September 12, 2001: Sports
Sports Web Exclusives! Matt Golden's From the Cheap Seats column
If you plan on attending an Ivy League football game this season, you'll need to start with some stretching exercises. First, swivel your neck to the left. Next, swivel your neck to the right. Repeat a few times and you should be ready to keep up with a new style of play where footballs are flying through the air faster than accolades for Princeton's new president.
As recently as 1998, only one Ivy team managed to score more than 29 points per game. Last year, Ivy teams averaged 29.2 points per game. Only the squads in the Pioneer League produced more points per game among I-AA conferences. Princeton scored 248 points last season, its most since 1992, and the Tigers (3-7, 3-4 Ivy) were the second lowest scoring team in the league.
This surge in offense is a result of two trends: new coaches in the league who look to pass first, and better quality quarterbacks. Last year, the quarterbacks at Penn, Cornell, and Harvard set school records for passing yards in a season, and the quarterbacks at Brown and Yale were both within 80 yards of their school records. Not coincidentally, those five schools were the only ones with winning records in the league. Unfortunately for Princeton, four of those QBs return this season.
"We are very much a wide-open passing league right now," says Penn coach Al Bagnoli. "Certainly more so than in my previous nine years coaching in the league."
The Tigers' new coach, Roger Hughes, contributed to the league's offensive orgy, guiding Princeton to its most passing yards in 12 years. He had to do it with four different starting quarterbacks due to a string of freakish injuries. Two quarterbacks are no longer with the team: Jon Blevins '01 graduated, and Tommy Crenshaw '02 decided to skip the season to focus on baseball.
That leaves sophomore David Splithoff in the driver's seat, a position he cemented with a 22-for-32, 251-yard performance in the team's spring game in Osaka, Japan, against Kwansei Gakuin University. Splithoff was impressive in his three games last year, setting a team record with 14 straight completions before suffering a broken jaw. In Japan, where the game was part of KGU's 111th anniversary celebration, he led the team down the field after KGU took the lead with one minute left. Kicker Taylor Northrop '02, who needs 14 field goals to break the Ivy career record, won the game with a 45-yarder as time expired.
The last-second victory in Japan was a good sign for Hughes, who saw six games decided in the final minute last year, four of which Princeton lost. Hughes believes a team goes through three attitudes: "When you start, you step on the field and you hope you can win. And then you step on the field and you think you can win. And then you step on the field and you expect to win. Hopefully we are further along that spectrum to where we are going to start expecting to win as we step onto the field and gain more experience as this year goes on."
One weakness that could derail the team's progress is its lack of experience, especially on the offensive line. "We graduated three guys who signed NFL contracts (offensive linemen Dennis Norman, John Raveche, and Ross Tucker) and we are very young up front, so I think that's one of the major question marks for our team," says Hughes. "Twenty-five of our top 44 players last year were freshmen and sophomores. So we need to mature a lot, get much better, and learn to play at a high-intensity level if we are going to be able to compete in this league."
The most seasoned unit on the team is the linebacking corps. Princeton has had an All-Ivy first- or second-team linebacker each of the past 11 seasons, including Chris Roser-Jones '02 last year. Roser-Jones led all Division I-AA linebackers with six interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns.
Despite Roser-Jones's heroics, the Tigers had the second-worst pass defense in the league last season. Most of the secondary is back, but Princeton must rebuild its defensive line. "We've got to create a better pass rush," says Hughes. "Defensive ends Tim Kirby '04 and Joe Weiss '04 did a tremendous job, but they only played at 225 pounds and got whacked around pretty good. Now both are over 255, and we're hoping they will create a pass rush so we're not hanging our secondary out to dry."
