Professor of Hard Knocks

Professor of Hard Knocks

It is a drizzling late fall afternoon, years ago, and Yale Football Coach Carmen Cozza has crossed the practice field, ostensibly to test the hand-eye coordination of his defensive backs, of whom the author is one. A single misstep by us can wipe out an entire quarter of hard work by his beloved offence.

I stand with knees bent, hands on thighs, my back to Carm, who is but ten yards away. When he is halfway into his throwing motion, he bellows, Turn!” I don’t get around fast enough. The painful projectile ricochets off an outstretched hand. Behind a taut smile, Coach says evenly: “Next.”

It doesn’t seem quite fair: this Jovian legend against the quivering defender. It will take me a while to realize: that was the point.

Each year Yale College graduates about 30 young men who have vivid and usually fond memories of one teacher in particular. The walls of his office are plastered with pictures of former students—some of whom were coveted by the likes of Notre Dame and Ohio State—accompanied with notes like this: “Carm, thanks for all your help. I wouldn’t trade the Yale experience for anything.”

Sixteen years later, the educator’s hair, what’s left of it, is a distinguished gray; a Roman nose of historic proportions still dominates his face. His natty button-down shirt is stretched by a still-powerful physique. This is one 56-year-old not to be trifled with and not easily forgotten.

Intensity lurks beneath Carm’s courtly exterior and polished manner. It has helped make him the dean of Ivy League gridiron mentors, the winningest coach at a school that boasts more football victories than any college on planet earth. In his 21 seasons, NFL teams have drafted more than 20 of his charges; many other grads have signed on as free agents.

But most important—to Old Blues, anyway—Carm Cozza’s teams regularly dismantle Princeton’s paper tigers and humble the Harvards. Yale, under Carm, triumphs in seven of ten games it plays. When the Eli faithful wave their monogrammed handkerchiefs at Yale Bowl as another win is assured, Carm is on top of the world. Winning may not be the only thing to many people of late, but it is vital to a college football coach—even in the Ivy League. To teach he must continue to win.

But it’s not just about scoring more points. “Here you’re an integral part of a young man’s life, even after graduation,” Cozza says. “There’s a common bond that you can’t explain; only those who participate in it understand.”

Those who have fought a common enemy for three years tend to be bound closely together. And success and failures on the playing field, acted out before tens of thousands of eyes, are better remembered than what all happens in Archaeology 101.

“As I tell my wife,” Cozza explains, “I don’t care what city I travel to, I’m covered by a doctor or a lawyer [or a journalist]. I’ve got them all over the place. I don’t keep in touch all the time, but I know what they’re doing. Almost all of them are successful, and that makes me feel that maybe this program has helped them along the way.”

Coach refers to these far-flung professionals as “my kids.” He talks with pride about the five sons of Eli currently playing professional football. But that’s just one yardstick of success. “I don’t encourage anyone to play pro ball,” he says. “If that’s what they want, I’ll help them. But I give as much support to the guy going to law school or med school.”

Referring to a former player who is considering leaving medical school to take another shot at the NFL, Cozza says, “I told him, ‘Don’t try to play again…be a doctor—you’ll be a great surgeon.’”

In an era when many big-time “scholar/athletes” are students in name only, Cozza’s record is astonishing: in the past 12 years, every player who stayed with the football program graduated. Only five have failed to receive their diplomas in his 21-year tenure.

Yale’s admission policy and Ivy League rules, which are much more restrictive than NCAA regulations, make it easier to graduate athletes but harder to win football games. The Ivies have no spring practice, no athletic scholarships, no freshman eligibility; they also start the season later and play fewer games than UCONN, Army, or Colgate (teams Yale plays early this season). This puts Cozza and his troops in the position of that beleaguered defense back in that passing drill: playing catch-up.

Once the season begins there are other obstacles. A third of the squad majors in the sciences and have afternoon labs. In these cases, football takes a backseat. “We can’t start practice before 4:30,” Cozza explains. “I don’t tell the kids what classes to take.” Players also sometimes skip practice to catch up on their studies or wander onto the practice field halfway through the daily ordeal when labs run late.

Cozza is proud that two of his former charges faced one another in the 1982 Superbowl: molecular biophysics major Kenny Hill and chemistry major Rich Diana.

If the Bulldogs are at a disadvantage competing outside of their league, there are many who feel that they are underdogs within the Ivy ranks. In 1969, Yale College began accepting women into its smallish population of 5,190 without expanding the overall number of students. Coeducation would eventually reduce the number of undergraduate males to half that total. In spite of this, Cozza’s teams in the 1970s regularly outperformed rivals like Harvard, Pennsylvania and Cornell, schools with many more male students and football candidates. Yale won four Ivy crowns in that decade.

