Revamped Cornell has climbed Ivy, now seeks first-ever title
Ithaca, N.Y. — For Cornell University football supporters, the coming of November had come to mean an excuse for abandoning the chilly bleachers of Schoellkopf Field, as hopes for an Ivy League championship had long been dashed. But this Saturday, there may not be an empty seat to be found, because the Big Red is undefeated in conference play and is shooting for its first outright championship ever. Not since 1971, when Heisman Trophy runner-up Ed Marinaro ran over Ivy League defenses on his way to the record books, has Cornell even been in a position to win the title. But that team was forced to settle for a share of the crown with Dartmouth. This weekend, Cornell (7-0 in Ivy League, 8-1 overall) faces Pennsylvania (7-0, 9-0), and barring an unlikely tie, it will be winner-take-all. For Big Red coach Maxie Baughan, the game is the culmination of four years of dedicated effort to turn a perennial also-ran into a serious contender.
Before Baughan, Cornell had hoped that Bob Blackman would be able to turn things around. Blackman had once spent 16 successful years at Dartmouth, where he compiled a 104-37-3 record. In Ithaca, however, his six years on the job didn't end the frustrations.
After replacing Blackman, Baughan brought in complicated pro-style offensive and defensive systems, the kind he was familiar with as an outstanding National Football League linebacker in the 1960s and early '70s and as an assistant coach with the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, and Washington Redskins.
Just as important as his technical background was the new philosophy and feeling brought with him. ``I'm an optimist,'' Baughan chirped, ``and I expect to win the Ivy League championship every year that we start.''
Co-captain Tom Bernardo, the only holdover from the Blackman era, said Baughan injected new life into the Cornell program. ``The attitude was kind of stale when I first got here,'' Bernardo said. ``Coach Baughan brought a degree of professionalism to the program that I don't think was here before. I just began to see a lot of discipline, a lot of organization, and a lot of professionalism in how he recruited and how the practices were being run....'' But the early years were rough for Baughan and the team he inherited. In his first three seasons, Cornell won only eight games, three at the very end of last season. But Baughan never lost faith in his players or staff. ``Probably the most important thing is that when I took this job, I said I wanted the players to have fun,'' he recalls. ``In this business, fun means success and that just comes through hard work. I think our players now have gotten an attitude that they expect to win.''
Though Baughan may have laid a strong foundation, it was a young quarterback from Wyomissing, Pa., who provided the spark that has ignited the team. Marty Stallone, who assumed the starting role with four games remaining last season, has taken control and led the Big Red to a 10-2 record since being handed the reins.
Stallone says he was just in the right place when the team began to jell and develop a winning spirit. ``I was fortunate to come in at a time when the team was down. We were 0-6,'' Stallone said. ``When I came in, I knew in my mind that I just wanted to have a positive attitude, a winning attitude.''
But senior fullback Jeff Johnson, who leads the team's grinding running attack, said Stallone's effect on the team was far more profound than most observers realize. ``When Marty first came in, he immediately was able to take control of the game, move the ball down the field, and score a touchdown on his very first drive,'' Johnson said. ``People just seemed to have a lot of confidence in him after that.''
Johnson said it was only a matter of time before Stallone's confidence began rubbing off on the other Cornell players.
Stallone's leadership gave a strong boost to a defense that was the second most porous in the league last year. This season, the unit is the Ivy's stingiest in points allowed.
Much of the defensive success can be attributed to tackle Tom McHale, who transferred to Cornell after having been a starter at the University of Maryland. The 6 ft. 4 in., 260-lb. McHale, who is considered a legitimate pro prospect, has added much-needed size and strength to the Big Red front line. This weekend, of course, Cornell faces its most formidable opponent yet, a Penn team that has its sights set on a fifth consecutive Ivy League crown (either outright or shared). No one at Cornell expects the battle to be easy, and most realize that history is against them, but the pioneer spirit of Ezra Cornell keeps pushing them on.
``If anybody's ever dragging a little bit,'' Bernardo said, ``I'll go over and give him a little kick and just say, `Hey, this is our dream, this is for the championship, this is for THE RING.' Every time we say that, people just dig down a little deeper. That's all the motivation we need.''