When it comes to football, Boston College is an island in the stream of New England conservatism. No other area school ventures into the gridiron big time the way B.C. does.
The region's Ivy League schools once nominally joined the Eagles in the NCAA's top competitive category, but were moved down a notch this year into the I-AA classification, where they join the state universities of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine (Vermont does not field a football team).
At times, cynics have ridiculed Boston College's efforts to earn national gridiron recognition.Talk show hosts joke about the team's historical inconsistency and the way some grads hold onto the memory of a 1941 Sugar Bowl victory over fellow unbeaten Tennessee as though the triumph occurred yesterday.
This year no one's laughing, because Boston College football legitimately appears to be on the move.
The gold-helmeted residents of Chestnut Hill, a Boston suburb, opened the season with a stunning victory at Texas A&M and have continued on to a 5-1-1 start. The tie came against Clemson, the defending national champion, and the loss to West Virginia on the road in the last minute of play.
Though the lone defeat temporarily cost the Eagles a spot in the national rankings, they have bounced back with victories over Rutgers and Army and are 20 th in this week's UPI coaches' poll. A win, or maybe even a respectable defeat, against seventh-ranked Penn State Saturday would make Boston College a strong candidate to go to a bowl for the first time in 40 years. (Despite student protests, the school turned down an invitation to play in New York City's Gotham Bowl in the late 1950s.)
The unlikely figures behind the current renaissance are Coach Jack Bicknell, who brought a losing record to the job, and quarterback Doug Flutie, a local high school product given scant attention by national recruiters. Together they've made B.C. football a conversation piece.
Flutie, a sophomore from nearby Natick, Mass., may be the best scrambler since Fran Tarkenton. He can turn a simple pass play into an adventure, buying extra time to throw with his uncanny knack for wiggling out of trouble. Such resourcefulness may be a necessity since he is only 5 ft. 10 in. tall and weighs 175 lbs., making him too small in the minds of many coaches.
Doug wasn't handed the job at Boston College either. He began his freshman year as the third-string punt returner and fourth-string quarterback, eventually winning the job with a strong off-the-bench showing against Penn State. He nearly engineered a huge upset of No. 1 Pittsburgh several weeks later and wound up as the nation's top freshman quarterback. After only 15 varsity games he has already compiled more career yards (3,329) than such ex-Boston College stars as Jack Concannon, Gary Marangi, and Mike Kruczek, and trails only Red Harris.
Doug Guyer, the deposed starting QB from last year's team, is now a defensive end, which says something about Bicknell's own resourcefulness as a coach.
After eight years as B.C.'s backfield coach, Bicknell accepted the head coaching job at the University of Maine when the Eagles brought in Ed Chlebek from Eastern Michigan to replace Joe Yukica. Boston College apparently wanted to start fresh, a move that initially backfired when B.C. went 0-11 in 1977, Chlebek's first year at ''the Heights.''
Bicknell, meanwhile, spent the next five years turning a dead-end street into a road back to the big-time. Under other circumstances, Jack's 18-35-1 record may not have been impressive, but with the Black Bears it was.
Maine is often at a considerable disadvantage playing schools with far more football scholarships and resources. Consequently, Bicknell's ingenuity came in handy, especially on one occasion, in which the trick ''batball'' play he invented was used to tie New Hampshire. The play was later outlawed, but not until it garnered national attention and reminded people like B.C. athletic director Bill Flynn that Bicknell had lost none of his savvy.
So when Flynn went looking for another coach after the 1980 season, he picked Bicknell because ''Jack fit into the B.C. situation.'' Having coached at Boston College before, he knew not to expect the athletic department to turn cartwheels recarpeting offices, adding weight-training coaches, and the like.
He was also familiar with the job's unique challenges, the chief perhaps to maintain a consistent effort throughout a thick-and-thin schedule.
Over the years, the team has seldom had any difficulty getting ''up'' to play opponents on the order of Stanford, Tennessee, Texas or Eastern powerhouses Penn State and Pitt. The problem lies in games against pestiferous, less-vaunted Eastern foes, such as traditional rival Holy Cross, which upset B.C. in 1977 and has not been beaten easily since.
Penn State Coach Joe Paterno thinks Boston College blew its chance to improve its football stature by declining to enter into an Eastern football conference he proposed the other year. The circuit's champion would have had an automatic berth in the lucrative Fiesta Bowl, but B.C. passed up Paterno's overtures in order to stay in the thriving Big East basketball conference.
Flynn has still managed to put together an entertaining schedule that seems to get better each year. In 1983, for example, the Eagles will play host to Clemson, Alabama, Penn State, and West Virginia.
Enthusiasm is currently running rampant among students and alums. Last Saturday, Boston College sold out its complete allotment of 9,000 tickets to its game against Army at West Point. Every available seat for this Saturday's Penn State game was sold by mid-September. To accomodate people unable to buy their way into 32,000-seat Alumni Stadium, the game will be carried on closed-circuit television at Schaefer Stadium, home of the professional New England Patriots.B.C. once moved a home game against Notre Dame, a ballyhooed battle of Catholic schools, to Foxboro in 1975.