The second time Tim Murphy stepped onto the hallowed grounds of the Yale Bowl, it was Nov. 22, 1997. Murphy, then 41, was in his fourth season as Harvard’s head coach. The Crimson held an 8-1 record going into the final game, having clinched at least a share of the Ivy League title the previous week with a 33-0 home victory over Penn.
Still, the job was far from complete. Harvard still had to beat Yale that afternoon in New Haven, Conn., to secure the conference title alone, as with a Crimson loss and Dartmouth victory over Princeton, the 7-2 Big Green would have shared the glory.
That day, Murphy came through, leading Harvard to a 17-7 victory, denying Dartmouth a share of the title and claiming his first Ivy League championship as the Crimson’s head coach, the program’s ninth overall.
For both programs, some things have changed dramatically since that 1997 game. Approximately 1,000 different players have donned a Harvard jersey. Murphy is now 67 years old, the third-longest tenured coach in Division I football, and the most successful coach in Ivy League history, with 138 conference victories and 200 overall wins in 30 seasons. The Bulldogs’ coach in that game was Jack Siedlecki; on Saturday, it will be Tony Reno, a former Harvard assistant from 2009 to 2011 who has led the Yale program since 2012. Reno is the fourth coach who has stood on the sideline opposite Murphy in The Game.
Still, 26 years later, No. 19/23 Harvard (8-1, 5-1) finds itself in a similar situation. It claimed a share of its 18th Ivy League crown — Murphy’s 10th overall and first since 2015 — on Nov. 11 with a dramatic, triple-overtime 25-23 victory over Penn at Harvard Stadium. If it beats its historic rivals in The Game for the 62nd time in 139 tries, the Crimson will once again be Ivy League champions alone. Hoping to spoil the coronation is a hungry Bulldogs side (6-3, 4-2), as well as the Big Green (5-4, 4-2), who can each claim a share of the title with a Yale victory and a Dartmouth win over Brown (5-4, 3-3).
Harvard’s tremendous season was not without travails. The Crimson placed just fourth in the league’s preseason media poll. It started the season with five comfortable wins before suffering a road loss to Princeton on Oct. 21. Sophomore quarterback Jaden Craig took over for junior Charles Deprima in the second quarter of a 17-9 win over Dartmouth a week later. And it took a miraculous trick play to fend off a feisty Quakers side last weekend. According to Murphy, Harvard’s tumultuous season underscores the tenacity of his players.
“We did it the hard way, and that takes a lot of character,” said Murphy of the nail-biting victory over Penn. “We didn’t flinch in overtime. We made the plays we had to make, offense, defense, and special teams. I’m just so proud of our kids.”
The resilience that the Crimson demonstrated over the course of the season reflects the culture that Murphy and his top assistants — offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mickey Fein and defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Scott Larkee ’99 — have developed over their years working together. Fein is in his seventh season on Harvard’s staff, while Larkee has been defensive coordinator for 15 seasons, producing a number of elite rushing defenses throughout his tenure.
“It’s about being professional,” Murphy said of Fein and Larkee’s impact on producing a winning program. “Everybody is professional on our staff, and that’s part and parcel of having a successful program. We’ve got highly motivated people and smart people and that’s why, from the first championship with our first recruiting class back in 1997 through this one, that’s the kind of people we’ve had in our program — high character, highly talented people.”
Over Murphy’s 30 seasons, Harvard has done very little but win. Since 2000, the Crimson has posted just one losing season, compiling a 167-51 (.766) record — the sixth-best in Division I football, behind only Ohio State, Alabama, Boise State, Oklahoma, and Georgia. Although Harvard’s overall count of 18 Ivy League championships is still two shy of Dartmouth’s mark, no team has won more than the Crimson’s 10 since Murphy took over in 1994. And while the Bulldogs still hold an overall series lead in The Game, Murphy’s Crimson has been stellar, winning 19 of 28 matchups with him on the sideline.
Murphy attributed his success in The Game to his players and their understanding of the rivalry’s importance.
“The only way you can accomplish that kind of record against one of the top programs in our league is, we’ve had great kids, we’ve had great coaches, and we clearly have played particularly well and particularly hard in the Yale Bowl and here at Harvard Stadium, playing Yale,” he said. “It’s a big game. It’s the biggest game in our league. And our players and our coaches get excited for that.”
