“I’m a Yankee fan,” Princeton Coach Bob Surace said. “When the chance to play there came up, I jumped at it.”
Dartmouth Coach Buddy Teevens grew up a Boston Red Sox fan, but when Surace called him three years ago to propose moving Dartmouth’s home game against the Tigers this fall to New York, he said yes instantly. “Took about two minutes,” he said. “I’m a big believer in life experiences. Playing in Yankee Stadium will be a life experience for our players.”
It also will, in all likelihood, decide the Ivy League title. Both teams are 7-0 overall, 4-0 in conference play. A year ago, when they played at Princeton, both were 7-0, 4-0. In fact, each team’s last loss came to the other: The Tigers have won 17 straight games since they lost to Dartmouth in their 2017 finale. The Big Green has won nine in a row since it lost to Princeton, 14-9, a year ago.
Throw in the fact that both coaches are graduates of their schools — Teevens, Dartmouth ’79; Surace, Princeton ’90 — and you have a matchup unlike any other at any level of college football.
“It’s kind of cool that we’re both coming in undefeated again,” Surace said, “and playing the game in such a historic venue.”
The story of how the game came to be played in a stadium built for baseball is a complicated one. Wednesday marked the 150th anniversary of the first college football game — Princeton losing at Rutgers by six goals to four.
Those schools began talking several years ago about a rematch on the closest Saturday to the anniversary. Like the 1869 matchup, the game would be played at Rutgers. But Rutgers tried to lowball Princeton on the guarantee for playing on the road. In the midst of the negotiations, Yankee Stadium officials, who are always looking for offseason events — the building has hosted a number of college football games, including an annual second-tier bowl game since 2010 — approached the schools.
Surace loved the idea. Initially, so did Rutgers, but with the athletic department in complete disarray, the idea fell apart.
“The Yankee Stadium people called and said, ‘We still want to do this, even without Rutgers,’ ” Surace said. “That’s when I called Buddy.”
As luck would have it, Dartmouth is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, and this was a way to publicize that, in addition to being part of the 150th anniversary celebration. The schools are hoping to draw a crowd of about 20,000.
Both coaches played football for their schools, left and came back. Surace was an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, steadily climbing the NFL coaching ladder, when he was convinced to return to his alma mater before the 2010 season. Teevens is in his second stint as head coach at Dartmouth, having won two Ivy League titles during his first tour (1987-91). He returned in 2005 after several positions that including head coaching tenures at Tulane and Stanford.
Ivy League teams rarely turn around quickly. It almost always takes players a couple of years to get comfortable academically and improve enough as football players to succeed. It took until Surace’s fourth season to produce a winning record, and the Tigers finished 8-2 that year and tied for the league title. They haven’t had a losing season since; last year’s championship was their second outright since 1964, when Cosmo Iacavazzi ran in the single-wing offense for a team that went 9-0.
Teevens, in his return, had to spend a lot of time fundraising to upgrade substandard facilities. In his first five seasons back, Dartmouth was 9-41, including 0-10 in 2008. Slowly, things got better. The Big Green made a breakthrough in 2010 by going 6-4. Since that season, they are 68-29, including tying for the Ivy title in 2015 and a 24-3 record the past two-plus seasons.
It took some luck to make Saturday’s game a battle of unbeatens. Harvard led Dartmouth 6-3 with six seconds left this past weekend and Dartmouth at the Harvard 43-yard line. There was nothing left to do but have quarterback Derek Kyler throw a Hail Mary into the end zone.
Kyler had to scramble just to get the pass off, dodging three tacklers. When he finally released the ball, wide receiver Masaki Aerts lost it in the sun. At the last possible second, he saw the ball deflect off one of the Crimson players and wobble in the direction of his left elbow. He cradled it, hung on and fell to the turf in the end zone.
Game over: Dartmouth 9, Harvard 6.
Teevens, whose coaching record at Harvard Stadium had been 0-9-1, wondered for a moment whether he was dreaming. “I’ve called a lot of Hail Marys in a lot of years,” he said. “That’s the first one that’s been answered.”
Watching his jubilant players celebrate was, he said, “one of those priceless moments you never forget.”
Both coaches have worked at levels of football very different from the Ivy League. Both understand that.
“When we’re on the practice field, I tell my guys, they better not be thinking about their physics class,” Surace said. “But I also tell them when they’re in physics class, they better not be thinking about football. Both are important.”
Teevens likes to ask his players to raise their hands if they aspire to play in the NFL. “Pretty much every hand goes up,” he said. “I say, ‘That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming that dream.’ But then I also say, ‘You need an academic dream, too. Something you aspire to after football. Because football will end.’ ”
On Saturday, they will all be focused on football and their dreams of continuing their winning streaks and taking a giant step in the direction of an Ivy League title. It won’t be a throwback to 1869, but it will be a very different kind of college game than the ones taking place in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Minneapolis or any other so-called big-time venue. It will be, as Surace so eloquently put it, “very cool.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.