I"ll never forget what happened when I went to church after my first game here," says Dick Riendeau, coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y. "We had lost 22-0, but people kept congratulating me. I couldn't understand it."
It was hard to understand RPI football at all until last season when the Engineers won their first game in six years. Even the freshmen won that day—their second victory in seven years—and suddenly the seasons of unending disappointment seemed worthwhile.
Last week the Engineers—despite such rousing cheers as, "Hit them hard. Make them relinquish that ball"—lost to the Army jayvees 14-9. That loss hardly mattered, however. What did matter was that a week earlier RPI had defeated Middlebury 18-14 for its first opening-game win in 17 years. With two victories in the past five games, RPI rooters were feeling giddy.
There was no danger of overconfidence, though. Before beating Middlebury 28-14 last October, RPI had a nonwinning streak of 43 games, noteworthy but not a record since a tie intervened. (The longest losing streak still belongs to Paine College in Georgia, losers of 37 in a row.) That tie in itself—20-20 with Nichols—would have crushed a lesser student body. Nichols scored after the final gun and added a two-point conversion, but RPI fans were so happy they tore the goalposts down.
To understand RPI football, one must first understand RPI, a school founded in 1824 by Stephen Van Rensselaer. Its graduates have gone on to dominate construction of the nation's railroads and to build the Brooklyn Bridge, among other things. The proud men of RPI claim that their school has surpassed MIT and now has the finest undergraduate engineering program in the country. In building this reputation, students are asked to master such volumes as The Amperometric and Constant Current Potentiometric Titration of Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid With Copper (II). And this, as former Coach Dick Lyon observes, can cut heavily into a boy's time.
"One of our biggest problems at RPI," says Lyon, now the coach at Ithaca, "was lack of sleep. Players studied most of the night and tried to play football after two hours' sleep. They would fumble a lot. Oh my, would they fumble."
As the nonwinning streak pyramided during the early 1960s, some students wanted to abandon the sport. In 1963 after the team had lost 24 games in a row and had been outscored 853 to 137, a vote was taken. The students decided—1,618 to 342—to keep on playing, but people, recalling that they had also picked Richard Nixon to win in 1960, feared they were only continuing the losing tradition. They were.
The tradition began in Troy, N.Y., situated at the foothills of the Berkshires, or, according to more disgruntled observers, directly across the polluted Hudson River from its bigger sister, Albany. Troy once had a baseball team in the old National League, the Haymakers. They were 19-56 and dead last in their first season (1879), and the team never did get over .500 in its three remaining years. If that experience did not convince Trojans of their unlucky star, their city nickname should. Troy is known as the Home of the Detachable Collar.
Thus losing came easily to RPI football teams. As early as 1883 a student publication noted that, "The feats accomplished by our men of muscle are not subjects of which we have ever been able to boast very highly." The one genuine star of those days was a student named Valentine—he won the Hundred Yards Dash Backwards in 23 seconds.
Riendeau himself was no stranger to defeat when he came to RPI in 1963, and he has a green tooth to prove it. "When I was in high school we hadn't won in two and a half years," he recalls. "We finally won and the kid in front of me threw up his hands and hit me with his helmet. There died the tooth."