Quarterback Conner Hempel remembers what he was wearing the day in the spring of 2010 when an assistant football coach from Harvard showed up at his Kentucky High School offering to change his life.
“Jeans and a long-sleeve white T-shirt,” Hempel says. “If I’d known someone from Harvard was coming, I might have dressed up a little.”
It was the spring of 2010 and Hempel, a 6-foot-3, 210- pound prospect, was considering a collection of regional football programs: Miami (Ohio), Toledo, Bowling Green, Western Kentucky. He’d never thought about playing Ivy League football, or that one of the world’s most prestigious universities might have any interest in him. Like everyone he knew in Kentucky and the college-football-mad South, Hempel assumed Harvard was all about academics.
With Harvard’s 2014 football team one win away from an undefeated season and its third Ivy League championship in four years, and a roster that includes several NFL prospects and hopefuls, Hempel now knows better. “We’re all about athletics as well,” he says.
Harvard football has never had a season like this one, as the college uses aggressive new financial-aid packages, generous donors and its hallowed reputation to tap into reservoirs of talent from all over. The roster includes 13 players from Texas, 13 from Georgia and even a freshman from the football powerhouse De La Salle High School of Concord, Calif. The Crimson are 9-0 overall, and 6-0 in the Ivy League. They dominated nonconference opponents Holy Cross, Georgetown and Lafayette. Harvard has outscored opponents 197-64 in the Ivy League and 296-99 overall. The team features the top-ranked defense, measured by points-allowed a game, in NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, the second tier of major Divison I football, and the second-best rushing defense in the FCS. This is not the team Ted Kennedy played for.
“It’s as legitimate a defense as I can remember in the Ivy League,” said Cornell coach David Archer, whose Big Red lost 24-7 to the Crimson in October. That result looks pretty good compared with the 49-7 and 45-0 beat-downs that Princeton and Columbia suffered against the Crimson this season.
The University of Pennsylvania actually led Harvard in the fourth quarter last weekend in Philadelphia. Then the Crimson, with backup quarterback Scott Hosch playing for the injured Hempel, scored 17 unanswered points to win 34-24.
Harvard could have its hands full with Yale (8-1) on Saturday. The Bulldogs are playing for a share of the Ivy title and feature a true thoroughbred in running back Tyler Varga, who is averaging 144 yards a game and has scored 20 touchdowns. It’s the closest the Ivy League gets to an unstoppable force confronting an immovable object.
Yet the Crimson’s success, coming on the heels of Harvard men’s basketball team’s three-year reign in the Ivy League and its two consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament’s second round, has raised some provocative questions around Cambridge. The Ivy League doesn’t allow athletic scholarships, believing that aid should be based on need, rather than purely on speed, size or strength, and requires that athletes admitted have grades and test scores close to those of other students. But Harvard’s seven-year-old policy of granting an extremely generous financial-aid package to any admitted student that needs it now allows the school to offer packages that can compete with any university’s athletic scholarships.
That aid, combined with the chance for a diploma from the one-and-only Harvard, has built a football team that some think can compete with an even better class of competition as the basketball team has already proven. Hempel says he is pretty sure Harvard would be out of its depth against the powerful Southeastern Conference, but he believes the Crimson could stay on the field with several teams in college football’s big leagues this season. “Lower to midtier BCS schools, we could handle them,” he says.
At the very least, while Ivy League football teams have always spurned postseason play because it could interfere with final exams, should its football teams now have the chance to compete in the FCS playoffs? The FCS, formerly known as Division I-AA, holds a postseason tournament among its top 24 teams, with the winner claiming a “national championship,” something Harvard athletes regularly compete for in every sport from basketball and hockey to fencing.
“It’s a very interesting discussion, and a discussion that often comes up,” said Brian Hehir, chairman of the Friends of Harvard Football, an alumni fundraising group, and the captain of the 1974 team. Like head coach Tim Murphy and countless Harvard alums, Hehir views this year’s nationally televised season-ending game against a 140-year rival like Yale at a packed Harvard Stadium (capacity 30,000) as a unique capstone to a season, with the conference championship on the line. ESPN is even bringing its College GameDay show to the banks of the Charles this Saturday, giving the game a measure of big-time atmosphere that is often lacking on campus. Just once this season was Harvard Stadium even half-full for a game.
Yet Hehir also can’t help but wonder how the Crimson would fare against the rest of college football now that the players are virtually unrecognizable from the teammates of his day. “They are bigger, faster, taller, stronger and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” he says.
The offensive line, led by the 6-foot-7, 295-pound junior tackle Cole Toner, an NFL prospect, averages 6-foot-5 and 287 pounds. Jim Bell, the executive producer of NBC’s Olympic coverage and an All-Ivy League defensive lineman for Harvard in 1988, said he often watches games and thinks he’d “probably get killed” if he tried to play today.
Schools like Stanford and Notre Dame long ago proved that top-notch football can prosper in a prestigious academic institution. Likewise, the level of all Ivy League athletes has risen significantly the past 25 years, as the schools have begun to put more emphasis on producing elite teams to go along with world-class academics.
In 2013, Yale won the NCAA hockey championship. Abbey D’Agostino, a 2014 Dartmouth graduate, won seven track and cross-country national championships during her college career. Yale football beat Army this season, the first Ivy League win against a Football Bowl Subdivision team since 1986.
For years, the Ivy League appeared hamstrung because they don’t provide athletic scholarships, choosing to award financial aid based only on need. During the past decade though, the eight historic universities —Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Penn—have drawn on their multibillion endowments and investment income to expand financial aid.
“That is opening the doors for a lot of first-generation college students, including many students from all across the country, and some of those are also athletes,” said Robin Harris, executive director of the Ivy League.