So Princeton fans will have to keep their necks loose again this year with the combination of the promising Splithoff, a solid group of receivers, a shaky pass defense, and a host of great opposing aerial attacks on the schedule. Last year the Tigers proved that they can be competitive with anyone, but this is probably not the year they break through and win more games than they lose. The schedule includes Lehigh and Colgate, perhaps the top two teams in the Patriot League, and on paper most of Princeton's league rivals have more experience and talent. The Ivy media are picking Penn to repeat as Ivy champs, with Harvard a close second.
The media picked Princeton to finish sixth, which Hughes considered optimistic. "I was surprised that we were picked that high considering that we lost almost our whole offensive line," says Hughes. "We don't deserve to talk about championships right now, because we haven't earned the right to do that. I think the kids are starting to get to the point where they have earned the right to think about it, but I don't think we're at the point where we should start talking about it."
By Phillip R. Thune '92
Phillip Thune is COO of search-engine company FindWhat.com in New York City.
Quarterback: Splithoff has had a very brief but statistically impressive career. In his three games in 2000, he led the team to its most points in a game (55 against Brown) in 10 years, was the first freshman ever to be named Ivy Offensive Player of the Week, and produced 10 touchdowns and two field goals in his 26 drives as QB. He also ran for three TDs. His athleticism, and Hughes's promise to run more option plays, will give opposing defensive coordinators headaches. Senior Brian Danielewicz started one game last year and is a capable backup.
Running Backs: FB Marty Cheatham '01 was the only Tiger running back lost to graduation, but he was a key part of the offense, especially catching passes out of the backfield. The speedy Cameron Atkinson '03 (413 yards, 4 TDs) returns as the starting tailback, where classmate Ismael El-Amin (211, 1) will also see time. Junior Tim Bowden and senior Jon Lee will try to replace Cheatham.
Wide Receivers: Chisom Opara '03 caught at least three passes in every game last year, and finished with 51, the ninth best total in school history. He will be Splithoff's primary target. The other wideouts are sophomore Blair Morrison, who broke Opara's record for receptions by a freshman with 17, and junior Nathan Lindell, who averaged 32 yards per reception before tearing ligaments in his knee. Hughes will also design routes for Andy Bryant '03.
Tight End: Hughes likes to throw to his tight ends, so last season George Citovic '01 (21 receptions) became the first Princeton tight end in 10 years to catch more than 10 passes. There is no clear-cut favorite to replace Citovic.
Offensive Line: Senior Matt Peluse is the only returning starter. Hughes notes that Penn won the title in 2000 because their excellent skill players covered for an inexperienced line, and he hopes Princeton can do the same in 2001.
Defensive Line: Kirby and Weiss bulked up in the off-season and will need to figure out how to pressure a crop of excellent opposing quarterbacks. If they can't, there will be more scoring on the field this year than at Tiger Inn sign-ins.
Linebackers: Princeton has been the Linebacker U. of the Ivy League for the past dozen years, with a string of all-league performers. This season, Roser-Jones and captain Bob Farrell '02 anchor the defense, with junior Drew Babinecz back after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
Defensive Backs: The Tiger secondary is deep but young. Returning starting corners Blake Perry '01 and Brandon Mueller '01 should be better this year, but Princeton will miss Clark Webb '04, who is spending the semester at Oxford.
Special Teams: Taylor Northrop has to rank as one of the better special teams players in Princeton history. In addition to uncanny long-range accuracy (he made 6 of 7 field goals of at least 40 yards), Northrop was second in the league in punting last year. He should handle both roles for the third straight year. Bryant was the league's top punt returner in 2000, and he, Atkinson, and maybe Opara will handle kickoffs.
Freshmen: Hughes is excited about RBs Jon Veach and Branden Benson, and Ryan Watson or Tyler Peace could fill the void at tight end.
