OUT OF LEFT FIELD
THIS IS THE WEEK OF MY
A sportswriter's special
By STAN ISAACS
The big game of the season is coming up for me Saturday. No, it doesnt involve such behemoths as Oklahoma, Southern California or Florida State. None of that bigtime semi-pro college football of the wire-service driven Top 25 polls here.
No, for me its the annual struggle between Columbia and Brown. Yes, Columbia and Brown,
It has to do with personal experience. Columbia was one of the first teams I covered when I broke into the sports-writing dodge more than 50 years ago. Also, I once attended a two-week seminar of sports editors on the Columbia campus when I headed a Marx Brothers regime as Newsday sports editor for a year-and-a-half. My money is where my mouth is in relation to Brown because I financed my youngest daughters wonderful four years at the Providence, Rhode Island institution.
Because of my association from afar of the two schools I have a dream. Columbia and Brown almost always play their final game against each other. It is my dream that one day they play that finale as a showdown for the Ivy League championship.
People have the nerve to scoff at that. Just because Columbia has been the doormat of the Ivy League far too often, and Brown has been not much more successful over the years, cynics tell me, You wont live long enough to see that, when I tell them of my dream.
I admit there is some basis for their skepticism. Over a span of the 1983 through 1988 seasons, Columbias football team set a national record losing streak of 44 games. I dont know which is the worse ignominy. That losing streak or last years two-sport degradation. For the first time since Ivy League play was formalized in 1961, Columbia became the first school to not win an Ivy League game in either football or basketball.
That was then, this is now. Columbia has been winning football games this year. And what games!
There was the 19-16 victory over Bucknell at home in the second game of the season. Not an Ivy League game, so not a big deal, but still, it raised some goosebumps for the fans of the Light Blue (its de rigeur to refer to a team by its colors after a few mentions). Columbia drove 73 yards and with 22 seconds remaining in the game scored on a five-yard pass by quarterback Jeff Otis to end Travis Chmelka.
A week later Columbia won its first Ivy League game since 2001 by beating Princeton. The Lions (you have to refer to a college team by its nickname, too) fell behind, 20-0, in the first period. They rallied to tie, 27-27. Then, with 20 seconds left in the game and on its own 33-yard line, Columbia had an incomplete pass, an 18-yard pass completion and a 49-yard pass for a touchdown from Otis to end Wade Fletcher. Otis threw a pass into the air and it came down amidst a clutch of Princetonians and Fletcher. It was Fletcher who had the best clutch. Victory for Columbia, 33-27, its first at Princeton in 58 years.
Columbia then lost to Lafayette and league games to Penn, Dartmouth and Yale. It looked as if the Lions were settling back into old ways and would have to live off the Princeton victory just as it has been living for almost 70 years on the reflected glory of its fabled 1934 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford.
For those who have been paying attention to more important things, that was when an underdog Columbia team beat Stanford, 7-0 in the mud on the celebrated KF79 play, a 17-yard touchdown run on a handoff by quarterback Cliff Montgomery to halfback Al Barabas. You might not want so much detail but Montgomery was later a Roslyn Heights, Long Island neighbor of mine so I feel the old boy deserves some ink from me.
After the Yale loss, Columbia was a sizeable underdog at home to second-place Harvard. This one went into the fourth quarter with Harvard ahead, 13-9. Then a Columbia defender with the wonderful name of Prosper Nwokocha, a sophomore from Nigeria, intercepted a Harvard pass in the last minute. Columbia proceeded to move 45 yards in three plays. It scored on a 10-yard touchdown pass from that man again, Jeff Otis, to Zach Van Zant. The prosperous Nwokocha intercepted another pass to close off Harvards last chance.
That made for three victories on winning touchdowns in the last minute of games. Its not quite KF79 and the 1934 Rose Bowl, but it has reawakened the echoes of Roar, Lion, Roar on the Hudson shore.
More than that the victories have blown away some of the pseudo-sophisticate anti-athletics attitude that has long afflicted the Columbia campus. It traditionally has been chic among the smart alecks to look down on football and the oft-futile Columbia players. That has been changing. John Reeves, the astute athletic director who has suffered most of the agonies of the past decade, is encouraged by the upbeat feeling about athletics.
I think part of it, he said, is a backlash from the horror stories about what has been happening at so many schools across the country. The students appreciate what the Ivy League stands for in academics and athletics.
I spoke to Reeves, the brother of political writer Dick Reeves, after the loss to Yale when Columbia was 1-3 in Ivy league play. Well beat Harvard this season and wind up 4-3 in the league this year, he said. I confess that I, the optimist who pines for a glorious day of a Columbia-Brown finale for the Ivy championship, smiled.
Well, Columbia followed the Harvard upset with a 34-21 victory over Cornell last week and now I look forward to Saturday, sitting in the press box looking out over the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers at the wonderfully-named Spuyten Duyvil--one of the three most beautiful spots in all of Gotham--and watching Columbia and Brown, both 3-3, try to finish 4-3 in the Ivy League, and a chance to finish in the exalted precincts of a tie for second place.
Maybe I will live to see that Brown-Columbia titanic clash for the Ivy League championship.
Author's Addendum: Brown beat Columbia 42-10 and wound up in a four way tie for second place with Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. Columbia fell to sixth in the eight-team league. Brown looks tough for next year. Now if Columbia....
©2003 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel.
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