At Harvard, the wealthiest of the Ivies, children from families with incomes under $65,000 pay nothing for tuition, room and board, while those from families with incomes of $65,000-$150,000 can be asked to contribute 0-10% of their family’s income. That figure can drop further if a student has siblings in college or other extenuating circumstances. The university doesn’t factor in a family’s home equity or retirement assets in assessing need, an unusual practice. Roughly 70% of students at Harvard receive aid, and 20% attend free. The school does not break out the figures for its athletic teams.
The generosity has allowed Harvard to turn what had historically been a disadvantage into an advantage when it comes to recruiting the small pool of terrific athletes who can also meet the academic standards of the Ivy League. Bob Scalise, Harvard’s athletic director, argues that Harvard’s aid packages are now more valuable than any Division I athletic scholarship, even though Harvard doesn’t yet have the record of producing pro athletes at the rate of some of its non-Ivy League peers.
Here’s where the value comes from: Athletes gain admission to a world-renowned university, and if they get injured or decide during their third day, their third week or their third year that they don’t feel like playing football or field hockey or tennis anymore, they don’t lose the financial commitment the university has made to them.
“The chances of becoming a professional are so small,” Scalise said. “If it works out for you, then great, but if you’re not able to make the pros then you are going to be able to say, I have a degree from the greatest academic institution in the world.”
In addition, Hehir’s fundraising efforts have helped Harvard spare few expenses when it comes to spreading its message. The Friends of Harvard Football help cover significant costs for Harvard coaches to travel across the country to find and recruit good, smart players and pay for them to make official visits to the campus. Private colleges don’t generally report recruiting expenses for each sport. However, according to federal filings, Harvard spent $776,000 on recruiting for men’s sports, in 2013-14. Only Princeton, which has long striven to be the Ivy League’s athletic power, and Columbia, which is pursuing a major rebuilding effort, spent more among Ivy rivals.
The Friends of Harvard Football also cover the costs of preseason practices, any special equipment purchases, and team travel outside the Ivy League’s geographical footprint, such as last year’s trip to play the University of San Diego. Murphy said he wants to play more games in California and elsewhere in the country so Harvard football can begin to gain a national profile. Bob Glatz, who played football for Harvard in the late 1980s and now runs the university’s athletic fundraising arm, the Harvard Varsity Club, said Hehir’s efforts during the past decade have allowed Harvard to increase its facilities, travel and recruiting spending significantly. The university doesn’t release the amount of annual contributions from the club.
Scalise insisted Harvard isn’t winning because it is raising and spending more money than its competitors, and it doesn’t feel the need to be a gridiron power like Stanford.
“We probably could be, but I don’t know if we want to be,” he said.
Perhaps more integral to the success than the financial aid and the recruiting efforts, however, is a clear decision on Harvard’s part the past two decades that it wants to be really good at sports, even in the ultracompetitive world of men’s football. The shift in thinking has its roots in the 1991 decision by the Ivy League presidents to eliminate freshman football. That allowed incoming freshman at Harvard and the seven other Ivy League football programs to play four seasons of varsity football, just like the rest of the NCAA’s Division I.
In 1993, Murphy left the University of Cincinnati to replace Joe Restic, who had coached Harvard football since 1971. Murphy found a team stocked with players from the Northeast, no set off-season training program and a closet-sized weight room that forced him to rotate players through training in five different groups throughout each day.
Under Murphy, 12 spring practices became a regular part of Harvard football. Murphy pursued major upgrades in the football facilities, He also pressed for funding to recruit nationally, a process that became much easier as Harvard’s system of financial aid improved. “You can’t find the very best student-athletes if you limit yourself to a local talent pool,” Murphy said.
The Harvard football team defeated Brown, 22-14, Sept. 27. GIL TALBOT/HARVARD ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS
By 1997, Harvard was the champion of the Ivies for the first time in a decade. The following year, the Minnesota Vikings selected offensive lineman Matt Birk in the sixth round of the NFL draft, the first Harvard player taken in the draft since 1989. Since Birk, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has started for five NFL teams since 2005. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a 2013 graduate, plays nearly half the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive snaps.
In 2007 Harvard opened the Palmer Dixon Strength and Conditioning Center, a 24,000 square-foot state-of-the art training facility that has become a second home to every Harvard football player. Nearly every player now lifts three to four times a week in the off-season.
Paul Stanton Jr. , Harvard’s 5-foot-9 running back, an economics major who is averaging 110 yards a game with a total of 10 touchdowns, arrived on campus in 2012 from Jesuit High School in New Orleans weighing 175 pounds. Stanton says he hit the weight room and now eats four meals a day, plus a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every night. He now weighs 190, and runs a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash. He saw Harvard put eight players in NFL training camps this year, and he plans to be one of them 18 months from now.
“It’s always been a dream of mine,” Stanton said. “I don’t think you give that up just because you go to Harvard. I think it might even help you because these teams know how hard it is for us to balance football with school.”
Stanton has plenty of company, including Hempel, who, for a third consecutive year was among about 50 players who remained on campus for the summer. Along with the rest of the summer holdovers, he began two hours of lifting and running around 6 a.m. He then spent the day doing an internship at asset-management firm Hellman, Jordan. In the evenings he returned to the athletic complex.
NCAA rules limit football coaches’ involvement with summer practices. No matter—Hempel and his receivers handle it on their own.
He plans to take off next semester to train full-time and give the NFL his best shot. Like nearly every one of his teammates, he says the only thing missing from his college career has been the chance to compete against the best, or at least being one of the 24 teams in the FCS postseason tournament.
“It’s kind of unfortunate we don’t,” said Anthony Firkser, a sophomore tight end majoring in applied math and economics. “I think we’d have a pretty good chance.”
Authored by Matt Futterman via wsj.com.