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.
Preseason rankings, however, gave no hint that drinking in private and bulging muscles would help the Quakers, who didn't have any star recruits in the pipeline. Penthouse, for instance, rated Penn as the third-worst team in the nation, behind Northwestern and Colorado, and noted that the Quakers' program was "like a thoroughbred with four shattered legs: destroying it would be an act of kindness." Penn nonetheless opened the season by beating Dartmouth 21-0 in Hanover, for its first win on the road in 24 games. The Quakers next got revenge against Lehigh, winning 20-17. Columbia fell 51-31, and Brown succumbed 24-21, Penn stopping the Bruins on the four with 11 seconds to play.
After a 35-20 loss to Lafayette, the Quakers took on Yale before 32,175 in Franklin Field and beat the Elis 27-14 on an 83-yard run by Tailback Steve Flacco and two interceptions by sophomore Tim Chambers, a 5'10" defensive back. As his team left the field, Berndt says he felt an electricity. "I looked up in the stands, and it was as if nobody wanted to leave," he says. After a short discussion, Berndt and his players returned to the field for a curtain call.
Penn lost to Princeton 17-14 on a 42-yard field goal with 25 seconds remaining, but then bounced back for a 21-13 win over Colgate, which hadn't lost to a I-AA team in 15 games.
On Saturday, Penn manhandled Harvard and led 20-0 in the fourth quarter, when the Crimson exploded for three touchdowns in less than 7½ minutes to take a 21-20 lead with 1:28 left. At that point Berndt reminded his offense that it needed only a field goal to win and that 15 yards a play would set it up for Shulman. On first down from his own 20, Vura scrambled for one yard. On second he was sacked. On third he hit Wide Receiver Rich Syrec for 18 yards, but after he released the ball he was met by Harvard's Louis Varsames, who plays a position called Adjuster in the Crimson defense. "He ate my lunch," said Vura. "He rearranged my face a little—my jaw felt like it had fallen off." Backup Quarterback Fred Rafeedie, who had thrown three passes all year, went in and tossed the ball out of bounds, and Vura returned with 24 seconds to go.
On the next play, a freakish deflection bounced from one Penn receiver to another and moved the ball to the Harvard 48 with 17 seconds left. Vura passed to Warren Buehler on the left sideline for 16 yards and then to Flacco in the right flat for 11. Flacco got out of bounds with :03 showing on the clock.
And then came Shulman's two kicks, and after the second one the metal goalposts were pulled down. Penn was a champion at last, or a co-champion at the least. "It's nice," said Flacco. "People say hi to you now. Before they were laughing behind your back."
Oh, yes. The Penn athletic department is working on plans to market dolls of Benjamin Franklin holding a football.