At Harvard football alumni have a choice. They can one day run the West Coast offense or one day run the actual West Coast. In the last six years seven Crimson ballers have signed with NFL teams. And one student manager, class of '77, cofounded a Seattle software concern called Microsoft. "You'll still see Steve Ballmer on campus," says Harvard football coach Tim Murphy of the water boy turned Windows magnate. "You'll see Senator Kennedy at games."
Fifty years ago Ted Kennedy was a Harvard football letterman. But those were leaner days--for Kennedy and for Harvard football. This fall the Crimson had its best season since 1901, going 10-0 and winning the Ivy League. At week's end Harvard was 36th in the Sagarin ratings, the highest the school has been since Timothy Leary taught psych on campus. Alas, the Ivy League's self-imposed ban on postseason play means the Crimson won't be taking USC to school in the BCS. Harvard didn't even go to the Division IAA playoffs, while Lafayette, whom the Crimson beat 38-23 in October, did.
"The Yale game is our bowl game," Murphy says without regret. "Thanksgiving is the greatest holiday in the world. We've won our last game"--this year, Harvard thrashed the Elis 35-3--"and I get to second-guess the coaches on TV all day long."
Every other year they play the Harvard-Yale game in the Yale Bowl, but every week Harvard plays in a fishbowl. "I got to meet Tommy Lee Jones, who played guard in the famous 29-29 'win' over Yale in 1968," says Crimson senior quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick of the down-16-with-42-seconds-left comeback. "He still follows every game and knows all the stats. He'd ask me what I was thinking on this play or that play."
Fitzpatrick didn't want to play for Harvard, which is precisely why he plays for Harvard. Murphy only recruits players who don't want to be recruited by him. "We want kids who aspire to play at Stanford and Notre Dame but aren't quite ready," he says.
And so Bobby Everett grew up in Ann Arbor dreaming of playing for Michigan. In high school he telephoned the Wolverines' offensive coordinator and said, "I don't think I have much chance of playing there, but would you mind bringing me in and treating me like a recruit for a day?" (Remarkably, Michigan obliged.) This fall, as a senior linebacker whose field of concentration is engineering, Everett led the Crimson in solo tackles.
Matt Birk of St. Paul also wanted to play in the Big Ten but had to settle for Harvard. He's now an All-Pro center for the Vikings.
Ryan Fitzpatrick's lone scholarship offer came from Eastern Washington. Harvard was his safety school. As a freshman in Cambridge he twice knocked would-be tacklers unconscious. He won two Ivy titles. Next month Fitzpatrick will play in the Hula Bowl while waiting for his name to be called in April's NFL draft.
The weakside safety, Ricky Williamson, was raised in State College, Pa., where he dreamed of playing for Penn State. Two weeks ago, in Harvard's 101-year-old stadium, he returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown in the Crimson's win over Yale.
Next spring Williamson will graduate with a biology degree. Everyone graduates. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, but football players don't. In Murphy's 11 seasons, every four-year player he's brought to Harvard has graduated and every one of those players has won an Ivy League championship. Murphy had to run down one exCrimson in Europe and, like a crazed bill collector, browbeat him into completing his course work. "Like a bounty hunter," corrects Murphy, boyish and braces-wearing at age 47.
The only member of his working-class family to attend college (Springfield, '78), Murphy has a green thumb with blue-collar kids. When he recruited a Nebraska farm boy nine years ago, the prospective tight end told him, "Sorry, Coach, but only geniuses and millionaires go to Harvard." Murphy persuaded him otherwise, and six years later Chris Eitzmann had interned on Wall Street, captained Harvard and spent two years in the NFL with the Patriots.
When Murphy visited Isaiah Kacyvenski's house in Endicott, N.Y., he knocked on the door and--getting no answer--let himself in. "It felt like it was 48 degrees inside," says Murphy. "Down the stairs comes this very humble kid. I ask him where his parents are, and he says, 'Coach, I'm sorry to tell you my mother was killed in a car accident last week.'" Four years later Kacyvenski was a four-year starter and fourth-round NFL draft choice who never got below an honors grade in premed. He's now in his fifth season at outside linebacker for the Seahawks.
All of which is to say: The Harvard man of tomorrow is more likely to have Roman numerals on his Super Bowl ring (Jamil Soriano, class of '03, spent last season on the Patriots' practice squad) than in his name (Endicott Peabody II, class of '42, was an All-America lineman who became governor of Massachusetts). And that, in some strange but quintessentially American way, feels like progress.
• For a collection of Steve Rushin's columns, go to SI.com/writers.