Eight Things You Probably Didn’t Know About The Historic Harvard-Yale Football Rivalry

This Saturday, ESPN’s “Gameday” travels to Cambridge, Mass., for the Harvard-Yale rivalry, known simply as “The Game.”

The location marks the crew’s annual (or, in the case of this season, bi-annual) charity trip to a FCS school because Saturday’s FBS schedule relatively sucks. However, unlike visiting North Dakota State, whose two (!) visitations resulted merely from its no. 1 FCS rank, “The Game” holds the distinction of being one of the most historically rich traditions in all of college athletics.

This season’s match–and we’ll call it a match considering the student bodies involved–is the 131st, which makes it the oldest rivalry and the second-longest running rivalry in Division 1 college football (only Lehigh and Lafayette have played more games continually than Harvard and Yale). It kind of means something!

Then again, we plebeians, who went to and worship our mouth-breathing state schools or failure-ridden “safety” schools like Northwestern, Syracuse or Michigan, probably wouldn’t know. So in order to hip ourselves to the inevitable gaggle of witty and haughty signs, here are eight unique facts about the programs and “The Game.”

Yale pulled off arguably the greatest prank in college football history

F*cking with each other is a pastime of these two schools. One of the earliest pranks included members of The Harvard Lampoon (forefather to National Lampoon) kidnapping Yale’s bulldog mascot, which was then found “licking the feet of the John Harvard Statue,” where slabs of meat had been slathered to attract the pup. One of the most famous pranks, which can be seen above, comes courtesy of Yale’s students. A small group of Yalies, calling themselves the “Harvard Pep Squad,” gave Harvard fans placards to hold up in the stands, telling them it spelled “Go Harvard.” Obviously, that’s not what the placards collectively created.


The two schools have combined for 26 national titles

Not only are Yale and Harvard the two winningest programs in FCS football, but they’re also two of the winningest Division I programs period. Yale’s 877 and Harvard’s 838 all-time wins place them at second and seventh, respectively, on Division 1’s all-time wins list, Yale’s being right below Michigan and Harvard’s tying with Alabama. The two also have 26 recognized national titles between them–Yale’s 18 (!) being more than every program except Princeton, which has 26.

Harvard has an impressive list of former players

Like Tommy Lee Jones and Ted and Bobby Kennedy! Also, former Microsoft CEO and current Clippers owner Steve Ballmer was once the football team’s manager.

The schools are BARRED from playing in the FCS playoffs

It’s no secret the Ivy League dominated the early period of college football. Simply put, its schools were essentially the only ones playing the sport. It wasn’t until 1896, a full 27 years after the first college football game, that a school not from the Ivy League, Lafayette, claimed a national title, and not until 1901 that a school from west of the Appalachians, Michigan, was crowned national champion.

These days, you won’t see Yale or Harvard (or any other Ivy) win a national championship. Their league is hermetic, meaning each school is barred from playing in the FCS playoff no matter its record. The reason: a playoff will interfere with “reading period and finals.” The players for both teams are literally student-athletes. You’ll be sure to hear the “Gameday” crew gush over this fact plenty on Saturday, but players and coaches have been quietly petitioning to have that “tradition” removed. Until then, “The Game” remains both schools’ last match-up of the season.

M.I.T. played the role of troll in 1982

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the “nerds” to Harvard’s and Yale’s relative “jocks,” sits less than a mile from Harvard’s campus in Cambridge but has never been confused for being a bastion of athletics. However, this hasn’t prevented the school’s brilliant student body from trolling the hell out of their neighbors, like in 1982 when they floated a huge, black balloon with “M.I.T.” on it above the Harvard Stadium field during The Game.

Boston Magazine has a cool piece that details how the “hack,” the term MIT students use to describe their own pranks against Harvard, came together. It’s hard to imagine the student bodies of Auburn or Alabama having the wherewithal to pull off something similar during the Iron Bowl.

The game was so rough one player fell into a coma during the 1894 game

The practically non-existent padding and barbaric nature of early football nearly killed “The Game” before it really even got going. The rivalry’s violent zenith, led by Yale’s maniacal four-time All-American Frank Hinkey, was in the early-1890’s, highlighted by the 1894 game in Springfield, Mass, a 12-4 win for Yalies. That particular edition, known as the “Springfield Massacre,” left one Yale player in a coma and several others with serious injuries. The Yale Alumni Magazine notes that football “was now under fire from every corner of society” as a result, causing the universities to suspend their rivalry in all sports for a year and football for two.

1968-The Game

That match-up has become affectionately known as the “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” game because of Harvard’s scoring 16 points in 42 seconds to tie a juggernaut Yale squad. A lot of things were going on in the background of The Game in 1968–Vietnam, both teams’ meeting as undefeated for the first time since 1909–that made it important, so much so that filmmaker Kevin Rafferty dedicated an entire 2008 documentary to it. Both teams finished 8-0-1 because of the result.

Pittsburgh Has A Terrible Yellow Towel, Harvard Has A Little Red Towel

Per Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson:

Since 1884, a Harvard superfan has been in charge of waving a flag from his seat at the Harvard-Yale game every time Harvard scores. The Harvard alumnus who has seen the most consecutive games between the rivals gets the honor of carrying it.