Indeed, Cozza and company did so well that the Yale administration started taking football for granted, cutting here and there to save a buck. For example, recruiting became more difficult when assistant football coaches were required to help out with other sports. Rumor had it that Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti, a notorious baseball buff [he would subsequently become Commissioner of Major League Baseball] was hostile to football’s privileged position atop Eli sports. Yale began accepting fewer pigskin practitioners.

And then there is this: director of athletics Frank Ryan and Cozza, rumor has it, get along about as well as the Montagues and the Capulets.

When pressed, Cozza only referred to this dark period in Yale football obliquely: “We had coaches involved in other sports, something other teams in our league don’t have, and that was bothersome…I don’t want to offer that as an excuse.”

But after the 1982 and 1983 seasons, Old Blues wanted an explanation. After 10 straight winning years, Cozza’s kids suddenly went 4 and 6 and (blasphemy unbounded) 1 and 9—the latter being the school’s worst record ever, in more than 100 seasons.

To make matters more embarrassing, 1983 marked the 100th playing of “The Game” against Harvard, that year at the hallowed Yale Bowl. Planning for “The Event” had begun long before Yale commenced stinking up the gridiron that fall. Unsurprisingly, it was clear from the opening kickoff that the home team, despite a valiant effort, lacked the size and talent to hang with the Crimson.

Meanwhile, cost-cutting administrators were learning the truth of the old adage: pennywise and pound foolish. Alumni donations had a bad year, too. Becoming Columbia wasn’t a sound business model.

Cozza used the 1983 season as a teaching moment: “I found out you can live through something like that. I often wondered if I, let alone my players, could handle it. And I respect that team so much because they never quit. I’m as proud of them as any that won the championship—because of what they had inside them.”

Cozza didn’t quit either, although he thought seriously about leaving Yale for lusher pastures. A coach with his record gets offers. “At times you wonder whether or not the grass is greener elsewhere, and you have thoughts of going to the Big Ten or whatever,” Cozza says. “And I’ve seen people do it, some with great success and some with great disappointment.”

At one point Coach considered the athletic directorship of another Ivy school. It would have meant more money and probably a less grueling workload. He demurred, but in the mid-1970s he served in that capacity at Yale while remaining as head football coach. The plan was that he would transition out of being Coach in a few years. Mercifully, his tenure as an administrator lasted little more than a year.

In the end, Cozza stayed put: for the game and the school he loved and for his family’s sake. Like winning, money isn’t the only thing: “I don’t make the money that some coaches do, but I think my life is better than some of theirs are,” he says. Yale’s philosophy of “academics first” also protects Cozza from at least some of the “win or walk” pressure that rules at other schools.

What does Coach think of schools where sports are placed above academic concerns, where athletes take “gut” courses that they may not complete and drive cars they clearly can’t afford? Cozza, who is a former president of the American Football Coaches Association, thinks there is enough blame to go around: “Who do you blame? Do you blame the schools? The coaches? Maybe it’s a combination of the two. If the kids aren’t graduating, certainly something has to be done…I blame the families, too. A lot of this starts at home.”

Some big conference coaches agree with Cozza and quiz him at meetings about how the Ivies run the show. Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, a Brown graduate, put it bluntly in a June article in The New York Times: “We’ve butchered a whole generation of kids that might have been professional people, business people.”

Not that Cozza thinks academics first translates into powder puffs on Saturday afternoons: “The kids play really hard, as hard here as anyplace else.” They may not be as big or as fast, and there may not be as many elite athletes at Yale as there are at bigger programs, but they still hit. Teeth rattle, players bleed, bones break. They can play, too. The great 1968 team was ranked 18th in the nation in one poll.

If you want to know how important winning is to Carm Cozza, ask him about the infamous 29-29 tie with Harvard in 1968, when the Crimson scored 16 points in the last minute. “It was like a death in the family,” he’ll tell you. He insists that great team—led by Brian Dowling and Calvin Hill—had outplayed Harvard—but he also will tell you that life isn’t always fair.

Coach’s own life embodies the sort of maxims players find in their playbooks each fall. If something is worth having it is worth sacrificing for. The son of immigrants, he made it through Miami of Ohio half on scholarship, half paying his own way. When things got dark in the early 1980s he stuck it out. In 1984, the bulldogs finished second [in 1989 they won their tenth Ivy League Championship under Cozza].

Carm Cozza still leaves his beloved offense from time to time to hurl thunderbolts at smallish defensive backs. His wordless lesson is: “Be prepared: life isn’t always fair, even for Yalies.”