Lafayette (7 offensive starters returning, 6 defensive starters returning): The Tigers open the season with a night game at Princeton Stadium. Like last year, Lafayette (2-9) is not supposed to be very good, but the Leopards surprised Princeton in 2000 with a Marko Glavic game-winning touchdown pass on the final play. Glavic was the Patriot League Rookie of the Year, and is the first of many tough quarterbacks on Princeton's schedule.
at Lehigh (4 offensive, 3 defensive): Lehigh (12-1) has won three straight Patriot League titles and is picked to do it again. Lehigh graduated most of its starters from last year and has a new coach, but Brant Hall is back after earning all-league honors at quarterback in 2000.
Columbia (6 offensive, 7 defensive): Last year Columbia (3-7, 1-6 Ivy) scored more points than any Lions team since 1925, led by All-Ivy tailback Jonathan Reese's 18 touchdowns. But even if Reese has a big game, Princeton can win given the Lions' suspect defense.
Colgate (7 offensive, 4 defensive): Colgate's QB Tom McCune and WR Joe Parker are back after handing Princeton its worst loss of 2000. The Red Raiders (7-4) are not as strong defensively this year, but they have not lost to an Ivy team since 1997.
at Brown (8 offensive, 6 defensive): Princeton finally faces an inexperienced quarterback against Brown (7-3, 4-3), which lost one of Division I-AA's best passers and its top receiver from a year ago. But the Bears are notorious for their high-powered offense no matter who starts, as well as a porous defense, making this perennially the most entertaining game on the schedule.
at Harvard (7 offensive, 9 defensive): Harvard (5-5, 4-3) had the most prolific offense in league history last year, averaging more than 500 yards per game. All of their offensive weapons are back, and if the Crimson can cut down on turnovers this could be their year.
Cornell (6 offensive, 7 defensive): New coach Tim Pendergast showed up to the Ivy coaches' press conference as the only one wearing a jacket and tie, not realizing that the league's dress code has become as wide open as the offenses. Third-year starting quarterback Ricky Rahne has his favorite targets back, but Cornell (5-5, 5-2) needs to do better on the ground after averaging an anemic 2.7 yards per carry in 2000.
at Penn (9 offensive, 9 defensive): Penn (7-3, 6-1) is stacked, with Ivy Player of the Year Gavin Hoffman at QB, Kris Ryan at tailback, and Rob Milanese at wideout. The defense might be better than the offense, with five All-Ivy players returning. Princeton will need a miracle to avoid a sixth straight loss to the Quakers.
Yale (5 offensive, 4 defensive): The three Ivy players drafted by the NFL this year were picked in succession Dennis Norman '01 was pick 222, followed immediately by Yale's Than Merrill and Eric Johnson. Last year's game was equally close, as Princeton upset Yale (7-3, 4-3) with a last-minute touchdown pass that was the highlight of the season. Yale is weaker this year so Princeton should have a good chance to repeat, although QB Peter Lee is dangerous.
at Dartmouth (9 offensive, 6 defensive): Princeton coach Hughes was previously the offensive coordinator at Dartmouth (2-8, 1-6), where he recruited quarterback Greg Smith. Smith had a big game against the Tigers last year and leads the Big Green, which has won nine of the last 12 games between these two teams.
Although the Ivy League is less than fifty years old, it is no exaggeration to say that its members created American football and that almost every facet of the game bears their imprint." So writes Mark F. Bernstein '83 in the preface to his new book, Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession, published this month by the University of Pennsylvania Press. In addition to discussing the impact Ivy football has had on today's version, the book explores the early history of football from the first intercollegiate game between Princeton and Rutgers; the types of athletic abuses that have their roots in the league and the league's responses to them; the romantic and snobbish notions of the Ivy schools as formed around the game; and the storied rivalries among the schools. ("Yale feels inferior to both Harvard and Princeton, Dartmouth feels inferior to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, and everyone entirely dislikes Pennsylvania," the book quotes a Boston sportswriter.) Bernstein is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
David Morrow '93 arrived at the first game in Major League Lacrosse history with little fanfare, handing over a ticket and passing through the turnstile just like the other 5,952 fans did June 7 at Homewood Field in Baltimore. For league cofounder Morrow and the rest of the MLL's staff and players, there were no limos to the game, no red-carpet arrivals - make no mistake, life in an upstart professional sports league is a long way from the Super Bowl.
