It was all so improbable, the way things often are in the Ivy League: Here are Harvard and Penn, each 6-2 on the year, battling for the conference championship at Philadelphia's Franklin Field, though neither team—especially not the Quakers—had figured in the preseason to be contesting for a title of any sort. The game has a pretty good end, too: Harvard leads 21-20 with three seconds left, as Penn sets up to try a 38-yard field goal. The snap. The kick. The ball is shanked to the left. Harvard wins. Pandemonium, Crimson exultation.
Hold it! The game's not over. Penn Kicker Dave Shulman has been roughed and will get another chance, with no time left on the clock and from 11 yards closer. This time Shulman drills it through the uprights and Penn is victorious 23-21. Pandemonium again, this time from the other side. The Quakers have clinched a share of the Ivy title—their first whole or partial crown since 1959—and have a chance to win it outright against Cornell this week.
This is the same University of Pennsylvania that won only two games the last three seasons. No wonder there's an uproar, which doesn't appear to affect Penn Quarterback Gary Vura, who says serenely, "I never doubted that we could score. This team has had a date with destiny all year long."
Actually, Penn's date with destiny has been a good deal longer than that in coming. When the Ivy League was officially formed in 1954, Penn was still operating with a big-time schedule—Saturdays filled with the likes of Michigan, Notre Dame and Penn State—but suddenly without athletic scholarships. The result: a 19-game losing streak. The Quakers did win that Ivy title in '59, but Coach Steve Sebo was fired anyway. The '60s were mostly a gridiron disaster, and the '70s weren't much better. The school's image—terrible—wouldn't go away.
In early 1981 a turnaround began, starting at the top. That year Sheldon Hackney, fresh from a sports revival at Tulane, became Penn's president. "Intercollegiate athletics may not be the most important thing that the university does," he says, "but you ought not to do it poorly. It's a bad experience for the player, and it might, on a perennial basis, communicate the wrong thing about the university."
About the same time Jerry Berndt arrived as football coach, after eight years as an assistant at Dartmouth and two as head coach at DePauw. In 1980, his second year there, the Tigers went 7-2-1, their best season in nearly three decades, and Berndt was offered the reconstruction job at Penn.
The first thing Berndt scrapped when he got to Philadelphia was the Ivy's only wishbone, replacing it with a wide-open, multiple-set offense of his own design. Next to go was Penn's antique uniform with thick red and blue stripes all the way down the sleeves. Says Linebacker Mike Christiani, "They were completely out of style. I wore them and I felt old."
In updated uniforms, Penn opened its 1981 season with a 29-22 upset of Cornell—"a fantasy," Berndt calls it. The next week a telegram signed by the Lehigh captains arrived, saying how much their second and third teams were looking forward to playing Penn's intramural flag-football team. Lehigh rolled over the Quakers 58-0. That was the first of nine Penn losses in a row.
The low point came on a trip to Harvard when Berndt heard that four of his players had been smoking marijuana in the hotel on Friday night. Harvard beat Penn 45-7, but it could easily have been 80-0. The following night the Quakers had a "three-hour, knock-down, drag-out verbal brawl" over the suspension of the four players, and a lot of other things came out along the way. The air cleared, Penn decided to become the Rocky of the Ivy League. "We grew as a team that night," says Berndt. "We made it clear that we weren't going to tolerate people who were not committed to being successful on the football field."
Says Vura, "It seemed like we just didn't mind—or didn't hate—losing enough. We just decided we were sick of it." Vura, a senior and an accounting and marketing major, has completed 136 of 249 passes for 1,593 yards this year and is one of the main reasons for the success of Berndt's flamboyant offense, not to mention Penn's sudden success. Another factor is a weight program that is more demanding than last year's. Vura says it gives the Quakers a sense of camaraderie and family. And as a point of principle, Co-captains Chris DiMaria, a center, and Christiani sold their teammates on a ban on drinking in public campus places during the season.