Earlier this summer Mike Yeager, who is the Columbia co-captain, and his roommate, a fellow linebacker named Ray Rahamin, were sprinting up the steps of Baker Field, the University's antiquated stadium on the northern tip of Manhattan, when Rahamin suddenly drove one leg up to the knee through a rotten plank. "He just about fell into the stadium," Yeager remembers in awe.
After being trained in the fertile football grounds of Pennsylvania, Yeager went through the double shock of going to a college that for almost a decade has been the doormat of the Ivy League and finding himself in an environment that he describes ruefully as "academic, liberated and anti-jock."
"I'd come back to my room after a game—which we'd lost, of course—before a pitifully small crowd up there at Baker Field and I'd find that some student, a math major, I guess, had tacked up a prophecy on my door for next week's game—a zero for Columbia and an impossibly huge score for the other team, 10 to the 10th power. That was about the only sort of attention we'd get."
But now Columbia is rebuilding, too—a new coaching staff, a general stirring of optimism. After one of Columbia's rare touchdowns last season a wearied New York voice drifted across near-deserted Baker Field, "All right, alumni, it's turned around. Time to bring out your checkbooks."
Yeager envies those who are just entering Columbia as freshmen. During his first lean years, he doubts if there was any college in the country where such a large percentage of the team played not for the name of the college, or for a student body, or to impress friends in the crowd, or even a coaching staff, but for the simple pleasure of the game itself.
When Harvard upset Yale last year, the team crowded into its ancient locker-room in the Dillon Field House at Cambridge, the aisles so narrow that a football player in his shoulder pads has to turn sideways to get by a teammate. The shouting and the celebrating began. The traditional cries went up that the team was "No. 1!"—a chorus shouted in unison and punctuated by the beating of fists on locker doors and the overhead ventilation pipes. Then down at the end of the room a small chant began: "Bring on Oklahoma!" It did not last long, and it was not very loud, not unlike the mumbling of a name one is not sure of.
Yet, however feebly the cry was raised, knowledgeable coaches never disparage the abilities of an Ivy League team. John Pont, who coached at Yale before moving on to Indiana and Northwestern, feels that of the 22 starters on the average Ivy League team, five to seven could move into starting positions on a Big Ten team. "The difference is with the other people. A football power like Alabama or Nebraska or Oklahoma can play 50 people in a game without losing much potential. But that's certainly not the case in the Ivy League."
No longer is it a surprise when an Ivy League player turns up in the professional ranks. A short while back the appearance of one was greeted by considerable joshing and a certain amount of squinting, especially on the part of the veterans, as if something odd, and perhaps dainty, had appeared on the practice field. "Is that seven-man football you play out there in Cornell?" Ed Marinaro was asked when he joined the Minnesota Vikings. "Or is it touch?"
Dick Jauron, who went from Yale to the Detroit Lions, remembers how everyone seemed a little bit bigger, faster and stronger than he believed possible. "The football field seemed to shrink," he says. "The people on it took up so much more room. Of course, that's the impression no matter where you've come from. It's iust more noticeable if you've come from the Ivy League."
But so many Ivy Leaguers have succeeded in the pros that the kidding has ceased. Indeed, it has been replaced by mild envy by many who have begun to realize that the Ivy system makes more sense.