Not that Morrow missed the significance of the moment, the unveiling of the six-team league just steps from the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. In fact, he took the time to pull out his money clip and purchase a souvenir game program once he was through the gates.
"This is really exciting,"
says Morrow. "When you've been working on a project like this for
three years, it's pretty special to see it all come together."
Had the program hawker taken a closer look, he might have given Morrow a free copy. The cover featured a stern-faced, slick-backed Morrow, posed next to fellow owner Jake Steinfeld of "Body by Jake" fame. While Steinfeld's backing of this improbable venture - a professional venue for a sport that still lacks nationwide appeal - lends star power and an instant marketing angle, Morrow's involvement gives the MLL a more realistic, grounded quality. His presence in the young league is a logical next step for the man who has quickly become one of lacrosse's most powerful figures.
Still two years shy of his 10th reunion, Morrow is the CEO and president of Warrior Lacrosse, an equipment company he started while still an undergraduate. Warrior has become the leader in the small world of lacrosse manufacturing, outfitting the top players in the game and serving as the official equipment supplier for the U.S. Men's National Teams program and the MLL.
"When I graduated, I wasn't as focused on the business end of it - I never thought that I'd be doing what I'm doing now," says Morrow, whose company once made just the shaft of a lacrosse stick. Now Warrior provides nearly every piece of equipment necessary to play the game, along with apparel lines for the MLL and college teams it sponsors, such as Princeton.
A number of Princeton grads have helped Morrow along the way, including Brooke Coburn '93 and Bill Frist '93, who worked to secure private financing for the company, and Morrow's wife, Christine Schluter '92. In 1994 Schluter moved from Boulder, Colorado - where she was a geochemist and, at the time, Morrow's girlfriend - to join Morrow in Detroit. Though she had no accounting background, she became Warrior's controller, and now maintains the balance sheets for a $12-million company that employs 50 people in Detroit and has seen a 70 percent growth rate over the past four years, according to Morrow.
Maintaining that momentum is key to Morrow's interest in starting a professional league. "[Warrior's] future growth is going to come from the growth of the game," he says, "and the best way to attract people to the game is to let them see it at its highest level. Unlike almost any segment of the sporting goods business, lacrosse is growing, and the MLL is an important part of that."
Warrior's success attracted Steinfeld - who had been toying with the idea of buying a minor-league baseball franchise - when he read a profile of Morrow and his company in an airline magazine. Before turning his attention to bodybuilding, Steinfeld had been a midfielder for one year at Cortland State, the upstate New York school that produced Princeton coach Bill Tierney.
Morrow's playing career was far more illustrious. Despite arriving as a relatively unheralded athlete from the lacrosse outpost of Michigan, he became one of the game's greats while playing for Tierney at Princeton. NCAA player of the year in 1993, he was a two-time national defenseman of the year and a leader of Princeton's first national championship team in 1992. He also played on the world champion U.S. national teams in 1994 and 1998 before retiring.
As a player, Morrow was a feared defenseman - a persona that fit the menacing character on the MLL's first game program. But even as many of his contemporaries compete in the MLL, he is content to remain in the front office. "I have been more focused on the business side, and that has satisfied my competitive urge," Morrow says. "Coming up with new marketing ideas, new products - I've been putting so much energy into that, playing loses its novelty a bit."
Securing the league's future will definitely be a challenge. MLL officials say an average attendance of 5,000 per game should be the key to the league's success; as the end of the season neared, that number that was just below 4,000. "Like any business model, some things have been below projections, but in other markets, attendance has been higher," Morrow says. "The key is that the group is committed to long-term success."
By Nate Ewell '96
Nate Ewell is a member of the communications department of the NHL's Washington Capitals.