This is a first and probably a last: I’m going to write about football. Not the kind of football that my British boss plays, but the American kind, the subject of analogies and great coaching stories and quarter-century retrospectives.
Start with New Jersey jokes. Slather on a healthy dose of random naming (Rutgers, The State University: people actually pronounce the comma to make the point that it’s the most strangely named state university). Dump on top a football program that was so bad, so horrendous, that opposing teams wished there was an NCAA mercy rule (at one point, an opponent was up by half a dozen scores at the half, put in the freshman, told them not to pass the ball, and yet they still scored touchdowns). Add the tasty dessert topping offered up by Greenie on ESPN Radio this morning: You went to nowhere, took a left, and then got to Rutgers.
For a short while, for a brief shining moment, New Jersey is in fact the center of the universe that deserves all due respect, Tony Soprano style. Rutgers 28, Louisville 25. The Empire State building was lit up in Rutgers scarlet red last night, the first time ever that New York has acknowledged that anything of interest, especially football, happens in New Jersey. I mean, the New York Giants and New York Jets play in New Jersey, but a university team lights up the Big Apple’s landmark with a King Kong sized win. Today, the entire state is cheering for Rutgers.
There are so many facets to this it’s hard to know where to begin. Maybe it was one of our assistant hockey coaches, who managed to get a last-minute ticket to the game, and sent the single most excited email I’ve ever seen from him. Or the 10,000-plus who lined up for tickets to the game as they were released. Perhaps it was the fact that I attended the last Princeton-Rutgers game, an intra-state rivalry that ended 111 years after their first – and the college game’s first – meeting, because “Rutgers was going big-time”. We came home with our Tiger tails between our legs on that day in 1980, but we were in a small minority for quite a few years.
The real reason I’m touched by the daylight celebration of the Scarlet Knights is because it reminds me of a similar day precisely 25 years ago, when Princeton faced an unbeated Yale team on a dreary day that was only slightly happier than the general mood around Palmer Stadium. Yale was on the verge of being nationally ranked, Princeton was already tanked, the highlight of the season being a tie against Harvard. After falling behind 21-0, Princeton came back, aided by a defensive pass interference call near the Yale goal line. I remember — vividly — hollering with the other fans who stayed in the stands, screaming for Princeton’s Bob Holly to pass the ball once again. But Holly tucked the ball under, and perhaps on the wind of hot air coming from the home side of the stadium, ran it in for the winning touchdown. His 501 passing yards in that game stand as a Princeton record. Princeton ended a 14-year drought against Yale, Bob Holly went on to play for the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl, and a quarter of a century later we all have great memories of that weekend.
Rutgers is not likely to play for the BCS Championship, although a Buckeye State-Garden State matchup would be a great battle of the big reds. Years from now, though, everyone will remember a Thursday night under the lights in New Jersey when the ranks of the unbeaten were thinned, and “big time” meant “our time.”