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Unique Tie

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Courtesy of John Powers, Boston Globe
Photo credit: Steve Babineau

Percy Haughton never strangled that bulldog in the locker room to get his men fired up to beat the Yalies in 1908. What the Harvard coach did was drag a blue-blanketed papier-mache canine behind his car as he drove up to the Connecticut inn where the team was staying the day before the game. After 124 meetings of these two red- and blue-blooded rivals, there's enough lore that there's no need for fabrication.

The entire Yale team pushing Bum McClung across the goal in 1889. Harvard unveiling the Flying Wedge in 1892. The 1894 slaughter in Springfield that produced a casualty list in the Boston Post. George Owen's daredevil run in the Bowl in 1922, mimicked by George Jessel on Broadway that same night. Yale manager Charlie Yeager catching a conversion pass in 1952. Frank Champi directing Harvard's 29-29 miracle "win" in 1968. MIT's prank balloon exploding on the Stadium field in 1982. Joe Walland coming woozily out of an infirmary to pass the Crimson dizzy at the Bowl in 1999. Harvard's Clifton Dawson scoring at sundown in triple overtime in 2005. All part of the lore - and the lure - of The Game, which will be contested at the Stadium tomorrow for the 125th time.

It hasn't always been called that. Charley Loftus, Yale's legendary sports publicist, came up with the term and Harvard counterpart Baaron Pittenger printed it on the cover of the 1960 program. And The Game isn't universally regarded as the definite article elsewhere, certainly not where Ohio State-Michigan, Army-Navy, Cal-Stanford, Alabama-Auburn, or Texas-Oklahoma is concerned. "THE Game?" Tank McNamara co-creator Jeff Millar snorted in a comic strip penned for the 1976 program. "It ain't even A game."

At Princeton, whose rivalry with Yale predates Harvard's by two years, The Game takes place a week earlier. "When I was visiting Princeton, they made a point of telling me that Princeton-Yale is the real rivalry," said Yale fullback Shebby Swett. "That Harvard-Yale was sort of a sideshow."


What makes the Harvard-Yale rivalry unique is its pedigree. The colleges are the country's oldest and third oldest (William & Mary comes between). The Stadium, which was built in 1903, and the Bowl, which dates from 1914, both are national landmarks.

Bart Giamatti, the former Yale president, called the game the last great 19th-century pageant in the country. Norman Rockwell painted it for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. A half-dozen presidents (both Roosevelts, both Bushes, John Kennedy, and William Howard Taft) watched it as undergrads or old boys. George Frazier, the former columnist for the Herald and Globe, wrote about "the willful and pleasurably persistent nostalgia it evokes." Since the Ivy League doesn't allow postseason play for football teams, there is a finality to The Game that makes victory even more blissful and defeat more woeful. "It makes for a warm winter if you do win," said Joe Restic, who coached Harvard for 23 years, the longest tenure in the school's history. "And a cold one if you don't."

- A.S.