PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Ivy League football standings don’t look much different this season: Dartmouth and Princeton, one of which had earned at least a share of four of the last five championships, did so again after Saturday’s season finale.
While Dartmouth romped past Brown here, 52-31, Princeton trounced Penn, 34-14, in Philadelphia to remain tied for first place.
The engravings on the championship trophy, though, won’t tell the story of an extraordinary year for the only Division I league that did not play football last season because of the coronavirus pandemic — and was trying to dodge its remnants until the end of this season. (Three Dartmouth senior defensive starters missed their career finale Saturday after testing positive for the virus earlier this week.)
“We didn’t know what we had coming into this season, but we had the same expectation,” Dartmouth linebacker Tanner Cross said. He and two other senior captains, quarterback Derek Kyler and tight end Robbie Mangas, held aloft the Ivy League championship trophy, which Dartmouth shared with Yale in 2019.
If the Ohio States of the world settled for playing a truncated schedule last season, or if the Stanfords did not play in front of fans or the Delawares had to wait until the spring, at least they played some version of football.
The Ivy League, instead, took a redshirt year.
Without the lure of billions in television revenue or the prodding of an overwhelming number of fans demanding their football fix, the Ivy League presidents decided on July 8, 2020, that they would not play football last fall — and, later, that they would only allow a handful of sports competition in the spring.
Most football players, with weight rooms shuttered just like classrooms, remained at home or retreated far from campus last fall. Some seniors did not enroll for a term so they could retain their eligibility; the Ivy League, which does not allow graduate students to play sports, made an exception for this season in February, but it was too late for many to apply. And when two classes of freshmen football players arrived on campuses in August, many were meeting their coaches — and their teammates — for the first time.
The Dartmouth strength coach Spencer Brown tried to engage players during the pandemic, soliciting videos for creative workouts they were doing on their own. (Punter/kicker Ryan Bloch built weight lifting equipment from PVC pipe and buckets filled with rocks and water.) But with more than 120 players on the roster, there was so much learning to do. When the freshmen offensive linemen were required during training camp to state the names of the starting defensive line, one earnest freshman referred to Shane Cokes, a junior defensive end, as Shawn Coates. Among his teammates, the new name has stuck — even as Cokes has had a standout season.
“The only contact we could have for the better part of the year was virtual and they were all isolated,” Dartmouth Coach Buddy Teevens said. “Normally you have a couple team meetings where you’re talking about table manners or public speaking or social issues. With little screenshots, it was just different — there’s no engagement. Once guys click off, they’re back in their individual world. Nobody had a chance to interact.”
The first practice looked like Football 101. The first game was not much better: Dartmouth fumbled five times and gave up two safeties, though the Big Green managed to still beat Valparaiso. Dartmouth (9-1 overall; 6-1 in conference) would wallop Princeton, 31-7, but settled for sharing the title with the Tigers (9-1, 6-1) after losing to Columbia, 19-0.
There was much learning to do at Princeton as well.
In the spring of 2020, as scientists were just beginning to learn about the new virus, Princeton Coach Bob Surace and the then-athletic director Mollie Marcoux Samaan developed a 40-page blueprint detailing how football could be played safely. It included setting up an outdoor weight room, staggering where receivers would line up when they ran routes in practice and not retreating to locker rooms during halftime.
Though vaccines are now available — everyone in the program is vaccinated, Surace said — protective measures remain.
The defensive staff is in the football offices, but the offensive coaches have set up shop in the stadium. When Surace meets with his coordinators to go over game plans, it is outdoors or over the phone. All post-practice meetings are outdoors. Instead of the entire offense or defense meeting as a group, players have met by position group and are spread out — 20 offensive linemen in a 60-seat classroom, for example.
The Tigers have also not been immune from the rest of the world’s supply chain chaos. Helmets had to be borrowed from other colleges during training camp because of delays in getting equipment to pass inspection after being reconditioned. (Trevor Forbes, a senior defensive back, practiced in a borrowed red helmet until the week of the season opener.) There were also days when recovery drinks were gulped down without ice because nearby convenience stores were out.
“Our players were so patient with things they weren’t accustomed to that were out of our control,” said Surace, whose team lost only to Dartmouth. “Appreciating being out there overrode everything.”
Few in the Ivy League this season have been more appreciative than the fifth-year seniors who put off graduation in order to have a chance to play their final season. “It was the best decision of my life,” said Forbes, one of 17 Princeton seniors who deferred their studies to remain eligible. A sociology major, he was hired by a media tech company and spent the year living and working in Dallas. He added: “I gained some real world skills and then I got to come back and play this game that I love with my boys — and get some closure.”
Nick Howard, a quarterback at Dartmouth, had a different appreciation. He spent the early part of this year tending to his mother, who died of cancer in April. “As horrible as it was being locked down, in a way I’m thankful,” said Howard, a junior from Green Bay, Wis. “I’m an only child, and for me being home helped me appreciate what you have when you have it. Like a family meal with people you care about or being in a locker room with your friends.”
He added: “I learned more than anything how important this team is to me. I love my teammates.”
Even as football has resumed far closer to normal this season, with almost no interruptions and with fans in attendance, a reminder of how little has been guaranteed arrived here Saturday when Dartmouth players emptied the bus on a sunny, crisp 40-degree morning. Among those not traveling with the team were middle linebacker Jalen Mackie, safety Niko Mermigas and linebacker Trevon Erickson. Also out was receiver Isaac Boston. All had tested positive for the coronavirus this week, according to Teevens, the first positives Dartmouth had all season.
“It felt like the cards got flipped on us,” said Cross, a fifth-year senior from Fort Smith, Ark., who gave his team a pep talk Friday before they boarded buses here. “We weren’t sure how many we were going to be without, but we were going to show up with what we had. That’s the beautiful thing about our program.”
The defense, which hadn’t allowed more than 21 points all season, did not play to its standards against E.J. Perry, a former Boston College quarterback. But the patchwork unit nevertheless stuffed Brown running back Allen Smith on fourth-and-1 at the Brown 34 with the score tied at 14-14 in the second quarter. A few plays later, Jonny Barrett, a Dartmouth reserve receiver, made a superb, leaping catch in the end zone on one of Kyler’s three touchdown passes.
The offense continued to shoulder the load. Howard, the other part of Dartmouth’s quarterback tandem, rushed for two touchdowns, giving him 15 on the season. And capping Dartmouth’s scoring was Keegan McHugh, a senior reserve running back who bolted 65 yards for a touchdown that elicited an enormous celebration along the visiting sideline.
“I’m just so happy for these guys,” Teevens said, as players and their families celebrated around him. “There was so much uncertainty — the fifth-year seniors who put their lives on hold and said I’m coming back, the younger guys that hadn’t played in a while, the recruits who came in without visiting campus. We were kind of a no-name group and look at where they are now.”