Yale’s former football coach, Carmen Cozza, recalls his players wanted most to defeat Princeton and, surprisingly, not Harvard

Longtime Yale head coach Carm Cozza says that to his players, beating Princeton was even more important than beating Harvard. (AP Photo/Bob Child)

By Joel Alderman

The Yale-Princeton football rivalry, which renews this Saturday in the Bowl, was recalled by the Bulldogs’ former head coach, the iconic Carmen Cozza, as being more important to his players than even the one with Harvard.

When asked during the weekly media luncheon, at famous Mory’s, which team the players in his time would most want to defeat, he gave an answer that was not expected. It was Princeton and not the traditional rival, Harvard, in The Game.

Yale defensive back Dave Holahan Jr., (28) intercepts Dartmouth pass thrown from Yale’s 27-yard line as Dartmouth center Mark Stevenson shifts to defensive role. Action came in first quarter of Yale-Dartmouth game at Yale Bowl in New Haven, Nov. 1, 1969. (AP Photo/Joe Caneva)
Cozza says that when he first arrived at Yale, beating Dartmouth was actually the students’ top priority. Wearing number 28 for Yale in the 1969 game against Dartmouth is Dave Holahan, who played safety. He had three interceptions and returned 11 punts that season. (AP Photo/Joe Caneva)

Princeton and Yale took turns dominating

Cozza was an assistant coach to John Pont his first two years at Yale (1963 and 1964). After Pont abruptly left for what he thought would be greener pastures in the Big Ten, Carm was named head coach.

He held the position for 32 years, despite the published views of then-editor of the Yale Daily News, Theo Epstein, and to whom Cozza half-joking referred. These days he stays close to Yale football, as the color announcer on radio broadcasts of its home games.

Dartmouth was top priority for the students, Harvard for the coaches and alumni

“When I first came here, the students wanted to beat Dartmouth more than anyone else,” he said, probably to the surprise of most of those in the room.

“For the coaches, of course, a win over Harvard was the one we pointed to,” he added, “although we naturally wanted to win them all.”

Players had their own idea of the big rival

The players, however, felt differently. “For them, it was not Dartmouth or Harvard, but Princeton,” even though Harvard has always been The Rival in The Game, and the one win the alumni wanted the most.

“To this day I really don’t know why the players felt that way,” he said, “but beating Princeton meant more to them than even Harvard.”

He thought it might have something to do with how the Tigers were dominating the Bulldogs during his first years at Yale. Princeton beat the Bulldogs six consecutive years from 1961 to 1966, the last four of which were his two years as an assistant, followed by the first two after he became head coach.

This photo shows Yale halfback John Hatem crossing the goal line for a touchdown in the 1976 battle between the Bulldogs and Tigers in New Haven. Yale beat Princeton (AP Photo/RC)
This photo shows Yale halfback John Hatem crossing the goal line for a touchdown in the 1976 battle between the Bulldogs and Tigers in New Haven. Yale beat Princeton 14 straight times from 1967-80. They won the Ivy League title in ’76. (AP Photo/RC)

But things turned around under Cozza as far as Princeton was concerned. Yale ran off a winning streak of 14 games from 1967 to 1980. Even today Carm wonders how they did it. That almost overwhelming desire of the players and motivation to beat Princeton may have helped.

This year’s team could satisfy all

The present group of Yale players, under Coach Tony Reno, has already upset Dartmouth, which was the goal of the students during Carm’s early years in New Haven.

This week, in the 139th meeting of college football second-oldest rivalry (behind Lehigh-Lafayette), Yale has a opportunity to take it out on Princeton, which would have brought the ultimate satisfaction to Cozza’s players.

The following week, it’s on to Cambridge to face Harvard. Plenty of motivation there, of course, and a win would meet the aspirations of Cozza and his coaches, who put the Crimson on the top of the list of teams to beat.

“It will be tough, but not impossible, for Yale to beat Princeton and Harvard or even one of them,” Carm admitted. “I think Princeton is the best team in the Ivy League this year and Harvard of course is right up there too.”

Win or lose, the upcoming game with Princeton will have special meaning to Carmen Cozza. It will be the occasion of the 40th reunion of his 1976 Ivy League Championship team, many of whose members will be honored on the field at halftime.

This year Yale is well out of league contention, with only two wins (Dartmouth and Columbia). But, as Carm said, “it was always a new season for us when we got to our last two games against Princeton and Harvard.”

That’s how Coach Tony Reno feels in 2016.

And it probably will always be that way.

Editor’s Note

This year, at least, Harvard, like the Yale teams under Cozza, may not be considering the Y-H game as the most important one left on its schedule. An article this week in its student newspaper, “The Harvard Crimson,” has this headline:

Forget Yale; ‘The Game’ Is Really Friday Night at Penn

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