Every so often in a football season something delicious pops to the surface that has nothing to do with press agentry or bowl bids or All-America prospects. Take two teams (preferably undefeated) fighting for a league championship, see to it that each has had about one hundred years to write funny songs about the other, create myths and develop memories, and there you have it. That was the case last week as unbeaten Princeton strutted into New Haven to play unbeaten, once-tied Yale in a game that would settle the Ivy League championship.
The setting for the game was perfect: clear skies, packed stands and old alumni on both sides of the field carrying on like foolish undergraduates. For half the afternoon there was excitement for everybody, as each team scored twice to tie the game at 14-14. But then Cosmo Iacavazzi, Princeton's fullback, took over and ruined the rest of the day for Yale. Playing the finest game of his fine career, Iacavazzi (pronounced Yocka-vahzi) scored two touchdowns and gained 185 yards, a performance so heroic that he is now in some peril of having songs written about him. Princeton won the game 35-14, and the title the Tigers had been forced to share with Dartmouth last year is now theirs alone.
At no time this season did Princeton look like anything less than a champion. The team's march to the title was as direct as its single-wing style of play and it never was in danger of losing. The Tiger defense was especially impressive, holding opponents to six touchdowns in eight games (the team plays its final game against Cornell this week) and stringing together four successive shutouts.
The tight defense was no accident. Last year the Tigers could score easily but the trouble was, so could the opposition. As a result Princeton lost to both Harvard and Dartmouth. During the off season, Coach Dick Colman called a meeting of his staff and asked for ideas on improving the team's defense. The discussion was all very amiable and nonproductive until one of the coaches suggested that Princeton put all its experienced players on the defensive team and hope that Iacavazzi alone could carry the offense.
If the coach had advised them to turn Nassau Hall into a shopping center it could not have stirred the Princeton staff up more. While the assistant coaches argued, Colman sat back, mulled over the situation and finally called for silence. "Gentlemen," he said, "we'll do it." Immediately key players were switched from one position to another, such as Wingback Lynn Sutcliffe, who became a defensive halfback. The turn to defense became complete when Paul Savidge and Stas Maliszewski, a couple of off-season wrestlers who weigh 215 pounds apiece and move with devastating efficiency, were shifted from offensive guards to the defensive platoon. Then Defensive Coach Warren Harris decided that playing defense could be made much more attractive if the players were given the same gumdrops the offensive players get: points. He devised a scoring system only slightly less complicated than the directions for a do-it-yourself computer. Included was one point for making a tackle inside the 20-yard line on kickoffs. Holding a runner to less than four yards was worth another point. Intercepting a pass was good for two, and blocking a punt was worth three. None of these points showed on the scoreboard, of course, but the defensive players learned to value them highly. The result of this attention to defense was edifying. While Princeton scored less than the year before, as expected, the opposition had trouble scoring at all.
Colman, as almost anybody could have predicted, is a happy man. No coach complains about a perfect season. But occasionally Colman talks wistfully of the gaping holes his quick offensive linemen used to open for his backs. And when he sees the opposition move its defense into tight little knots, specifically to stop the powerful straight-ahead rushes of Iacavazzi, he looks like a general who has been retired on the eve of war. "Oh, oh, oh, have they given us the end sweeps this year," he moans, remembering those swift wingbacks circling wide on the famous Princeton reverses and then streaking nimbly down the sidelines. But the quick backs are playing safety now and Colman has had to settle for Iacavazzi's cloud of dust.
Yale's John Pont would have loved to settle for Cosmo Iacavazzi. He, too, had problems when this season began—namely, an almost total absence of seasoned players in the middle. His center, quarterback, defensive halfbacks and safety-man had all graduated, which is a little like waking up in a hospital and finding your stomach gone. But Pont is a man who believes that anything can be done. He had, for instance, shown up at the Green Bay Packer training camp in 1952—all 5 feet 6, 163 pounds of him—hoping to make the team at halfback. And the fact is he almost did. So, faced with a little problem like inexperienced players, Pont simply filled the gaps with untested men and told them they were among the great players of all time. They have not played like the great players of all time, but they have not played badly, either.
While such high opinion by the coach can do wonders for morale, there has to be some substance to the claims, too, and Yale had that in a rugged line and Fullback Chuck Mercein, a fair imitation of Iacavazzi. Still, Yale had to scramble hard for wins this season (10-6, 15-7, 23-21) and even in the emphatic 24-15 victory over Dartmouth, one observer wrote: " Yale was the superior football organization by a fairly wide margin, but when Dartmouth moved the ball for touchdowns the Indians had the look of a stronger team."
Quite possibly Dartmouth was the stronger team, but there was no use trying to prove it to Coach Pont. It is also characteristic of him to place the blame for a poor performance—such as the one against Brown—exactly where he thinks it belongs. "I took Brown lightly," he says.
There was no taking Princeton lightly, of course, and the scrimmages the week before had a brutal ring to them. "Vicious," said Pont, not bothering to hide a wide grin, "all that scampering around in a single-wing offense can mesmerize you." When he spotted a lineman holding his ground, he yelled: "Penetrate, man, penetrate." On the next play the lineman bolted ahead, knocked over three of the Yale scrubs who were simulating Princeton backs, and flattened an assistant coach. "Players can get too high," Pont said. "They've been making early-season mistakes. Fumbles on tested plays, dropping good passes. They need a laugh." Yale Captain Ab Lawrence, a 245-pound tackle, supplied that the next day when he reported to practice sporting a tattered Princeton jersey. No one doubled up with glee, but the rest of the squad appreciated the gesture and Thursday's easy workout became a crisp, lighthearted affair. As Mercein boomed long field goals into the deep gloom of the late November afternoon, Pont declared: "We're ready."