Before coming to RPI, Riendeau asked if there was any hope of the team ever playing .500 ball. Told that there was none, he accepted the position. He then went out and bought a 90-year-old house that was advertised as "haunted."
Only former RPI coaches can appreciate what Riendeau, a cherubic and ever-optimistic man of 34, has gone through. Duke Nelson, now the Middlebury coach, still remembers how eagerly he awaited his first practice at RPI in 1939. "Only 12 boys showed up," he says. "I was a little let down." Nick Skorich, once coach of the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL and now a line coach for the Browns, took over as RPI coach in 1953. Seeing players sprawled all over the training room one day, he asked Trainer Tom Sheehan. "Are they all hurt?"
"No," said Sheehan. "They're tired from studying."
It was after a 48-14 loss to Union last year that Riendeau finally understood RPI football. Said Riendeau, "I was never so pleased with a team in terms of all-out effort. You know the first words said in the locker room? Roger Sundin asked, 'When's practice on Monday?' "
It was the following week, with Halfback Sundin scoring twice, that RPI ended its nonwinning streak. And it was Sundin who beat Middlebury again this year with a touchdown in the final three minutes. Help has come from others, too. Vince Pancella, the center on last year's team, was a dean's list student who got so excited during games that he couldn't remember his right from his left. To solve the problem, he taped both wrists, marking a large L on one (preferably the left) and a large R on the other. Riendeau's wife, Anne, helped by personally recruiting two assistant coaches. Another, Ray Phillips, a former assistant at Northwestern, volunteered to coach the backs this year for no pay.
This is all part of the distinctive flavor of RPI football, which decrees that it was only a venial sin that no one remembered to ring the traditional victory bell after the team's two most recent wins. The fact is, no one can seem to recall where the bell is or even if there is a bell.
RPI football is, simply, quaintly indifferent. Last year, for instance, when RPI found itself suddenly saddled with a few good players, the authorities began to fear a victory. They were concerned that delirious students might wreak havoc on downtown Troy. To prevent such an occurrence, RPI President Dr. Richard G. Folsom formed a Disaster Committee. The idea was for the committee to throw a big shindig on campus in order to divert the students from town. When RPI finally won, the committee went into action. But where was everybody? Not at the party, not downtown. They were home studying.
Looking toward the future, Riendeau sent out postcards last spring to high school juniors. Riendeau intended to ask such questions as what they would like to major in and whether they were also interested in playing football. But gremlins crept into the works and, before the error was caught, some of the cards went out saying, "I would like to major in playing college football."
Other spooks went to work on this season's schedule. At one time RPI was supposed to play its homecoming game at Union, 15 miles away. Also on the schedule were two doubleheaders, with the Engineers booked twice for both home and away games on the same days.
But RPI students are accustomed to such gaffes, and it is perhaps the realization that they themselves—rather than just the team—are human and prone to error that enables them to carry on. As one undergraduate wrote, "There must be something in the Rensselaer nature which will not allow us to quit in the face of failure."