The celebration of a centennial demands a certain silliness, but it's usually nothing you can't shave off in the morning. You know how it goes. It's been 100 years, so the menfolk grow muttonchops. Of course you wouldn't expect Stanford, which honors tradition with its own strange gusto (ever seen its idea of a marching band?), to let its hair down in exactly that way. No, sir. Has it been 100 years already that we at Stanford have been in the business of higher education? Why, let's invite our sister school, the inspiration for the high-toned outfit that Leland Stanford founded those 100 years ago, out for a little football game. That's right, let's haul in ol' Cornell (which is celebrating its 125th birthday this year), a Division I-AA institution that plays its football in the Ivy League—no scholarships, no plane rides, no linemen—to join in all the anniversary fun.
As this monumental mismatch loomed last Saturday, officials at both schools scrambled to put distance between themselves and the original idea for the game. Just whose idea it was to schedule a game to which oddsmakers assigned a 43½-point spread is not now easy to pin down. The athletic directors did it. No, the presidents concocted it. It was very hard to sort out these alternative explanations nine years after the game was proposed. Stanford president Donald Kennedy believed that it was actually the idea of a "group of alumni that thought it would be a great idea, during this convergence of anniversaries." This was more or less confirmed by Cornell athletic director and coconspirator Laing Kennedy. He believed that it was actually a single Cornell alum, Charles K. (Poe) Fratt, who carried the day. If you accept that version, it is all the distance anybody needs, as Fratt is now dead.
Now nobody here has got anything against concelebrating a convergence of anniversaries. Mr. Stanford did indeed model his university after Cornell, and it made some sense to concelebrate—in an appropriate manner, that is. Yet Cornell's respected School of Hotel Administration was not sent to cook something yummy for flinty-eyed Stanford MBAs, who in turn would pay the tab with a complicated rights offering. Cornell's beleaguered football team, with only one win in its first three games, was served up instead. A lot of bright guys gathering in one place, sure, but the more valid comparisons of the week were not SAT and GPA but YPC—yards per carry. And here there was no comparison.
Was it, someone asked Cornell coach Jim Hofher before the game, a match like David and Goliath? Hofher, who led the Big Red to a share of the Ivy League title last year and was accustomed to nonleague games with Colgate and Bucknell, said no, "it was more like David and Goliath's very big brother." The Stanford offensive line, which is the biggest in the world, bigger even than that of any NFL team, averaged 300 pounds per man, and all of them smart as a whip. Cornell's defensive linemen averaged 240. The Cornell Big Red was not playing out of its league, it was playing out of its species.
October 20, 1991
Going into the weekend, it was clear that this was a game nobody needed. Even Stanford, which had stumbled to a 1-3 start and could use a sure win, was beefing about Cornell's I-AA status; according to a new NCAA rule, a win over a lower-division opponent cannot be counted toward the six victories a team would need to be eligible for a bowl bid. As for the centennial, it had been properly celebrated two weeks earlier during the Cardinal's stunning 28-21 victory over Colorado. Saturday's affair was entirely anticlimactic, the legacy of old men looking to soothe some alums.
Yet on a perfectly sunny day, in this perfectly outrageous mismatch, amid all of this institutional vanity, something unexpected happened. Cornell was indeed out of its depth; Stanford scored on its first five possessions and, except for much merciful substitution, it could have been worse. But the final score of 56-6 was by no means the most lopsided of the day (what the heck anniversary was Alabama celebrating, anyway, while beating Tulane 62-0?), and the football was actually fun to watch. It may have even been fun to play.
The Big Red unveiled a marvelous shotgun formation that sent five linemen 15 yards to the right of the center, with the quarterback, the snapper and an end all by their lonesomes. Cornell did that three times, and the Stanford fans went crazy.
And the crowd was genuinely happy to see the Big Red score in the fourth quarter. Cornell was surely in the spirit of things when it then lined up totally unbalanced for an onside kickoff and recovered the ball.
When it was all over, the Big Red players actually seemed giddy with relief. "We had us a day," said kick returner and cornerback Ramon Watkins. And all concerned were content with their relative positions in college football's hierarchy. "We always thought they were so superior to us," said Cornell linebacker Chris Zingo. "And they are."
Perhaps surprisingly, the Stanford players expressed similar respect for their brothers from the sister school. "I had the feeling that we were all in this together," said fullback Tommy Vardell, who scored three touchdowns. "It was like discovering a brotherhood, an institutional camaraderie."
This was more than the old men could possibly have intended those nine years ago, and they were giddy with relief too. A half-baked idea gone right, nobody seriously hurt, everybody happy. It turned out just fine, even if it was, in best centennial fashion, a close shave.