[This 2011 piece was commissioned by, and appeared in, Uni-Watch.com, a site devised and managed by ESPN correspondent Paul Lukas. Hence the obsessive attention to uniforms, insignia, colors, etc.]
AT 09.00 SATURDAY MORNING I WILL BOARD A TRAIN in New York. Ninety-six minutes later, maybe, I will disembark in New Haven and walk to the Yale Bowl, where Yale and Harvard will play a football game for the 128th time. The Bowl is a 61,400-seat amphitheater built in 1913 (when it sat 70,900). It was the biggest stadium of its time, built for the giant crowds that flocked to New Haven to watch the best football in the world. It's still a beauty.
In a field near the Bowl I will rendez-vous with classmate Don Chiofaro, linebacker, captain of Harvard 1967, and – according to Calvin Hill – one of the hardest hitters of the era. The Chief will introduce me to the loyal corps of recidivists who try never to miss a Harvard-Yale game. There will be picnic fare and drinks and heavy slagging. Shameful moments of early adulthood will be trotted out as ID markers. If I may use the word without irony, it will be jolly.
That's it for socio-historic context. I've noticed that the default position for writers on Harvard-Yale games is to feed not in the rich meadow of football information but in the deep silage of cultural stereotype. "The Game" and all that. Class privilege, snobbery, fustian traditionalism, ubiquitous smarty-pants-isms, snotty halftime shows by bands dressed to signify superior distancing from State U, adorable chants along the lines of "You'll Work For Us!" et cetera.
Shoot me. Nobody in that parking lot will refer to "The Game." And plutocrats will be in disguise. New Haven tailgaters look like Ann Arbor tailgaters or Bloomington tailgaters. No one under 60 says "Hah-vud" (though the drink's on me if you do). There will be class and rank and income issues swirling 'round the Yale Bowl on Saturday, and they'd be fun to talk about, but not today. Today we concentrate on other things that matter: uniforms, school colors, mascots.
Because Harvard and Yale – and their dapper common enemy, Princeton – were among the first American colleges to play football, the gear they were wearing in the late-19th/early-20th centuries, when football first gained a mass following, provided the template that everybody else used as their uni Square One. The basic look was vest and plus-fours in a neutral color, usually tan or gray, with some or all of the sleeves and stockings in a bold color chosen to signify the particular college. Next stop in uni evolution: school-colored jerseys, in solid or striped patterns. Then colored pants, then stripes down the pants, then colored helmets, then logos on helmets, then logos everywhere. Neither Yale nor Harvard wielded much sartorial influence after 1920. They followed trends rather than set them.
With some modest adjustments, the uniforms that Harvard and Yale will wear today are based on their garb of the mid-1960s. Harvard has lost the pants stripes, but added black outlining of numbers, a Harvard VE-RI-TAS shield on the tops of the shoulders (where they are barely glimpsed), and a block H on the sides of the helmet where TV numbers used to go. Both the Harvard helmet and the Yale helmet sport the 1960s triple-stripe motif that has proved so durable in the NFL.
If we can posit that today's H and Y looks are relatively OK, let me assure you that the old Harvard-Yale stuff is really much better. This is true for uniforms, I think, but much more dramatically in the realm of illustration and graphic design. Look no further than the chronology of Harvard program covers and Yale program covers put together by the wonderful people at Historic Football Posters. Look how great they were until Chiofaro and I got to Cambridge in 1964. Look how bad programs have become. Look at the designs of today's Harvard and Yale sports websites: uninspired, charmless.
There are all sorts of explanations for the decline of football graphics from witty cartoons to banal photographs, from hand-lettering to dull fonts. But in the Harvard-Yale case, there's a clear line that marks when everything went to hell: the departure of the great Boston Herald illustrator Vic Johnson from his side job as an Ivy League cartoonist. Look here, here, and here. When Vic Johnson left, Harvard-Yale lost its graphic wit and flair.
To Vic Johnson we also owe the revival of a 17th Century puritan male as the cartoon symbol of Harvard football. Johnson's Ur-Yankee was a skinny tall guy, dressed in crimson, always topped off with a high hat. His lanky build, thin face, prominent teeth, and ready smile were based, Johnson said, on Leverett Saltonstall, the much-loved, much-parodied Massachusetts Governor and US Senator back when there were liberal Republicans. I miss him!
We all understand that the drop-off in the quality of intercollegiate sports imagery was a general phenomenon, not limited by any means to the Ivies. It's just that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton produced the first batch of beautiful athletic graphics in this country, and I would argue that through the 1950s they stayed among the best. You don't have to be in thrall to snooty early-20th Century Anglo-Saxon notions of superiority and refinement to argue that football graphics were best when serious fans had to consider Yale and Harvard the same way that serious fans today have to consider LSU and Ohio State. A debatable proposition, to be sure, but debatable propositions R us.