Should Ivy League Football Take the Next Step?

If you’re an Ivy-bound, high achieving high school student, chances are you’re focused on your academics and service projects and not paying much attention to college sports. But, then again, you might be a student-athlete who dreams of being an athlete at an Ivy League school — the best of all worlds. Or you may just be an avid fan of college football who aspires to attend an Ivy League university.

In any case, there are things that you may wish to know about Ivy League football, past and present. American football is the product of the innovations brought to the game by a pair of Yale ex-footballers — Walter Camp, who coached at Yale, and Amos Alonzo Stagg, who coached at Chicago. Camp gave the game the line of scrimmage, a set of downs, and a team size of 11 players rather than 15. Stagg introduced the huddle, the lateral pass, the pre-snap shift, the on-side kick, the unbalanced line, and the man in motion. Before these changes, football was more like a brawl than a sport. In fact, early iterations of the game, as it evolved from rugby, were known as “mob football”.

On November 6, 1869, Rutgers University faced Princeton University in the first game of intercollegiate football. Although Princeton won 9 college championships in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Yale dominated college football in that era with 27 national titles. The Bulldogs went a staggering 100-4-5 over the first ten years of the 20th Century and finished the decade with a partial or full share of the national title in seven out of 10 seasons. Yale, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Cornell, and Princeton all won the national football title at least once in the 20th Century. The last championship was shared by Cornell, Princeton, and California (Berkeley) in 1922.

After the last championship that was won or shared by the schools that currently comprise the Ivy League, large public universities came to dominate the sport, as they continue to do today. In 1954, the Ivy League was founded and its members ceased awarding athletic scholarships to focus more on academics. The eight schools dropped from NCAA Division I-A to Division I-AA, a lower level of competition. Division I-A is now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Division I-AA is the Football Championship Subdivision (FBS). FBS is the highest level of NCAA play in the U.S., followed by FCS and then Divisions II and III.

Since all Ivy League players are non-scholarship, some people consider Ivy football to be less intense and robust than other leagues. This take on Ivy football was never true, but it has persisted for over 70 years. That’s now changing. Ivy League football is good, and it’s getting better. The Massey Composite calculates ratings for both the FBS and FCS. In 2015, the Ivy League, powered by #5 Harvard and #6 Dartmouth, graded out as the second-best of the 14 FCS football conferences. In 2017, it ranked fourth. The League has fielded at least one top-15 team in six of the last eight years. This trend is expected to continue. Princeton signed 2018’s #1 FCS recruiting class, and three other Ivy schools (Yale, Harvard, and Columbia) ranked in the top 15 of the 177 teams in the FCS. Harvard and Yale also ranked in the top eight in each of the last two years.

If you’re a fan of the Ivies, you know that NBC covers an Ivy League game every Friday night. The Harvard-Yale battle is covered every year by ESPN. On the other hand, maybe you hadn’t noticed. After all, when FCS football is getting prime time in the spotlight — during December’s playoffs — the Ivies are nowhere to be found. The Ivy League has chosen not to participate in the FCS postseason championship tournament.

When the League de-emphasized athletics in the 1950s, it slid from big-time relevance. It still produced individual talents like Sid Luckman, Calvin Hill, and Ed Marinaro, all of whom went on to fame in the NFL. But as a League it had removed itself from the most competitive level of football. The rivalries remained, and the Harvard-Yale game could usually be found on television, but no one expected the League to sustain a high standard of competitiveness on a national level. That’s not true any more. Now the League is recruiting and performing among the best in FCS.

So, what changed? About 10 years ago, some Ivy schools began to use a larger portion of their endowments to give incoming students scholarships and to assure them that they would get an Ivy education without taking on huge amounts of debt, or without any debt at all. This policy applied to athletes and non-athletes alike.

Al Bagnoli, Columbia’s head coach, puts it this way, “Once upon a time, the two-income family — mom’s a teacher, dad’s a postal worker — they’re in that huge middle class. They’re getting squeezed out because they make too much to qualify for Pell Grants or something similar but didn’t make enough to afford tuition. We were devoid of that entire population. The Ivy League recognized it and made an aggressive push to make things affordable and make sure nobody incurs a loan. It’s opened up a large population that was restricted. At first, it was only a few schools. Now, it’s all of them.”

The effect of this change is obvious in athletics. The Ivy League is still technically one of the few in Division I that doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, but, in effect, it does. If an athlete meets the academic requirements, then a coach can lobby for a student to gain acceptance. And for the student-athlete, the appeal of playing for an Ivy League team is compelling. The resultant rise in athletic talent means that Ivy League football is now too good and too interesting to be confined to its own insular world.

Oddly, football is the only Ivy League sport in which postseason play is prohibited. The Yale women’s field hockey team won the national championship last year and the Princeton team won it in 2012. Yale’s men’s ice hockey team won the national title in 2013 and the school’s wrestling team won the title in 2018. Cornell finished second in wrestling in 2011. Ivy League teams have won their first game in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament three times since 2011, not bad considering that they often draw the #1 seed.

Those opposed to the Ivy League participating in the FCS postseason have a case to make. There are several reasons that are usually cited, but the salient one is the timing of football playoffs, which is when Ivy student-athletes are ending the fall semester and taking exams. To allow 100 football players to put their academics on hold to focus on the playoffs is a lot to ask of the presidents of eight of the best academic institutions in the world.

IvySelect’s college admissions consultants specialize in helping high-ability students who are aiming for the Ivies and other top-tier institutions. This includes student-athletes who are attempting to leverage their athletic talents in order to attend elite schools.

Outside of the Ivies, private institutions like Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Vanderbilt and USC, top public universities like North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan, and UCLA, and small liberal arts colleges like Williams and Amherst, recruit students who are not only academically gifted, but athletically talented as well.

Of course, students whose grades and athletic ability are at the highest level are the most desirable applicants to elite universities. But it’s no secret that a student who has a solid but not spectacular academic record may get into a top institution as a result of his of her athletic prowess, whereas a student who is not an athlete with similar academic credentials would not be likely to be considered for admission.

The athletic hook can be a very powerful tool in the college admissions process. At IvySelect, we help you use your hook to optimal advantage. Whether it’s providing guidance regarding when to contact coaches, how to communicate with coaches via phone, email, or in person, asking appropriate questions, putting together your athletic resume, or what to do when you visit a school, IvySelect’s college counselors can guide you successfully through the labyrinth.

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