich, but they did it on their own schedule and without coaches watching their every move.
"We don't get many that stay around during the summer," Cornell coach Jim Knowles said. "It's totally different from a place like Pitt where everyone stays. One of the reasons they come to an Ivy League school is because they want that opportunity to expand other aspects of their life also. Graham is in a fraternity, but it's not a regular fraternity. It's a business fraternity."
It is an idea that has been fostered since the Ivy League was formed more than 50 years ago. Sports competition is important and encouraged, but not at the expense of the overall educational experience.
Ivy = NFL squaredThe NFL isn't out of the question for Ivy Leaguers. Reggie Williams (Dartmouth, '76), right, played 14 years for the Bengals. He even moonlighted as a city councilman in his final seasons. Ivy Leaguers currently in NFL camps:PlayerSchoolPos.TeamSean MoreyBrownWRCardinalsRyan FitzpatrickHarvardQBBengalsNate LawrieYaleTEBengalsClifton DawsonHarvardRBColtsMatt BirkHarvardCVikingsKevin BoothCornellGGiantsZak DeOssieBrownLBGiantsJeff OtisColumbiaQBRaidersZak KeaseyPrincetonRB49ersCasey CramerDartmouthTETitans
Carm Cozza coached at Yale from 1965 through 1996. Cozza coached 10 Ivy League championship teams, but football was never the priority for his players. Academics always came first.
"I always used to joke with the alumni that I had to be the best pre-med and pre-law coach in the nation," Cozza said. "No one had as many doctors and lawyers as I had. I remember one year in the 1970s our whole offensive line, except for our left tackle, was pre-med students."
Many of those doctors and lawyers were also fantastic football players. It is a tradition that Kopolovich and Rihn are continuing.
Kopolovich, the quarterback who led McKeesport to the WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA championships in 2005, started at defensive back as a freshman and sophomore for the Tigers. He is competing for the starting quarterback position this fall. Rihn was named honorable mention all-Ivy last season and voted a team captain by his peers for this season.
"The great thing about the Ivy League is you're not sacrificing that much with athletics," Kopolovich said. "We have 10 all-state players on our team. It's not like the Ivy League is slacking."
Striking a balance
The Ivy League is not slacking, but it is vastly different than it once was. At one time, its teams were crowned national champions, had regular presences in the national polls and some of its teams were considered to be among the nation's elite.
For many years, Ivy League schools competed with the best of the best in college football. But that all changed 30 years ago when the NCAA passed legislation that proposed a split between the big universities competing in Division I and the smaller schools that composed the division.
Smaller schools had a choice to make. Did they want to continue competing against bigger schools with bigger athletic budgets or did they wish to downgrade to a more cost-contained level of athletics?
The year was 1978, and the NCAA was beginning to recognize how big the business of college football was getting. The NCAA created two classifications for Division I football -- Division I-A and Division I-AA. Each school in Division I had five years to decide which classification it would choose.
Ivy League administrators voted to play at the Division I-AA level, a decision that they believed would enhance their reputation as academic-first institutions.
"Our presidents made very clear back when they formed the Ivy League ... that athletics would be approached as part of the overall educational experience," said Jeff Orleans, the commissioner of the Ivy League since 1984. "We expect our athletes meet the expectations of our other students and we give them the time to meet those expectations."
The Ivy League was founded under some simple premises:
• The admissions process should assure that Ivy athletes are "representative" of their non-athlete classmates;
• Ivy athletes should have full access to need-based financial aid up to their full cost of actual attendance, but Ivy schools will not use athletic grants-in-aid;
• Ivy athletes should have and meet the same high academic expectations as their non-athlete classmates, and should have the opportunity to participate in the full range of campus activities;
• The Ivy athletic experience should be structured so that Ivy student-athletes can meet these expectations and take advantage of these opportunities.
As the business of college football grew exponentially, the Ivy League's administrators looked back and adhered to those founding principles.
If abiding by those principles meant not being on television as much, shrinking attendance and fewer mentions in the nation's sports pages, so be it.
"Our alumni understand the way the landscape of college football has changed," Orleans said. "When we first made the move to [Division I-AA], there was a lot of breath-holding. But our alumni have seen us continue to prosper."
The legends fall in line
Most Ivy League alumni who were a part of the league's glory days have begrudgingly accepted the downsizing, but they agree that the decision has been a smart one in the long run.
