I"ll never forget what happened when I went to church after my first game here," says Dick Riendeau, coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y. "We had lost 22-0, but people kept congratulating me. I couldn't understand it."
It was hard to understand RPI football at all until last season when the Engineers won their first game in six years. Even the freshmen won that day—their second victory in seven years—and suddenly the seasons of unending disappointment seemed worthwhile.
Last week the Engineers—despite such rousing cheers as, "Hit them hard. Make them relinquish that ball"—lost to the Army jayvees 14-9. That loss hardly mattered, however. What did matter was that a week earlier RPI had defeated Middlebury 18-14 for its first opening-game win in 17 years. With two victories in the past five games, RPI rooters were feeling giddy.
There was no danger of overconfidence, though. Before beating Middlebury 28-14 last October, RPI had a nonwinning streak of 43 games, noteworthy but not a record since a tie intervened. (The longest losing streak still belongs to Paine College in Georgia, losers of 37 in a row.) That tie in itself—20-20 with Nichols—would have crushed a lesser student body. Nichols scored after the final gun and added a two-point conversion, but RPI fans were so happy they tore the goalposts down.
To understand RPI football, one must first understand RPI, a school founded in 1824 by Stephen Van Rensselaer. Its graduates have gone on to dominate construction of the nation's railroads and to build the Brooklyn Bridge, among other things. The proud men of RPI claim that their school has surpassed MIT and now has the finest undergraduate engineering program in the country. In building this reputation, students are asked to master such volumes as The Amperometric and Constant Current Potentiometric Titration of Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid With Copper (II). And this, as former Coach Dick Lyon observes, can cut heavily into a boy's time.
"One of our biggest problems at RPI," says Lyon, now the coach at Ithaca, "was lack of sleep. Players studied most of the night and tried to play football after two hours' sleep. They would fumble a lot. Oh my, would they fumble."
As the nonwinning streak pyramided during the early 1960s, some students wanted to abandon the sport. In 1963 after the team had lost 24 games in a row and had been outscored 853 to 137, a vote was taken. The students decided—1,618 to 342—to keep on playing, but people, recalling that they had also picked Richard Nixon to win in 1960, feared they were only continuing the losing tradition. They were.
The tradition began in Troy, N.Y., situated at the foothills of the Berkshires, or, according to more disgruntled observers, directly across the polluted Hudson River from its bigger sister, Albany. Troy once had a baseball team in the old National League, the Haymakers. They were 19-56 and dead last in their first season (1879), and the team never did get over .500 in its three remaining years. If that experience did not convince Trojans of their unlucky star, their city nickname should. Troy is known as the Home of the Detachable Collar.
Thus losing came easily to RPI football teams. As early as 1883 a student publication noted that, "The feats accomplished by our men of muscle are not subjects of which we have ever been able to boast very highly." The one genuine star of those days was a student named Valentine—he won the Hundred Yards Dash Backwards in 23 seconds.
Riendeau himself was no stranger to defeat when he came to RPI in 1963, and he has a green tooth to prove it. "When I was in high school we hadn't won in two and a half years," he recalls. "We finally won and the kid in front of me threw up his hands and hit me with his helmet. There died the tooth."
Before coming to RPI, Riendeau asked if there was any hope of the team ever playing .500 ball. Told that there was none, he accepted the position. He then went out and bought a 90-year-old house that was advertised as "haunted."
Only former RPI coaches can appreciate what Riendeau, a cherubic and ever-optimistic man of 34, has gone through. Duke Nelson, now the Middlebury coach, still remembers how eagerly he awaited his first practice at RPI in 1939. "Only 12 boys showed up," he says. "I was a little let down." Nick Skorich, once coach of the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL and now a line coach for the Browns, took over as RPI coach in 1953. Seeing players sprawled all over the training room one day, he asked Trainer Tom Sheehan. "Are they all hurt?"
"No," said Sheehan. "They're tired from studying."
It was after a 48-14 loss to Union last year that Riendeau finally understood RPI football. Said Riendeau, "I was never so pleased with a team in terms of all-out effort. You know the first words said in the locker room? Roger Sundin asked, 'When's practice on Monday?' "
It was the following week, with Halfback Sundin scoring twice, that RPI ended its nonwinning streak. And it was Sundin who beat Middlebury again this year with a touchdown in the final three minutes. Help has come from others, too. Vince Pancella, the center on last year's team, was a dean's list student who got so excited during games that he couldn't remember his right from his left. To solve the problem, he taped both wrists, marking a large L on one (preferably the left) and a large R on the other. Riendeau's wife, Anne, helped by personally recruiting two assistant coaches. Another, Ray Phillips, a former assistant at Northwestern, volunteered to coach the backs this year for no pay.
This is all part of the distinctive flavor of RPI football, which decrees that it was only a venial sin that no one remembered to ring the traditional victory bell after the team's two most recent wins. The fact is, no one can seem to recall where the bell is or even if there is a bell.
RPI football is, simply, quaintly indifferent. Last year, for instance, when RPI found itself suddenly saddled with a few good players, the authorities began to fear a victory. They were concerned that delirious students might wreak havoc on downtown Troy. To prevent such an occurrence, RPI President Dr. Richard G. Folsom formed a Disaster Committee. The idea was for the committee to throw a big shindig on campus in order to divert the students from town. When RPI finally won, the committee went into action. But where was everybody? Not at the party, not downtown. They were home studying.
Looking toward the future, Riendeau sent out postcards last spring to high school juniors. Riendeau intended to ask such questions as what they would like to major in and whether they were also interested in playing football. But gremlins crept into the works and, before the error was caught, some of the cards went out saying, "I would like to major in playing college football."
Other spooks went to work on this season's schedule. At one time RPI was supposed to play its homecoming game at Union, 15 miles away. Also on the schedule were two doubleheaders, with the Engineers booked twice for both home and away games on the same days.
But RPI students are accustomed to such gaffes, and it is perhaps the realization that they themselves—rather than just the team—are human and prone to error that enables them to carry on. As one undergraduate wrote, "There must be something in the Rensselaer nature which will not allow us to quit in the face of failure."