For a long time there was no change at all. There was just the staid reliability of smart man's football, as old as the brick, in the buildings that frame the sprawling Dartmouth Green, as safe and certain as the pedigree an Ivy League education bestows. There was the occasional superstar, but for every Calvin Hill or Ed Marinaro, there were hundreds of average players, slow and small.
Now come sweeping changes, foretelling an entirely different game. "The new Ivy League, that's exactly what it is," says Princeton coach Steve Tosches. Change actually began in 1985, with the introduction of an academic index for incoming athletes. The AI, as it has come to be known, established minimum academic standards that high school athletes must meet before they can be considered for admission by Ivy League schools. The standards are lower than those for university admissions as a whole and are not uniform throughout the league. Columbia's AI, for instance, is more forgiving than Yale's. The AI, by definition, makes distinctions between students and student-athletes.
In the fall of 1993 freshmen were made eligible for varsity football. The following April, spring practice was allowed for the first time. "I'm a firm believer in the Ivy philosophy," says Joe Restic, who coached Harvard for 23 years before retiring after the '93 season. The Ivy philosophy that Restic refers to is having pure student-athletes; recruiting that is controlled only by an honor system, not some dubious index; and freshman teams playing other freshman teams. "That philosophy," Restic says, "is gone."
The modifications have not been finished. For example, there is talk of the Ivies participating in the Division I-AA playoffs, which may someday bring us Brown versus Youngstown State.
Half a century of stability, one decade of change, and in 1995 the Ivy League finds itself riven over football. In its stadiums you'll find the purest form of football in Division I-A or I-AA, but still the schools wonder, What is best for us—pure Ivy or an emphasis on football success? Much as their Division I-A brethren at places like Miami and Auburn struggle to define their sport, the Ivies wrestle with indecision and redefinition. There is, however, unanimity on one point: In the New Ivy League, Pennsylvania is king.
The Quakers have won the last two Ivy football titles and 16 consecutive league games. They are the first Ivy team since 1956 to finish unbeaten in back-to-back seasons, and their current 21-game winning streak is the longest in Division I-AA. "They have better players than any other team in the league," says Brown coach Mark Whipple. "They're bigger, faster and stronger than everybody else."
Not just in football, either. Penn's basketball team also has gone unbeaten in the Ivy League for three straight years, and its baseball team won the league last spring and went to the College World Series.
Tearing loose from the systematic parity that has been the Ivy League's touchstone is not done painlessly. As Penn has rolled up its winning streak, resentment has built. "I'd like to see the playing field as level as possible on Saturday afternoon," says Tosches, who has lost to Penn twice in a row. With success has come the specter of wrongdoing. Penn's run follows three consecutive losing seasons in which the team went 9-21. "Everybody thinks we're breaking some rules," says Penn's junior quarterback, Mark DeRosa. "I'm sure we're bending some rules, but everybody else better start bending some too."
Football success goes to those schools that understand the value of resourceful and aggressive recruiting. Penn is the first Ivy school to unlock the opportunities of this new order. Steve Bilsky, a former Penn basketball star (1968-71) and its current athletic director, tells a story that explains his philosophy. A member of the Penn admissions staff sought out Bilsky last fall and told him that a prospective Penn student—not an athlete—from Nebraska had just been interviewed. "The kid told our admissions officer that he had never heard of Penn until Penn played Nebraska in the NCAA basketball tournament," says Bilsky. A smile creases Bilsky's face. "Television," he says. "You can't overstate its importance."
Penn's athletic assertiveness shakes Ivy purists to the soles of their Cole-Haans. Selling their school through athletics—why, that's something that Florida State might do. Ivy League schools are supposed to thrive on academic reputation alone. But consider that in a time when spiraling costs have made private school education unreachable for many, Penn's applications have risen 22% over the last two years.