BROOKLYN ATLANTIC

¡Fo Reels, Yo! (...and for rants, and for other things too.)

September, 2015
LIBERTY'S (the Cup that is) LAST STAND
LIONS-44
CHRISTIANS-0

that's what Archie Bunker's favorite read screamed on its back cover after Columbia's thrashing of Fordham in 1972. The pasting, played under a torrential downpour, offered a light crowd of 7,000 fans although the media were well represented. Aside from the Daily News, WMCA-AM aired the contest on tape delay (following the Notre Dame game and a later Yankees game) while an early era cable outfit, TelePrompTer, also made the clash available to Manhattan's Upper West Side. Well, to those on the Upper West who knew what cable was.

It was a different age although some things were eerily similar. To paraphrase Gerry Meagher, then a sports editor for The RAM student newspaper, the Columbia University Marching Band (aka the CUMB), greeted Maroon fans by graciously welcoming Fordham for providing New York with a second big time college football team. After pausing for effect, they then asked when Fordham would provide New York with a second big time college?

Perhaps, as described by Meagher, the "hairy and kinetic" counterculturalists were misinformed but by 1972 Columbia was no longer truly "big time." Instead, the Ivies were playing at a level comparable to today's Mid-American Conference and Columbia was certainly the Kent State of the bunch. Then again, coming off a positive 1971 campaign and still over a decade from delving into the darkest of downtrodden depths, the CUMB was still the most comedic act coming out of Baker Field. Whether actually big time or not, the Lions had far more than enough to crush a Division-III collection and did so with scrubs playing for most of the second half. Despite the throttling, both sides left feeling somewhat good about themselves. Columbia got to run some plays in preparation for what appeared to be a promising autumn. Fordham got to test themselves against what was still considered Division-I competition. Even if by then the Ivies had already shied away from the rest of the Division-I scene while competing inside their own exclusive, little bubble. 

Starting with the 1956 season, the previously quasi-independent assemblage of "Ancient Eight" universities formally united to form the Ivy League. Back then regular seasons were only 9 games long so the league's 7 in-conference games greatly limited each team's opportunities at scheduling traditional non-Ivy rivals like Army, Navy or any of the Big Ten schools. The Ivies didn't seem to mind. In fact, each school went the extra step in almost exclusively scheduling their 2 non-conference games against smaller, weaker, Ivy-Light types. Institutions who, three decades later, would form the Patsy Patriot League. Even before that creation, most of the group (Holy Cross, Colgate, Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell and at the time, Rutgers) was Patsier than ever.

Back then Fordham wasn't even good enough to hang with the Ivy-Lights. Aside from Holy Cross, they also had no link to any other Patsy. Even that one Jebbie connection had been dormant for nearly two decades by 1972. Having discontinued their D-I program in 1954, Fordham was slowly trying to make it back onto the main stage after reinstating varsity status in 1970. Coincidentally, while Fordham was adding football, SUNY-Buffalo, a low-level D-I, was dropping the sport. Back in 1958 Buffalo had been the very last non-Ivy or Ivy-Light Columbia had ever scheduled. That matchup, staged off the banks of Lake Erie, was won by the Bulls 34-14. To show how low Columbia had fallen, a week earlier Buffalo had been shutout 26-0 by Baldwin Wallace. Further research confirms that Baldwin Wallace is neither person nor law firm but indeed a school. Just not a prolific one in terms of football although they were at the time coached by Lee Tressel (Jim's dad) and did later win a D-III national championship in 1978. Meaning the tiny, rural, liberal arts college might have beaten "big time" Columbia in both 1958 and 1978. Not that the Lions wanted to find out. It would be another 14 years before they'd even schedule a rematch with Buffalo, this one set for the banks of the Hudson. But with the SUNY institution temporarily out of the football business (they returned as a D-III in 1977, elevated to I-AA in 1993 and then to D-I in 1999 as a member of the Mid-American Conference) Columbia had a blank date for their 1972 opener.

In the spring of 1971, and fresh off the basketball team's surprising Sweet 16 run, Fordham's athletic director, Pete Carlesimo (PJ's dad), was probably feeling on top of the world. As a Fordham student, Carlesimo had played alongside Vince Lombardi during the school's greatest gridiron glory. As its AD, he was asked to bring back some glory, but on the hardwood. He later hired Richard "Digger" Phelps who in one season did just that. Previously the Rams had always been a solid local group, but for one spring Phelps turned them into a national power. Mission seemingly accomplished (Phelps later abruptly abandoned Rose Hill for Notre Dame and started a process that sent Fordham hoops into an epic free fall), Carlesimo set his sights towards the gridiron. He called Columbia's AD, Ken Germann, with the hopes of filling in for the open Buffalo date. Germann, who coincidentally had also once played football for the athletic program he was now running, generously accepted Carlesimo's offer. Emphasis on the word generously. At the time Fordham was nothing more than a small potatoes startup who certainly would have been clocked by even a Baldwin Wallace law firm, let alone the school. Carlesimo wasn't concerned. Date set, he later hired Glenn "Dean" Loucks, a former Yale QB who had also gotten his Masters at Columbia, to prepare the ragtag roster for their first D-I foray in nearly two decades. Way back when Fordham was amongst the last of a dying breed.

