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The Improbable ’69ers

Was This Carm Cozza’s Favorite Team?

by Gregory J. Hall ’77

The scene was the Grand Ballroom of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the date Jan. 31, 1990, and the occasion a salute to Yale’s head football coach, Carmen Cozza, who had just completed his 25th season with another Ivy League championship, his 10th. So this was a silver anniversary occasion, celebrated by about 1,000 spiffy Yale men and women, on the main deck and up into the double tiers of that splendid room.

There was a tribute from the occupant of the White House, George Herbert Walker Bush, Yale ’48, delivered by his son George, Yale ’68. Many of Cozza’s brightest stars shared the dais, such as Brian Dowling, Gary Fencik, Calvin Hill and Dick Jauron. The witty New Yorker wordsmith Calvin “Bud” Trillin, Yale ’57, was the toastmaster.

In his remarks the honoree cited those who had helped him, assistant coaches such as Seb LaSpina and Rich Pont, and told of his affection for all 10 champions.

Then Cozza, always so reserved, so even-handed, went awry. He asked the members of just one of his teams to stand up and accept the applause of an amenable audience.

That was the men of 1969.

Why this team? After all, it not been undefeated, losing two of its nine games, and it had shared its Ivy title with Dartmouth and Princeton. Surely there were more memorable Cozza-coached teams than this one.

Although the coach did not use words like improbable, resolute or stalwart, and didn’t talk of overcoming adversity, those fitted. This was the team that rose from the ashes of the infamous 29-29 tie at Harvard the previous November -- and went on.

At a somber team banquet two nights after 29-29, the best words had come from Andy Coe, the linebacker who had just been elected captain for next season. “He thanked us for the honor of being chosen captain,” recalled fullback Bill Primps. “And then, with eloquence, he said he would not preside over anything but a great Yale team. And he saw no reason why we couldn’t ‘win them all’ next fall.”

Coe himself has looked back on that night, saying, “While I know the last thing on people’s minds was the next season, I felt there was cause for optimism. We had good coaches, a winning tradition and returning players who were eager to show that they could step up to the challenge.”

Coe’s words seemed foolish at the time. The departing seniors had, in three varsity seasons, helped Yale win 20 of its 27 games and two Ivy championships. All but two offensive starters would need replacing, and six on defense. Gone for good were Dowling and Hill, two “forever” Yale stars, and the 1968 freshmen had not won a single game.

Yet Andy Coe had been a seer. In 1969 he and his teammates won seven times, lost only to Connecticut and Dartmouth, defeated Princeton and (hurrah!) Harvard.

How did they do it? Cozza and his staff helped by making some offseason personnel moves, none better than moving Donnie Martin from the defensive backfield to tailback on offense. Martin, a speedster who went on to play and coach in the National Football League for many seasons, would lead the team in rushing (518 yards) and scoring (eight touchdowns).

The freshman squad did have some talent. Jack Ford filled an outside linebacker spot so junior Ron Kell could move inside to pair with Coe. Four big freshmen would become sophomore offensive tackles: Matt Jordan, Terry Kessler, Earle Matory and John Kerecz. When training camp opened, all hands seemed focused and ready to work hard. Cozza recently looked back and said, “These guys surprised me from Day 1. . . . They simply had a knack for making things happen.”

But who would be the quarterback, the Dowling successor? Out of a group of neophytes came Joe Massey, a junior who in the September drills showed he had mastered the option-play hocus-pocus. Massey recalls: “By the end of camp I was the last QB standing. Talented players such as Kurt Schmoke got injured. Coach Cozza had made it abundantly clear starting in the spring of 1969 that the QB competition was to be wide open. If there’s an untold story in how I emerged, it was the level of faith in me expressed by Rich Pont, our backfield coach.”

When the first game came around there was hope. Martin added an omen when he returned the opening kickoff 84 yards against Connecticut. Sure, the veteran UConn team won 19-15, but Massey and Martin did well. Defensive end Jim Gallagher had an improbable interception and blocked a punt that gave Yale a safety. The all-rookie defensive backfield of Jim Hartman, Joe Roberti, Dave Holahan and Dave Bliss held up against Rick Robustelli, the Huskies’ ace passer.

Then came successive victories over Colgate, Brown, Columbia and Cornell by an aggregate score of 125-40. The team’s bad game was against Dartmouth, a fumble-laden 42-21 defeat. Penn was beaten 21-3 as Ford had a 77-yard return of an intercepted pass.

The big moment for the Yale defenders was the day they held Ed Marinaro, Cornell’s All-America back, to 30 rushing yards, his lowest career total, as Yale won 17-0. Maybe that defensive line was the best Cozza ever coached. Gallagher and Paul Jones were the ends, Tom Neville and Rich Lolotai from Hawaii the tackles and John Biancamano the middle guard.

Princeton? Cozza, when questioned years later about this game, said, “Coaches read newspapers too, and nobody was giving us a chance in this one – I had to be concerned.” The tough Tigers, 5-0 against Ivy foes, had defeated Harvard 51-20, Penn 42-0, Brown 33-6. But the tougher Yale defense prevailed, the Elis winning, 17-14. Primps scored the first touchdown and gained two critical fourth-quarter first downs to keep scoring drives alive. Harry Klebanoff kicked the winning field goal with three minutes left.

The offense was smart. “Princeton,” recalled Primps, “shot its defensive end to the outside to stop Martin. Seb LaSpina designed a play to leave that end unblocked. So Massey simply slipped the ball to me inside.”

Coe, Gallagher and Neville were All-Ivy that season, Gallagher and Neville each an NFL draftee along with Martin the following year. Maybe the offense lacked such standouts, but it certainly had contributors like those holdover 1968 guards, Jack Perkowski and Bart Whiteman; Mickey Adair at center, Brad Lee at guard, Kessler and Matory at tackle and Dave Brooks and Lew Roney at end.

Then came Harvard before a big crowd, 63,000, in the Bowl and on a muddy field. The Crimson had won only three games and the Yale defense gave the foe just 27 yards rushing, 94 by passing. One touchdown, on a 3-yard third-period plunge by Primps, was enough for a 7-0 victory.

Thus it is easy to understand Carm Cozza’s pride in this team, one he has described as his best coaching effort. Those seniors, Coe and his friends, were among the few classes in Ivy annals to achieve three championships in three seasons, and they had helped Yale go unbeaten in 17 consecutive games. That streak was unmatched in the Ivy League until the 1990s.

By the way, the 1969 team is holding a 40th anniversary affair this weekend. Andy Coe and Carm Cozza are presiding.

Greg Hall, a three-time letterman at end, was on Carm Cozza’s Ivy champion teams of 1974 and 1976. Hall is an executive with Barclays Capital in New York City.