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In the fourth and final installment of A Look Back revisits weeks 13-16 of the college football season. In this segment, I witness a pair of classic rivalries: Harvard vs. Yale and Army vs. Navy. In between, I see the final home came for the Penn State seniors who were freshmen when the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal broke, and I travel to the rustbelt town of Alliance, Ohio to explore the most dominant division 3 program in the country. While I only saw one top-25 division 1 team during this stretch – Michigan State – the final four weeks featured a slate of games that harkened back to the timeless nature of the sport. At the Army-Navy game, Army did not complete their first forward pass until late in the fourth quarter, but the lack of offense did little to quiet the crowd. At Penn State, the overmatched Nittany Lions played in front of a half empty stadium, but at the game’s conclusion, the entire senior class remained to sing the alma mater with a team that had endured so much. More than football, the final four weeks offered a portrait of camaraderie, companionship, and the importance of tradition. Driving home from Baltimore after the Army-Navy game, I could not remember any particular plays from the game, but the sight of 8,000 Cadets and Midshipmen swaying back and forth, arm in arm as they sang each other’s alma mater is one that will stay with me forever.

 

IMG_3111Week 13 – Harvard 31, Yale 24: While most of the college football world was gearing up for the final push for the playoff, I returned to New England for a matchup between two national powers of yesteryear. For the first five decades of college football, Harvard and Yale were firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of the sport. Between 1872 and 1927, Yale and Harvard combined to win 34 national championships – although in those days, there was no title game so news outlets often awarded national championships to different schools. Yale players won two of the first three Heisman Trophies. When the Yale Bowl was constructed in 1913, it became the largest stadium in the world, seating over 70,000 people.

Today, the Harvard-Yale game is irrelevant to the national rankings – the Ivy League does not participate in postseason play. Every other Saturday of the year, the stadiums in New Haven and Cambridge sit largely empty – the vacant seats serving as reminders of the programs’ fall from their illustrious past.

Like Williams-Amherst, most of the students and alumni at Harvard and Yale are not truly football fans. These are businessmen and academics masquerading as sports fans, elite students swept up in the fervor and turned into diehards. At the tailgates, you don’t see jerseys and baseball hats. You see Barbour jackets and striped scarves. Conversations center on old memories and life updates rather than anticipation for the game.

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You might call it humility. Or maybe it’s the ultimate sign of elitism. Whatever the reason, graduates from Harvard, the top-ranked university in the world, have a very difficult time telling you where they went to college.

Instead of giving a straight answer, Harvard alums often evade the college question with an overly generic response like “I went to school just outside of Boston.” A few of these people are begging for the follow up. They want you to know that they went to Harvard, but they don’t want to be the one to say it. But most hope that such a vague response will dissuade follow up questions. There are literally dozens of schools “just outside of Boston” do you really care which one I went to?

For these people, figuring out how and when to “drop the H-bomb,” as Harvard people call it, is a required skill for navigating the real world. “If you say you went to Harvard right off the bat, you can seem too eager. But if you’re too insistent on avoiding saying it, then you seem even worse,” one alum told me.

Harvard alums are the only graduates in the country who face this struggle. Everyone has heard of Harvard. Everyone has an opinion of Harvard. Across the country, Harvard is respected as a great bastion of research but also reviled as a symbol of elitism and entitlement. People often even mockingly pronounce Harvard in an aristocratic British accent, puffing out their chests as they emphasize each syllable: “Hahh-vahhd.”

To many, Harvard is where the rich go to get richer – where the haves learn how to retain their position over the have-nots. Harvard’s endowment of $36.4 billion is larger than the economies of half the countries in the world. The average starting salary for a recent Harvard graduate is $55,300, which is less than the same statistic at Stanford, Princeton, and Caltech, but still higher than the median household income in the US.

When a student or alum announces their Harvard affiliation, they know that they are not just stating where they went to college; they are inviting criticism of an entire capitalist system. “People visibly look at you differently when they find out you went to Harvard,” one alum told me. No matter that 60% of Harvard students are currently on financial aid. Or that, when financial aid is taken into account, Harvard is actually less expensive for 90% of Americans than their local state school. “I’ve had to stop wearing my Harvard sweatpants to the gym because I would get honked at and have people say rude things to me,” said another.

And so the Harvard masses go into a pseudo-hiding for much of the year – dropping the H-bomb when its advantageous, making sure not to talk too loudly about Harvard memories in public, keeping their Crimson apparel tucked away in the bottom drawer.

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