Many small, Catholic newbies had dominated the D-I landscape during the Depression Era. Following the 1936 regular season for instance, Santa Clara won the Sugar Bowl, Duquesne won the Orange Bowl and Marquette appeared in the Cotton Bowl. The Pope might have found it all fitting but elite private schools, like Chicago University, and large state schools, like the University of Michigan, were stunned. A decade earlier none of the Catholic commuter colleges were even classified as major, or University Division, programs. But they all came out of nowhere in an attempt at being the next Notre Dame. Of the dozens of newbies, none was as successful as Fordham. Starting with the "Sleepy" Jim Crowley years, the Rams even replaced their maroon helmets with gold ones which shined just as brightly as those from South Bend. But by the early 1950s that gold had lost its luster. 

Most of the newbies were located in urban centers. Most lacked the cash and/or space to build large on-campus stadiums. Instead, they rented out professional venues while counting on the general public (as opposed to just alumni and their connections) to fill up seats. The combination of watching games for free on television, the rise in popularity of college hoops over college football in urban America, a post-War change in bg city demographics and the skyrocketting costs of expanding rosters in college football all helped in chasing the newbies off the college football scene throughout the post-War years. Eventually, Fordham too dropped the sport. Over a decade later however, and in a prospering economy, students raised their own funds to help bring football back to many of the discontinued programs. Without much in university help, these students established club level programs in all corners of the country. By the early 1970s most of these different clubs managed to gain official varsity status. From Georgetown (participants in the 1940 Orange Bowl) in the east, to St. Mary's (winners of the 1938 Cotton Bowl and participants in the 1945 Sugar Bowl) out west, former national powers were reemerging. Sorta. Unlike in the 1930s and early '40s, they were doing so from nondescript on-campus fields in what we'd now call the D-III ranks. The Rams were far from the best of that less than stellar lot. Still, maybe thanks to previous laurels, or simply a personal connection between two old-time gridders in Carlesimo and Germann, Fordham was the only D-III given an invite onto Baker Field.

For most at Rose Hill that invite was a significant moment. According to Meagher, only an unrelenting rain, Fordham's lone defense of the entire afternoon, more than halved the expected crowd of 15,000. For the rest of New York City however, the Columbia-Fordham fray was one which came about four decades too late.

Post-War changes had ended the run for most of the Catholic newbies across America. Thanks in part to the NFL's "Greatest Game Ever Played," New York was particularly transformed into a Sunday pigskin town. It hasn't looked back since. Big time college football, whether it be the CUMB's definition, or the actual one, was relegated to secondary status. Sticking with the actual definition, this was even more true of the Ivies. In the case of Columbia, severing ties with then powerhouses, Army and Navy, and replacing them with pre-Patriot League teams, and on one occasion, Buffalo, was the final blow in removing Gotham off the major college football grid. Between Columbia's insulation, Fordham's termination as well as the demise of NYU's once proud football program in 1952, college football became an afterthought in the city. The dominance of the Yankees and Dodgers on the diamond, and to a lesser extent the baseball Giants too; the steady rise of the football Giants, the city's full embrace of roundball, aka the City Game; as well as the aforementioned population shift due to White Flight, left only a very few remembering college football's heyday in the city.   

For those few however, the 1972 affair was a brief throwback to a time when the greater New York area was a college football Mecca. That famously first Princeton-Rutgers soccer match of 1869? Took place about 40 miles southwest of Manhattan. That Walter Camp guy who in 1882 introduced a downs system, a gridiron and a line of scrimmage? Took place about 40 miles northeast of Manhattan. The legalization of a forward pass in 1906? Engineered by President Teddy Roosevelt, himself a New Yorker, while forming a commission in Manhattan itself to open up the often deadly clashes. But even with all that said, the sport still wasn't quite there. It still needed a few more tweaks before becoming a viable link to the modern game. The steak still needed sizzle. Once again, enter some New York strips.  

While Europe was climbing out of deadly trenches, America spent the Roarin' Twenties celebrating its first true entertainment age. Speakeasies, jazz, film, flappers and a budding sports industry all dominated pop-culture. A new national media, led by Gotham, was there to hype it. Through movie theater newsreels, national network radio broadcasts, and an endless array of tabloids, the New York media made college stars larger than life. The decade that gave us names like Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Clara Bow, Louis Armstrong, Amelia Earhart, Al Capone and even Mickey Mouse also gave us stories like the tragic death of George "the Gipper" Gipp. Thanks to the Herald Tribune's Grantland Rice, it later gave us the triumphant rise of the Four Horsemen. As different legendary tails involving Notre Dame spread, working class Catholics, specifically Irish ones, found a rooting interest in the previously blue blooded game. About 750 miles east of Indiana, a subway alumni composed largely of immigrants, many of whom never even graduated high school, was born. They made sure to fill Yankee Stadium during Our Lady's annual pilgrimages for crusades against West Point's mostly WASPy sides.