Throughout the years, Harvard and Yale players have collectively put on a show. In the 28 contests Murphy has coached in, the winning team has prevailed by an average of just 12.86 points per game, a figure that is skewed by a handful of blowouts in the early 2000’s. Several of the games have played a role, directly or indirectly, in determining the conference title — including two of the last three.
In particular, Murphy recalled the 2005 game, when legendary running back Clifton Dawson ’07 — the Ivy League’s all-time leading rusher — punched it in from two yards out with night falling at the Yale Bowl to send the hosts home upset, 30-24. With the stadium — opened in 1914 — having no lights, Dawson scored at the final moment before the referees would’ve deemed the game a tie due to the impending darkness.
“We finally got the [ball] across the goal line on the last play,” Murphy said. “If we didn’t score on that play, they were going to call the game a tie.”
Murphy also mentioned the 2014 game, when the Crimson welcomed the Bulldogs to Harvard Stadium, hoping to finish off a 10-0 season and secure the Ivy League title. In order to do so, though, it had to thwart the championship hopes of its biggest rival, which also would have won the conference with a victory. With ESPN hosting its weekly College GameDay show at Harvard prior to the game, it did not disappoint, as wide receiver Andrew Fischer ’16 caught the game-winning, 35-yard touchdown pass on a double move with less than a minute remaining.
Still, the iteration of The Game that will probably be at the top of mind for Crimson fans is 2021, held at the Yale Bowl. It was a dramatic, back-and-forth affair punctuated by wide receiver Kym Wimberly ’22’s sensational twisting catch as he fell to the turf with 22 seconds remaining. For most Harvard students, Saturday will be their first time back at the stadium since throngs of fans rushed onto the field in celebration of the Crimson’s victory.
For even the normally stoic Murphy, returning to the site of one of the program’s most unforgettable wins will evoke emotions.
“I can remember the last drive like it was yesterday,” he said. “They’re all memorable, but that one was extremely memorable for how hard it was. It was an uphill climb the entire game, and to pull that victory out in such an exciting fashion on national TV was really something. That was a great feeling.”
By contrast, Yale will surely be hoping to replicate the success it found in 2022, when it secured sole possession of the Ivy League crown at Harvard Stadium in an ugly, 19-14 affair. But Murphy wasn’t focused on redemption, citing The Game’s history as motivation enough, regardless of last year’s results.
“Every year’s a different game, and we have different motivations,” he said.
While Harvard enters the game as 1.5-point favorites, fans can expect a tight-knit affair. For as good of a program as Murphy has constructed in Cambridge, Reno’s Bulldogs have found success as well, winning three titles in the past six seasons and setting themselves up for a chance at a fourth this year. It’s a testament to the talented players that Yale has managed to recruit, including Indianapolis Colts defensive back Rodney Thomas II ’22 and Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Foyesade Oluokun ’18.
“There have been so many great athletes that they’ve had that we’ve competed against throughout the years,” Murphy said.
The current crop of Yale talent includes dynamic quarterback Nolan Grooms — the reigning Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year — who has completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,773 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for an additional 576 yards and two more scores. The Crimson’s defense managed to contain him relatively well in each of the last two years and hopes to do so again on Saturday. Murphy was confident that his experience in the high-pressure environment of The Game would prove beneficial for Harvard again this weekend.
“Each coach is different, each team is different, each era is a little bit different,” he said. “But the reality is, it’s not who the coach is, it’s not who the kids are, it’s our biggest game of the year. So from that standpoint, I don’t think a lot has changed. The intensity is still there.”
This weekend, tens of thousands of fans and alumni will descend upon the Yale Bowl, filling its 61,446 seats for one of the most storied rivalries in sports. Regardless of the result, it will be another chapter in the Harvard-Yale annals, and it will be another chapter in Murphy’s long career.
But before closing the curtain on the 2023 season, the veteran coach has one final goal.
“A championship’s a championship, but for us, we haven’t finished the mission,” he said. “We do not want to share this championship with anyone, least of all our biggest rival.”