Reggie Williams, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1976, is one of the Ivy League's greatest success stories. He had no scholarship offers from Division I schools coming out of his Flint, Mich., high school, but he became a College Football Hall of Famer and played linebacker for 14 seasons in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals.
In his final seasons with the Bengals, Williams had a second job as a Cincinnati city councilman.
"The essence of an Ivy League education demands that you prioritize the academics," Williams said. "I believe I became a better football player because I became a better thinker by attending Dartmouth College. Yet living in Florida for the last 15 years and being around Florida, Miami and Florida State ... I played in Cincinnati in the shadows of Ohio State. There is something idyllic about recapturing [the old Ivy League tradition]. But if the game had to suffer to really put academics in its proper perspective, then I can live with the comparative mediocrity of Ivy League football today."
The last time an Ivy League team finished the season ranked in The Associated Press poll was in 1970 when Dartmouth was No. 14. As the decade progressed, bigger schools with bigger fan bases and bigger athletic budgets were playing a game the Ivies did not wish to play.
"I took tremendous pride in competing against some of the best student-athletes in the country," Williams said. "But the league at its core is about having things in perspective. There are other colleges where it is so obvious that the football program drives the academic curriculum. That's the wrong message for kids everywhere."
Cozza spanned two very different eras in Ivy League history. From the 1960s until the early 1980s, Yale was a competitive team against the major-college powers of the time.
After the move to I-AA, the Ivy League underwent a transformation.
"When it first happened, I didn't think it would have any effect," Cozza said. "We were going to play the same teams anyway. But, for whatever reason, it did affect us. It was hard to get some of the top players because of the I-A image. I can remember having two or three players, if not drafted, then signed every year [by the NFL]. Now we're lucky if we have three in the whole league. So it did affect us."
The reclassification and the price of an Ivy League education have been the major impediments in recruiting.
"When I had Calvin Hill and Brian Dowling and some other great guys, they could go to Yale for $3,000 more than getting a full ride," Cozza said. "Now it's $40,000. A lot of kids don't want to be a burden on their parents, so they'll take the scholarship even if they want to go to an Ivy League school."
Finding the right fit
Recruiting in the Ivy League is a job description unlike any other in college football.
Knowles coached in the Mid-American Conference and the Southeastern Conference before being hired as Cornell's coach in 2004. He said navigating the rules associated with the stringent Ivy League admissions standards is difficult.
All Ivy League schools adhere to something called the Academic Index for its athletes. It is a complicated mathematical formula that takes into account a student's SAT scores, high school class rank and grade-point average.
"I always say if you can recruit in the Ivy League, you can recruit anywhere," Knowles said.
Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens is in his second stint as the Big Green's head coach. After his first tenure at Dartmouth, he was the head coach at Tulane and Stanford. He has witnessed college football from every angle imaginable and has a new-found respect for Ivy League football.
"I have a better appreciation for it the second time around," Teevens said. "When I was coming up the first time, I was focused on going to the next level. But after you go through it and come back, you really can't take this for granted, what this level of football is about. These kids work just as hard, but you have to find the right kids for your program, guys who fit in academically as well as athletically."
It's not always easy for football players to adjust to life at Ivy League schools. Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale are some of the most academically prestigious institutions in the world. Competing in the classroom can be just as difficult as the competition on the field.
Kopolovich and Rihn were excellent students in high school, but they would not have been admitted to Ivy League schools based on their academic credentials alone.
Kopolovich was second in his graduating class, had a 4.2 grade-point average and scored 1,300 on his SAT. But he said he "kind of got lucky" to get admitted and knows "a ton" of his peers who scored a perfect 1,600 on their SAT, including two or three members of the football team.
Rihn was in the top 20 of his graduating class, had a 4.4 grade-point average and scored 1,160 on the SAT. Even so, he said it was frightening to walk on campus as a freshman.
"I was extremely intimidated that I was going to have to compete with the best of the best every day," Rihn said. "But what I've learned is that it's not about how inherently smart you are. It's about how hard you're willing to work. I've been able to score above the averages in my classes by working hard."
Cozza said one of the benefits of being a football player at an Ivy League school is that once a student is admitted, the professors and staff will work with him tirelessly to make sure he stays on course to graduate.
In his long and distinguished career, Cozza garnered many accolades. But he is not most proud of those 10 Ivy League titles or all those players he sent to the NFL. He is most proud of his graduation rate.
In his 32 seasons as coach, Cozza said he only had seven players who failed to earn a degree.
"In the end," he said, "that's what it's all about."